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The game of going first class

The line at our suburban bank on a recent Saturday was long. But for customers with at least $10,000 in their accounts, a faster alternative existed. "BostonPlus customers," a discreet sign read, pointing to a much shorter line.

Yet that privilege annoyed one of the very people it was designed to serve. "This is elitist," a well-dressed woman harrumphed as she marched from the special line to the one where the rest of us waited. She added, "There should be one line for everyone."

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Her egalitarian attitude runs counter to a growing sense of entitlement everywhere. Elitism is the name of the game in many circles these days.

Department stores pamper their biggest spenders with platinum cards and private sales. Hotels offer concierge floors, accessible only with special keys. Sports arenas woo corporate fans with luxury skyboxes equipped with kitchens, catered food, and television. The Ryder Cup golf tournament in Brookline, Mass., in September featured corporate tents lavishly decorated with marble and mahogany.

Call it the Privileged versus the Proletariat.

Nowhere is that great divide more visible than on airlines. Elitism in the sky begins with separate check-in counters and airport lounges and extends to ever more luxurious first- and business-class cabins: five-star meals, personal telephones, interactive entertainment systems, even double beds screened for privacy.

But a funny thing can happen at 35,000 feet. As more travelers use frequent-flier miles to upgrade from economy, some are creating a new "faux" class, a dubious aristocracy based not on birth or inherited wealth or even necessarily earned wealth but on miles earned with expense-account tickets.

A few flight attendants admit privately that the most demanding passengers are sometimes the greatest pretenders to the business-class throne - those who, without upgrades, would be sitting in coach, waiting for their "dinner" of pretzels and Sprite.

Sometimes the faux snobbism gets comic. Last month one man dressed in baggy jeans and a beer-logo T-shirt - clothes for raking leaves - settled expansively into his first-class seat, offering a superior smile as the "peasants" filed by on their way to coach. He was king for a day, or at least for a two-hour flight.

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Loyalty - to a bank, a store, an airline - deserves its rewards. But even an upgrade society has its perils. Robert Perrucci, professor of sociology at Purdue University, warns about the growing phenomenon of a two-class culture. In his book, "The New Class Society," he describes a "double diamond" class structure in which the top 20 percent of Americans enjoy the perks and security that come with access to stable financial and social resources.

Below this small top diamond, which he labels the "privileged" class, sits a much larger diamond, connected only by a narrow opening. It represents the "contingent" class, the 80 percent of society characterized by job instability, limited financial resources, and usually little or no way to upgrade to the top sector.

Aristocracy is a word many Americans feel uncomfortable with. At a time when England is dissolving its House of Lords, an uncomfortable question arises: As the gap widens between rich and poor, haves and have-nots, should we be enshrining a newly formed elite?

Perhaps the woman in the bank had the right idea, taking her egalitarian place at the end of the regular line. Then again, who doesn't enjoy a little pampering and VIP treatment - accepted with proper humility, of course?

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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