When the line next to you is completely free… Image by Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons.

My partner and I got stuck with a 14-hour layover on our way back from Turkey last year. It was really annoying, especially since the next flight was going to be a redeye.

In the hopes of catching a plane that left before midnight, we went to United’s customer service desk. There we found two separate lanes: one for members of United’s exclusive elite club and one for all the plebes (like us). They were actually checking the cards of the elite lane members to be sure none of the riff-raff (again, like us) tried to cheat the system.

Stupid, but nothing more, right?

Forty-five minutes later, we were still standing at the head of our line while the desk agents worked with elite members who had arrived at the lines only seconds before. Anytime I tried pushing the issue, I was rebuffed with “Ma’am, we need to see the elite members first.” It was ridiculous.

Socioeconomic divisions in travel are nothing new, of course.

The Titanic’s disastrous run-in with an iceberg is notorious in part because of the class-based disparities in survival rates. Flying first-class has long been the dream of many a haggard, but otherwise broke, passenger. Even being able to hire a limousine for prom instead of your parents’ car is an American trope.

Do you belong? Image by Flickr user Global X.

For most of us, these socioeconomic differences are just annoyances — like my 45-minute wait.

What they represent, however, is far more insidious.

United communicated to me that day that, even though I’d spent a fortune on a plane ticket, my comfort and business were worthless because I wasn’t a member of their club. It’s the same evaluation of priorities that ends with a thousand people dying in the bowels of a giant ship: All money is good, but some money is better than other money.

Why is this a problem? This is how capitalism works, right?

First, consider that income disparities between cis men and women are still appallingly high.

A cis woman’s lifetime earnings in the United States are also likely to be much lower than her cis male counterpart’s, thanks to a lack of comprehensive policies to address leave for childbirth and family responsibilities. Factor in the disparities that are generated by racism, and the numbers get even worse.

As a result, cis women are put at an initial disadvantage when it comes to purchasing travel options, such as flights and perks.

Second, consider the way different travelers will perceive the messages sent by that 45-minute wait.

I’m seasoned and accustomed to the idea that travel from Point A to Point B can be a grueling, exhausting, and occasionally demeaning process. However, if I’m brand new to air travel, I might be so annoyed by the experience that I refuse to work with United again — and might thus be cut off from otherwise-affordable fares or specific destinations.

Lack of experience with the travel industry may make prospective wanderers curb their urges because they’re so put off by the class-based differences in treatment.

Third, consider that four of the major airlines in the United States — two of which operate internationally — are under investigation for rate fixing. In this case, the allegation is that the CEOs of these airlines conspired with each other to keep ticket prices high, even as fuel and maintenance costs have dropped. At the same time, economy seats are becoming smaller and smaller, creating increasingly uncomfortable travel experiences for people who purchase the cheapest seats. For larger travelers, this also means an increased likelihood of needing to purchase multiple seats.

Disproportionately high prices and high-density travel puts an unfair burden on travelers, particularly people who need more space, and shuts even more people out of long-distance travel.

Whether intended or not, the class-based system of travel privileges is leading to a narrowing of travel access and opportunity, and it disproportionately impacts women.

Female travelers face enough barriers to travel — familial and cultural pressure in particular — and do not need another reason to stay local. While some of us may travel enough to make elite membership or rewards programs worthwhile, many more of us are not in such positions. Either way, this is a problem that needs to be addressed if we intend to make the world an accessible place to all.

Have you ever encountered elitism while traveling? Share in the comments.