Imagine taking a trip from Chicago to Phoenix in December of 1955. You’d purchase your ticket for around $140 round-trip. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $1,000. You’d drive out to O’Hare—not yet officially a part of the city of Chicago—which would have just opened in October. You’d arrive at the airport moments before your flight and walk directly to the gate, as there would be no security. Likely, you would be white. Your fellow passengers would be white. And the stewardesses waiting on you would be white. More specially, they would be white women between the ages of 20 and 25, each 5′ to 5′ 4″ tall and weighing 110 to 118 pounds, as mandated by airline regulations. Their outfits would be designed by Oleg Cassini if you flew TWA, by William Travilla (Marilyn Monroe’s dressmaker) if you flew United. As you sat down, one of them would offer you a cocktail, which you’d accept. You’d then light up a cigarette and take out a newspaper. You might read about a woman in Alabama named Rosa Parks, who, in that same month, found herself in a decidedly different travel scenario.
Much has been written and filmed on the allure and narratives of the American road, but far less on American air travel. Perhaps this is because the road represents the America we’d like to think we inhabit: patriotic, free, individualistic, and largely democratic; whereas the reality of contemporary air travel may be closer to the America in which we actually live: global, uncomfortably communal, highly regulated, and intensely class-stratified.
Forget the Trump Train; what about the Trump Plane? In the first presidential debate of 2016, Donald Trump, straining the language of analogy, stated that our airports “are like from a third-world country.” It wasn’t the first or even the second time he has made such a claim. In fact, the condition of our nation’s airports seems to be an obsession of The Donald’s—a somewhat unlikely fixation, as many were quick to point out, for someone who refuses to fly commercial. Trump is currently in possession of a small fleet of aircrafts: a Cessna Citation X jet, a Boeing 757 that features gold-plated seat belt buckles, and three Sikorsky helicopters. Since he doesn’t fly commercial, he isn’t exposed to public airport areas. Instead, he is taken by limo to a Fixed Base of Operation on the tarmac from which the plane departs. So why does Trump keep bringing up the shabby condition of the terminals, and how would he even know that they are shabby? It’s not as if he’s spent time in line at the LaGuardia Cinnabon contemplating the threadbare carpets at the gate.
The real shabbiness of air travel can be found in its policies of exclusion—a business model that jibes with Trump’s nostalgia-steeped campaign.
It could be that Trump was trying to appeal to the common man by invoking some shared American birthright—our right, for example, to roam the wild blue yonder without first having to pass through a hangar full of weary, desperate iPad users huddled around a single plug. Instead, Trump ended up cribbing a very bad line from Mr. Common-Man himself, Joe Biden, who called our airports “third-world” in 2014.
If Trump’s political brand is flashy luxury, Biden’s is blue-collar “relatableness,” to use a word that has become the sine qua non of millennial approbation. Biden has made much of being from a working-class Scranton family, and therefore possessed of a deep understanding of the lives of manufacturing workers. But his true calling card for common-man cred has undoubtedly been his use of the Amtrak rails as a means of transportation between Washington, DC, and Wilmington, Delaware. His dedication to this route, and his legendarily avuncular manners to the Amtrak crew, earned him the nickname “Amtrak Joe” and his very own stop on the Northeast corridor—the Wilmington station, renamed for him in 2011. In an America where eleven airports are named after presidents, the Joseph R. Biden Junior Railroad Station stands as an idiosyncratic monument to our humble VP. So it’s not surprising that “Amtrak Joe” made his 2014 third-world-airport comment from a train station in Philadelphia, at an event marking Amtrak’s unveiling of a new engine.
“If I blindfolded someone and took them at 2 o’clock in the morning into the airport in Hong Kong and said, ‘Where do you think you are?’ They would say, ‘This must be America. This is a modern airport,’” said Biden. “[But] if I took them blindfolded and took them to LaGuardia airport in New York, he would be like, ‘I must be in some third world country.’ I’m not joking.”
Biden’s comment was a slip-up on the way to his main point, which was that we need to create new jobs for the working class by investing in infrastructure. In the Trumpian context, the whole thing gets flipped on its head. Each time Trump deploys his airport bit, he quickly plows through the infrastructure part to get to the punchline, enunciating the words “third world” like his reality-show catch-phrase “you’re fired.” He takes Biden’s attempt to speak to the common man about job creation, but he chooses to co-opt precisely the part of the speech where the first guy botched it. Whereas Biden’s intent was to appeal to the interests of the people who would get the jobs building the new airports, Trump speaks to the interests of the passengers who would be flying in them.
Trump’s idea of “common-man” problems are not staring down unemployment and poverty, but the minor discomforts of air travel that, having never experienced, he can only imagine. His sense that complaining about such problems will make him “relatable” demonstrates how far removed he is from even a semblance of solidarity with his potential constituency.
Trump is right about one thing: America’s airports are places of stagnation. But shabby carpets aren’t the problem. The real shabbiness of air travel can be found in its continuing and hyper-vigilant attachment to policies of exclusion—a business model that just happens to jibe nicely with Trump’s nostalgia-steeped campaign.
Never mind some imaginary competition between Newark’s airport and Dubai’s. In the not-so-friendly skies, the competition unfolds among sharp-elbowed travelers, pitted against one another by ever more ridiculous and nuanced distinctions of “class.” It’s not just the intense awkwardness of the parade of coach passengers filing through the first-class cabin after their betters have been comfortably seated and beverage-served. Airlines have managed to hierarchize—and monetize—almost every aspect of flying. Pay a little more to move to a higher boarding group. Pay a little more than that to get “slightly more” legroom. Pay more than that for an exit row. For business class. Though the number of strata have multiplied since 1955, you can be just as certain that the person next to you is in a similar tax bracket.
The airport terminal is the last remaining common denominator in the air travel experience, but it, too, is thick with consumer partitions. Now you will find lines for “preferred” customers, “elite” customers, and customers named after precious gems and metals, such as “emerald,” “platinum,” and “gold.” In addition to first-class airline lounges, guarded almost as fiercely as TSA checkpoints, there are lounges you can enter only if you have a certain credit card that requires high annual spending. LAX recently unveiled a new “VIP Select” service, which buys you the opportunity to be picked up by a Porsche directly on the tarmac and taken to a secret underground location on Century Boulevard, where you can be met by your personal driver.
What such services ostensibly sell is uncompromising luxury and conspicuous consumption in the guise of inconspicuity. (A Porsche? Come on.) But here’s what they’re really selling: the promise to isolate the rich from the not-so-rich. It’s an advanced version of paying for “more room”—i.e., more distance from other, poorer people. This is the oldest travel pitch in the world, one that is set to be repackaged yet again as private companies such as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin seek to catapult rich tourists toward an even more exclusive destination: outer space.
Let’s return to 1955. That’s the year, according to many historians, that the term “Third-World” was coined. Back then, politicians used the term to describe countries that were neither part of Western capitalism (the first world) or Soviet communism (the second world). The Third World was the “everyone-else” aftermath of colonial oppression—a mixed bag that included many of the countries whose airports are now purportedly so great. But when Trump says “Third World,” he is referring not to a specific geopolitical region but rather to a more general underclassness—it’s his way of calling something “ghetto” on a global scale.
In Trump’s mind, all this airport talk will help him reach the people to whom he tries to appeal but clearly despises, much like his constant references to the “disaster” of the “inner city.” During Sunday’s town hall debate, the mere presence of a black American had him shouting “inner city”—and his answer to a simple question about whether he could be a “devoted president to all the people in the United States” was tantamount to a resounding “no.”
Trump’s rallying cry, “make America great again,” clearly hinges on a return to the past, presumably to the heyday of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Trump has said as much when pressed in an interview with the New York Times, reflecting on the 1950s as a time when “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do.” Trump wants an America that views the rest of the world as an undifferentiated underclass, so even the poorest American can say he is greater than someone—and so no one needs to think about how our country’s own increasingly complex class divisions are being shaped by private business. He wants an America that caters to white men with money to burn and an insatiable desire to be waited on by petite women in fancy outfits (who are, if his 2005 comments to Billy Bush are any indication, merely on hand for casual groping). The fictitious “locker room” that Trump is now so fond of referencing is, in fact, a lot like a fifties airplane: a comfortable, privatized space reserved for the chosen few.