Wednesday, June 11, 2008

U is for Unlikely

Subtitle: Flying While Female

Owing to my frequent travels, I have attained a lofty (but not stratospheric) position within my preferred airline's frequent flyer program, and am often upgraded on domestic flights and very occasionally on international flights. My fellow business/first class passengers are of course typically Business People.

On a recent flight, as I took my seat in row 1 of an airplane, the man sitting next to me said "Welcome to business class. Were you upgraded?". He informed me that he was not there because of an upgrade -- he always flew business class -- so it wasn't a "Let's bond over our upgrades" kind of conversation. Apparently, he likes to pick out the upgraded people, and I was an easy call. My seat-mate then promptly fell asleep and snored loudly for the rest of the flight, somewhat diminishing my business class experience.

In fact, this was not the first time a Business Man on an airplane has asked me if I had been upgraded. Maybe it's the giant U that airlines stamp on my forehead that gives my upgraded status away.

Actually, I will be the first to admit that I do not look like a Business Person. My casual attire, lack of professional-looking briefcase or suitcase (I prefer the more academic-type briefcase made of soft material, or even a backpack), and inability/unwillingness to attain a state of business-level personal grooming all mark me out as a likely Upgrade when I sit in business class.

Upgraded academics, particularly FSP's like me, must seem strange to Business People. We clearly must fly often, yet many of us don't have the appearance or accoutrements of >90% of the others sitting in business class. Given the possible explanations of (1) eccentric heiress, (2) disheveled but successful artiste, or (3) random upgraded person, answer #3 is typically seen as more likely.

Even so, Were you upgraded? is a strange question to ask someone. It's almost like asking me what my income is, a question considered rude by most Americans, even among friends. So, why are people willing to ask me this question? I cannot help but note that a statistically invalid, anecdotal survey of two male colleagues who do not look like businessmen and who are frequently upgraded on flights reveals that they have never been asked this question.

FSP's Guide to Academic Etiquette does not extend to the business world, but if it did, it would suggest that people not ask this question of strangers on planes. I am not offended by the question itself -- I don't really care whether anyone knows whether I was upgraded or paying full fare -- but it is rather uncool to ask the question anyway. Furthermore, selectively asking it of women is sexist. Therefore, not asking this question is yet one more little way to make the world a nicer place.

22 comments:

Aroza said...

Sadly, I doubt that business guy was interested in making this world a better place.

Rettaw said...

Indeed a strange question to ask, and not really one with outlook of providing interesting information. Unless of course one wants to be able to tell the rabble from the civilized beings least you be civil towards the rabble by mistake.

Is it typical that the askers behave in an inconsiderate manner afterwards?

PhysioProf said...

The correct answer to a question like that is, "What the fuck are you talking about? Are you fucking nuts?"

FSP is back in the hizzouse! w00t!

Am I a woman scientist? said...

Hmm... it's kind of like asking someone if that's a real diamond. I would have thought that the business class people were a bit more hip to manners, but maybe not. I've never been up there, so what do I know?

binky said...

I'm thinking it's an expression of "according to my view of the world you don't (look like you) belong here.

I have done much research abroad and have had the same experience, but was met with even more surprise especially when I was in my 20s.

Scientia Matris said...

This is hilarious! I've had a lovely chuckle imagining how much you might have wanted to stick a (plastic) fork in that fellows nose to stop the snoring...

I was upgraded at the last minute due to a seat mix up. My business class companion had pre-ordered a fruit platter but was quite keen on having the entree on the menu when he saw what I was eating. When he asked for the same, he was told that they had no more serves. He then turned to me and said "well, I'd really rather be having that since i paid for my ticket".

Earning enough to purchase BC tickets is not guarantee of good manners. I'd rather sit next to FSP, anyday!!!!!!!

a physicist said...

I too travel enough to get frequent upgrades, and I have never been asked if I got an upgrade. I'm male.

On a different topic, your blogging haitus coincinded nicely with my family vacation, so I hardly missed anything while I was gone. Sweeeet!

Professor in Training said...

When flying, I usually dress like the hiker/backpacker I am, regardless of whether the flight is for business or pleasure, so I NEVER get upgraded ... although I did get to fly business class on a long-haul international flight several years ago as I had a severe bout of food poisoning and looked like I was on the brink of death. They seated me in 1A (with nobody in 1B!), sent the chef to talk to me about what food I could/couldn't keep down and then very kindly left me alone to die a slow death during the rest of the 14h flight. There was no way on earth that I could have been mistaken for anything other than a medical/compassionate upgrade!

Helen said...

Heh. My father is a retired pilot, which meant when I was younger I could often score almost-free first-class seats if I was willing to gamble on space-available and follow the employee passenger dress code. Actually, due to my father's ex-Marine training, I tended to exceed the dress code minimums by quite a bit.

I got a lot of puzzled questions too -- I was dressed as well as anyone there, but I didn't look like what anyone expected to be sitting in first class. Except of course the flight crew, who could usually spot an employee passenger a mile off, and would know I could be depended upon to be quiet, unassuming, and cheerfully polite (it goes with the dress code).

Flo said...

Yes, absolutely correct. Academics fly a lot, but our budgets can rarely rationalize a business class ticket. So we rack up the miles on a shoestring, then get the occasional upgrade.
I recently read an article about Hillary Clinton's appearance becoming a subject of discussion ... by what are typically old, ugly males who would never get criticized for their looks. Ugly males seem to be the norm, where a female has to be 'good looking' to make it... so the common assumption goes and I think your 'business man' was just trying to assure himself that he 'deserved' to be there :P

Anonymous said...

I would have told that you just got downgraded from your private corporate jet due to engine problems and you are stuck on this flying dump with the 'common folk'.

Anonymous said...

Urgh, I hate business men types when flying. If I get out a physics paper during the flight (or attempt to write my talk for the conference that I am flying to), business guy next to me will at some point lean over and go "Oooh, that looks interesting/hard" and then bore me to death for the next four hours. Suffice it to say that while this has happened > 20 times sitting next to guys, it has NEVER happened when I am sitting next to a woman. Because I don't think any woman would just lean over and say what amounts to "Hey, I've just been reading what you are working on over your shoulder!! How nosy am I?!" My new solution is to conceal physics papers inside Hello magazine - this seems to work a treat. I would like to say that I also attempt to write my talks before getting on the plane but sadly this hasn't happened yet.

femalebioprof said...

Love this story, and glad you're back!

When I can't come up with a good retort on the spot (loved the "downgraded from my jet" line), I've taken to pausing, looking somewhat incredulous/confused and then saying "I beg your pardon?" This is working better as I get older...

Anonymous said...

It's a rude guy. I don't see sexism here. Wonder if more males could chime in.

What bothers me is Air Tran's practice of raising the price of a ticket selectively. No they don't give loyal customers lower fares, rather they charge them more because they figure they already have them.

Becca said...

"Why yes, I'm an upgrade. You see, I've never seen the point in paying more just so they can sit me next to ruder people such as yourself. But if they do it for free, well I suppose I shall have to consol myself with the extra pillows and avoid the temptation to use them to smother you in your sleep."

Ms.PhD said...

Not a plastic fork, you use cheetos. Cheetos to stop the snoring! Haven't you seen the commercial?? you have the tools to fix this...



I'm sure it's the same kind of sexism we see all the time in certain science departments. ANY woman is seen as suspect, because there are so few. Therefore, she must be questioned! Aggressively! She must justify her existence!

What are you, taking up space or something?? Who said you could do that!?

Anonymous said...

I believe Miss Manners might recommend the uncomprehending smile (closed mouth, slightly raised corners, slightly raised eyebrows, small shake of the head) in response to a question quite this, er, stupid.

If the question is clarified, it's likely to take the form of "Did you pay for your seat?" in which case of course the answer is a bemused-sounding "Yes -- didn't you?"

What a truly silly, therefore rude, thing to say, as a substitute for "Hello, my name is John. What's yours?"

Welcome back, FSP, we've missed you! Did you have a good time??

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks.. I had a great time. It was awesome, totally nice. Definitely.

Global Girl said...

I have to confess, I do the business class outsider spotting too. The people who look around a lot in very casual clothes are the top candidates, followed by people in just very casual clothes, some of whom might be professors. I do not consider this very much, however, because the most prolific flyers who really need and appreciate business and first are businesspeople. It feels almost like a need basis. People on vacation can be wrinkly and tired on arrival. If you have to roll off the plane into negotiations, you need that sleep. Even as a professor, you can take a breather to recover. Businesspeople often cannot, and are often flying back much sooner than vacationers (or academics) are, compounding the effect. I know someone who flew from Sweden to South Africa for a meeting, back and forth in a single day.

I've never been asked any such questions myself, ever, at any age. Perhaps in part because until quite recently I was obviously traveling with parents, who bought the tickets. But even now, despite being a grad student, I roll up with regulation-size carryon, laptop bag that straps onto the carryon for airport running ease and generally business-y clothes. And I feel like I belong there.

Although to start proclaiming having paid for the ticket and not being upgraded is just silly. The object is to fly business or first, and the less you pay yourself the better. If you paid personal money for the flight, not a company's money or your miles, then you just got stuck. That doesn't give you bragging rights. That's just unfortunate.

Xanthophyllippa said...

I think you should look your interrogators squarely in the eye and tell them that you're independently wealthy.

Runnerudite said...

Yep, you should have responded that you actually downgraded from first class... then snubbed him for be inferior. Or, you could have given him a story about how you loaned your personal jet to a dear friend and were slumming it.

Anonymous said...

I think I would have to respond with an answer similar to the one I used to give when I was a student and another student would ask me what grade I earned on an exam. I would always answer, "An A, of course!" I have no remorse about lying to an idiot.

"Was I "upgraded"?". My response: "Of course not! And my company didn't pay for the ticket either." At which point I would then go to sleep!

I also loved the comment about the downgrade from the private jet. That was priceless!