The new class society

Mary Dejevsky
22 February 2006

It is 10am or thereabouts on a Sunday morning at Heathrow airport, west London, terminal 3.

Whole clans are on the move: fraught families, overladen trolleys, enormous piles of luggage, and the queues, the interminable queues, just to check in.

Unusually, I am travelling business class. There is only one person ahead of me at the special check-in. My passport is returned with the boarding-pass, and it is on to "international departures". If the economy class queues for check-in were awe-inspiring, the queue for security is beyond belief. It is so long, I go to the front, just to check that this is what the queue is for (rather than some new airport attraction).

A rough count suggests around 100 people are waiting with that look of resignation on their faces. Then I realise that there is another queue, equally long, extending back in the other direction. There are two queues, it transpires, more than 200 people in all, waiting even to enter the security hall. I am in good time for my flight, but this looks like a wait of more than an hour. I consider finding someone to complain to.

Then it dawns: I have a card for the airline's executive lounge. Might this qualify me to use a separate channel, labelled "fast-track"? There are four people in front of me. I present my passport, boarding-pass and ticket and am waved into the security hall, where "we" have "our" corridors, separate from "the masses" and blissfully empty. On the other side of the hall – so we can see them and they can see us – the snaking queues are coiled tightly around and almost stationary.

Once through security – the selfsame procedure as "the masses" endure, you will be relieved to know – there is time for a leisurely coffee in the executive lounge, a civilised browse through the papers, and boarding.

Mary Dejevsky is a columnist and chief editorial writer for the Independent

Also by Mary Dejevsky in openDemocracy:

"The west gets Putin wrong" (March 2005)

"Kyrgyzstan questions" (March 2005)

"Germany's travesty of democracy"
(October 2005)

"Russia's NGO law" (December 2005)

On my way back to the United Kingdom a week or so later, as the plane is on its final approach, I am surprised to be handed a glossy card that entitles me to use a "fast-track" lane through immigration control. In the event, only our plane seems to have arrived at this indecently early hour, and "fast-track" is no faster than the European Union citizens' channel. But I can imagine that for non-EU citizens whose arrival coincides with jumbo-jet rush-hour, "fast-track" would be a boon.

So what is the problem? I had a reasonably pleasant and efficient airport experience, why not just enjoy it and give thanks? But I do have a problem: the more I contemplate this two-tier treatment of passengers – which is now standard practice in many British airports – the more iniquitous it seems.

For me, there is a big distinction between an air ticket and a passport.

It is fine for passengers to decide how much they are prepared to pay for their travel and make their compromises accordingly. It is not fine for the airlines' class system to be replicated, without announcement or discussion, by the institutions of state. With a business- or first-class ticket, it seems you are now able to avoid waiting – not just to check in with the airline, but to pass through security and immigration control as well.

Welcome to Britain, where – it would appear – there are now two classes of citizens. Those who are "fast-tracked", and those who must wait; those whose time is valued, and those whose time is regarded as so cheap that they have nothing better to do than stand in line until officialdom gets around to dealing with them.

I have no complaint (although some might have) about the state differentiating between its own and foreign nationals at immigration control. Most states favour their own nationals in this way: in practice, the paperwork is likely to be simpler and the practice conveys the message that citizenship confers certain rights. It is a way of telling people they belong.

But among the precepts of any democratic state are surely these: that every citizen is equal before the law and that every citizen's vote is worth the same as everyone else's. Passport and immigration control is an obvious instance of where all citizens should be treated equally: not only should passports be given the same level of scrutiny – which I hope they are – but the wait and the attitude of officials should be identical for all. The same applies to security checks. Even if security is contracted out to private agencies, it is still vital to the interests of the state. (And it is worth noting in passing that airport security was renationalised in the United States after 9/11, having been contracted out before then.) Who decided that "business class" passengers would be "fast-tracked" through security?

It seems to me that there are three further consequences of the state adopting a two-tier treatment of air passengers.

First: however loudly the authorities will insist that it is not a zero-sum game, the practice at Heathrow suggests that better service for the few automatically means worse service for the many. If the officials on security and pass control for "fast-track" had been redeployed, the queues would have been shorter for the majority than they were.

Second: the concern to please a high-paying minority that "fast-tracking" seems to represent will favour those who would be most likely to complain, were they kept waiting or dealt with rudely. With the most articulate and best-connected group content, there will not only be fewer complaints overall, but complaints from the "plebs" will be more readily ignored. The state's standard of service for the majority will decline.

Third: privileged treatment for a well-heeled minority may be one perverse result of the democratisation of air travel – cheap flights and the rest. But relieving the "business-class" of the everyday hassles that "the masses" are subjected to, reduces the already dwindling number of state services where the rich have to experience how the other half lives.

In the United States, it is possible for higher-earners never to cross paths with the poor, except in a master-servant relationship. The result is extraordinary ignorance of how the other half lives and denial that poverty, lack of healthcare, inner-city education or other social miseries are really so bad.

Even the United States, though, which arguably fast-tracks the better-off through life in general, draws the line at privileges for airport security and passport control. The only way to be fast-tracked through US airport immigration control is to have registered additional personal details with the US authorities to qualify for high-tech recognition – or to have a US passport. That is how it should be in Britain, too.

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