Shopping at 30,000 Feet



The following appeared in The Pitt News,

January, 2000. While I poked fun of in-flight publications

and their bizarre demographic of corporate readers,

Attaché eventually became US Airways Magazine,

to which I contributed several articles

in later years.

So I’m flying on a US Airways jetliner with a hundred other passengers, and my thumbs ache from twiddling. Stuffed into a little pocket in the seat ahead of me are two crumpled periodicals—a catalogue and Attaché magazine. So I unfold the mag and take a look at an article on soiree cooking secrets. Turn the page. Now there’s a colorful sidebar on how to outsmart my competitors. Turn the page. A smiling young woman in a plush gray suit is demonstrating the use of her new IBM WorkPad z50 PC companion, a machine that does exactly what my current computer does, except the keyboard is too small to type on. It nicely supplements the Kodak digital camera advertised a page later, which, like my current camera, takes pictures.

There’s a feature on Brad Faxon, a professional golfer from New England. I once played a complete game of golf, if a bit unsuccessfully. My grandfather beat me by sixty strokes. But ever since that pesky country club increased admission prices for the Middlebury golf course, I’ve relegated my income to such hobbies as eating three meals a day.

Another article talks about Lake Mattamuskeet, a “tribute to both the resiliency of nature and the ability of humans to learn from folly,” for it houses over 45,000 waterfowl. The article goes on to say that a hunter, carrying the necessary license and firearms, can spend a calm autumn weekend raking the Mattamuskeet landscape with shot pellets. If I wish to be the said hunter, it offers a Web address and directions.

There are also various advertisements for corporate attorneys, in case my company ever gets in trouble. So if I ever start a company, I’ll know where to turn.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’m not the target audience. I hand my copy of Attaché to the guy next to me, a middle-aged guy who dons a dapple blazer and smells of cologne.

The catalogue is the December edition of USAirways’ Selections. On the cover is a bundle of well-split firewood wrapped in a red bow. The insinuation, I guess, is that executives give each other kindling for Christmas.

Once again, I feel left out. As I flip through the glossy pages, I wonder who buys the Only Remote Controlled Stealth Bomber. Granted, it can “perform loops, barrel rolls, and high-speed nose-dives,” but really, where would I fly it? Off of Towel C? And the portable DVD player is nice and all (especially the “Simulated Picture,” whatever that means), but how would I ever fasten it to my bike? One spill and—whoops!—there goes a thousand dollars. A thousand, that is, without the three-hour battery pack.

When I reach the page of “Successories”—framed photographs with bits of wisdom written underneath in italics—I wonder if upper-middle-class people suffer from extraordinary depression. None of the people I know, once they pay off their electric bills, has ever splurged on an inspirational poster, no matter how good the advice. But some CEO out there must be able to afford Above and Beyond, a portrait of five jets zooming synchronously through the blue sky. Beneath it reads: “When a team of dedicated individuals makes a commitment to act as one… the sky’s the limit.” The poster doesn’t cite the pundit who came up with this, but the wisdom comes at a price of $159.99.

There are two whole pages dedicated to purchasable money. If I only had $329.95 (which is almost twice my monthly income), I could buy an uncut sheet of 16 $5 bills, fresh from the Federal Reserve. Wealthy passengers seek my envy by owning these $80 of unusable money, and at a price of only four times its own worth. A solid gold millennium $100 coin is also available for only $2,000. And the books of Buffalo nickels and Indian Head pennies are a fine homage to an epoch of human and animal genocide.

The catalogue goes back in its pocket. My thumbs go back to twiddling.

But the bonfire of vanities resumes as I arrive at the airport. All around me loom the storefronts with their thick fur coats and shining Eastern Mountain Sports camping equipment. If your signed, $500 oil painting of the Rocky Mountains can’t fit in your suitcase, buy another one! Maybe in suede this time. To the flier with a lucrative job, whims have no limits. For the student flier with few assets, limits yield no whims.