There is something about the rise of Elite status travel that has changed the very fabric of air travel altogether. Elite status offers a sort of combined self-confidence, self-awareness and self-help to the airline industry’s most cherished target market - the super user. And by dangling the gold watch of status, by enabling airport super users, the airlines are creating a weird sort of loyalty - a loyalty, that at times, appears to have a religious component to it. Frequent flyers will regularly go on what they call ‘mileage runs’ - mad dash travel in order to accumulate miles to climb the ladder of their frequent flier program.
Frequent flyer commuities are growing everywhere. At the popular FlyerTalk.com forum, the ‘world’s most popular frequent flyer community,’ travelers talk in an approximation of English that revolves around a culture of maintaining or improving one’s air and hotel status.
I board the airplane alone, and I pass through first class. There are those four business travelers, all sitting across from each other in the very front row seats of the airplane. Behind them, every seat in first class is taken up. Every first class passenger is sitting oddly upright and staring at me, as if upset by how long it is taking me to get back to coach. But relax people, I’m on vacation. I’m enjoying myself.
I walk to my seat, at the very back of the airplane. There are a total of 12 people traveling coach, which means I have a whole row to myself. I push the armrests up and start to doze off. I can’t help but to think about frequent flier programs in our cultural history. The caste system of India doesn’t quite fit, because you are born with your caste, and you can never buy your way out of it. The Mormons have special levels of Heaven. The general boarders go to the Telestial heaven. Lower elite status members go to Terrestrial Heaven, and Upper Elite Members, who fathered many children, will rule over an entire planet with their many wives and spirit children. But in Scientology, you need to keep going through a series of audits, which require increasing levels of spending, in order to achieve the highest levels of enlightenment and euphoria. That is sounding good for my theory.
Have you ever looked through Scientology pamphlets? They have a corporate Successories design style to them - colors, charts, stylized depictions of put-together people in cartoonish settings accomplishing personal feats. I wonder if there is something to the fact that Scientology pamphlets resemble frequent flyer elite status pamphlets?
To reach the highest level in Scientology, which is called Operating Thetan Level IV, you need to travel. Specifically, you need to take a cruise on a Scientology-owned cruise ship, called The Freewinds. To take this cruise, and complete this final level of spiritual enlightenment, you need to give the Church of Scientology 100,000 US dollars, the final check in a lifetime of frequent spirituality points. It is the ultimate mileage run.
But one brand of religious practice seems most fitting of all. Have you ever heard of a cargo cult? It's when a traditional society with little or no interaction suddenly meets an advanced technological society, and believes that members of the advanced society are the deities of their traditional religion.
In World War II, cargo cults began to appear all over the Pacific, as traditional islanders were moved by the American servicemen who frequented the islands, often carrying technological cargo the islanders had never before laid their eyes on.
On the remote island of Tanna in the country of Vanuatu, people of the 'John Frum' cult still worship a man who, sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, would land on the island, apparently giving the islanders American gifts. According to members of the John Frum cult, John Frum would visit the island, promising them American merchandise in exchange for their worship of him.
Next time you see an elite status traveler eagerly awaiting his summoning through the magic gate, think about those John Frum cultists, eagerly awaiting that magic plane in the sky, and the promise of the gold watches it would bring.
Everywhere, people seem to be taking out their frustration on TSA agents, and they are certainly a convenient target. But doesn't the nonsense really start after the security checkpoint? My theory about the decline of airline travel is that the rise of the frequent flyer class has changed the incentives of both airlines and frequent travelers. One is dangling a gold watch to a select, but vital, segment. The other, who is mesmorized by the addictive quality of levels, and lines, points and status and cargo, no longer acts as an honest check and balance to the further degredation of airline quality. The frequent flyer, happy as a clam with his status, and unable to switch airlines at the hint of bad service, can no longer be counted on to keep the airlines in check.
When I awake, the plane has landed.
The next morning, my guide calls my room. He says he’s ready to go. I check out of my hotel, and meet Gabriel, who guns the engine, and off we go through Quito, which is pronounced as it’s spelled. A majestic city high in the mountains. Quito is everything you could imagine in a city - steep slopes adorned by apartments and homes, cobblestones, alleys, smoke, palm trees and cactuses, hummingbirds buzzing through the air. Free hummingbirds, light, tiny, independent hummingbirds, free with joy.