It was a most disappointing experience to arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport in late June 2018 and transfer from a Japan Airlines flight to an American Airlines flight. It was an experience, I believe, that reveals much about the marketization and stratification of American life, as well as the need for virtue to coexist with capitalism.
I had been in transit for close to 26 hours, having flown JAL 38 from Singapore to Tokyo and then JAL 7018 from Tokyo to LAX. Yet I was feeling all right. I had passable (which is to say, quality, by airline standards) meals on the JAL flights, including a salad with smoked salmon. I had two bags carried by JAL for free. An uncle of mine greeted me at LAX and had lunch/dinner/whatever at a restaurant in the terminal, a great way to spend a 4 hour layover. But now I have arrived at the last of the enjoyable aspects of the experience.
As for the service and treatment by the airport and airlines in America, there is nothing much positive to say. Consider the contrast between Japan Airlines and American.
Boarding at the Singapore Airport, one of the nicest in the world, was an orderly process. Japan Airlines only has four boarding groups, the first two of which included priority customers. I was offered a selection of newspapers in English, Chinese, Malay, or Tamil. Arriving at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport with 6 hours for a layover, I asked the friendly customer service representative how to get to Tokyo, and she gave directions to the Tsukiji Fish Market, where I ate fresh, delicious sushi. The security line in Haneda was fast and efficient. No need to take shoes off in either Singapore or Japan, and the attendants moved passengers through the line with not the slightest hint of impatience.
American visitors to the Los Angeles International Airport are greeted by an automated kiosk that prints your customs ticket. The machines are not so bad as far as automated kiosks go, but it’s representative of a broader American corporate push to get rid of as many human workers as humanly possible. Now you will see automated kiosks at Safeway, CVS, McDonalds, check-in areas for many of airlines and more.
Airlines in the U.S. are now trying to implement an “automated” security line, like the one I used when reentering the terminal at LAX. The conveyer belt system shoots out a bin at you, and TSA agents try to explain to confused passengers, as only TSA agents can, how the system works, then all the bins get stuck in a line going through the X-ray machine, and the passengers wait single-file to be scanned and have their genitals massaged by a TSA agent, and the whole fancy process doesn’t take any less time than the old way.
Once you finally arrive at American Airlines’ gate, after it has been delayed for four hours and switches gates three times, the gate attendants will call out boarding in slow, precise order, all the way through nine status-listed boarding groups, plus pre-boarding. The first five groups are all those passengers who paid extra for status tickets or frequent flier programs.
U.S. airlines have divided their passengers into dozens of groups based on price-discrimination and value to the corporation. Delta has six groups, consisting of 27 categories of premium members, including Diamond Medallion members, Platinum Medallion, Gold Medallion, and partner airlines programs like GOL Smiles. American has 22, and United, 19. If the order one boards a plane with assigned seats is so important to status seekers, one wonders whether Flying Blue Platinum members must feel offended and ripped off that they have to share the “Sky Priority boarding zone” with Flying Blue Gold members despite their clear superiority in miles earned.
Even low-cost Spirit has four groups, with the first two for premium ticket holders. At least American and United board active military members in the first groups. JetBlue and Southwest have military board in group three—after those who paid the most.
No newspapers are offered on the American flight. It goes without saying that there’s no food and no liquor and that, on an ordinary domestic flight, checked luggage costs US$25. It’s not just that America’s airlines offer worse domestic service than do foreign airlines. Their international service fails to live up to standard in many ways, too.
United and American don’t even offer free liquor on flights to and from China. United offers only free beer to main cabin passengers. American offers beer and wine on flights to China and Korea and spirits to Japan. Just for a few contrasting examples, Japan Airlines, Emirates, Lusthafna, Turkish Airlines, and Taiwan’s Eva Air, among others, offer free spirits to all passengers, ANA offers sake, and Air France brags that it is the only airline to provide free champagne to coach.
American airlines do not stand up well in international comparisons. AirHelp’s 2018 rankings show no U.S. airlines in the top 20. (The highest is American Airlines at #23, followed by United at #37.) Neither do the 2017 Skytrax World Airlines Awards. Airlines on the Asian continent dominated, taking nine of the top ten spots.
Skytrax also classifies airlines by star ratings. In North America, there is only one 4-star airline: Air Canada. The city/SAR of Hong Kong itself boasts three airlines rated 4-stars or higher, as does mainland China. Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore each have two.
Upon landing after a sub-par flight, American passengers are greeted by often-dilapidated airports serviced by subcontracted companies trying to nickel and dime them. Need a luggage cart? That’ll be $5 at most American airports. Those carts are free in Asian and most European airports. Finally, there will be no useful public transportation to take you out to explore most American cities—a reality that keeps the poor poor. (Those which do exist can’t match the 99%+ on time performance of the Hong Kong, Singapore, and Seoul metro systems.)
What’s the point? After all, most people don’t need luggage carts, since their luggage has wheels. But it’s just another example of how America tries to squeeze money out of people out of every opportunity for providing any kind of service that is regarded as simple hospitality by much of the rest of the world.
It’s not that America is a capitalist country. So are the countries of Europe, and so are South Korea and Japan. It’s that America has little concept of a public sphere. America is one of the most individualistic countries in the world, with a high degree of competition and a “winner-take-all” ethos.
Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who worked for IBM and taught at Maastrich University. He developed the “6-D Model”, a comparison of national cultures across six dimensions.
The United States is shown to be both extremely individualistic and scored low on long term orientation, compared to European and Asian countries, as well as more competitive (“masculine”) than average.
The explanation defines values as such:
Individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. … The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness, and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive.
About the competitive nature of the United States, Hofstede Insights writes:
Behavior in school, work, and play are based on the shared values that people should “strive to be the best they can be” and that “the winner takes all”. As a result, Americans will tend to display and talk freely about their “successes” and achievements in life. … Typically, Americans “live to work” so that they can obtain monetary rewards and as a consequence attain higher status based on how good one can be. Many white collar workers will move to a more fancy neighborhood after each and every substantial promotion.
About Japanese attitude towards time, the analysts wrote, “The idea behind it is that the companies are not here to make money every quarter for the share holders, but to serve the stake holders and society at large for many generations to come (e.g. Matsuhista).”
American capitalism, combining an ultra-competitive nature and unbridled individualism, seeks to serve the interests of individuals and corporations. Luggage carts are there for airports and companies to make money, not to serve the passengers. Automated kiosks take work away from paid employees and force customers to do it. Boarding order becomes a perk and a status symbol.
This attitude pervades many aspects of America going well beyond airline travel. Americans, compared to Europeans, fiercely oppose regulations on businesses, with a view that more profit “creates jobs.” Cities and states sell off parking meters and highways to private companies, who quadruple rates and rake in profits at a rate of six times as much as they paid.
Major League Baseball stadiums charge US$6 for a 14 ounce beer. At Korean baseball games, a beer on the inside of the stadium costs 3,000 won (US$2.69), same as it costs outside the stadium. And outside food and drink is allowed to be taken into the park. Chaebol companies own baseball teams in Korea almost as a national obligation. Europe, meanwhile, holds tighter to old world traditions of hospitality than does the U.S.
The stakeholders and society are much more important in a Confucian culture that puts a premium on upholding one’s obligations to society and comporting oneself with honor. Tomasz Śleziak wrote about Confucianism in Korea, “Since the Joseon period, maintaining the sense of proper social conduct –which is thought to lead to the general social harmony – has been highly promoted by central governing institutions…”
Max Weber thought that Confucianism posed a problem for the development of capitalism in China. It is true that merchants had long been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Confucian societies. Confucius said, “Gentlemen are interested in virtue, vile people are interested in profit.” There’s even a chengyu (Chinese phrase) that goes, “All businessmen are rapists” (“无奸不商”).
Confucius realized, “Wealth and rank are desirous, but are useless if not attained through ethical means.”
In today’s economy, maybe Confucianism inculcates some necessary restraints to capitalism.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist based in China. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, The Hill.com, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.