A.N. Whitehead said that “all Western philosophy consists of a series of footnotes on Plato.” The same is true of all airline-loyalty programmes, Western or not. In “The Republic” Plato argued that citizens come in three types: gold, silver and bronze. Airline-loyalty programmes operate on the same belief – indeed my default airline, British Airways, follows Plato’s classification to the letter.
I remember the moment when I was promoted to silver as vividly as I remember buying my first car. Bronze didn’t really cut it: you were excluded from everything that mattered. Silver was the real deal. For a start, it brought automatic membership of the silver business lounge. But more importantly, it separated you from the herd with special desks for check-ins, special lanes for security checks and, holy of holies, priority boarding. The more politically unacceptable discrimination becomes, the more delicious it is to be singled out in public for special treatment.
Yet as the years went by, silver lost its shine. The lounge was frequently overcrowded. There were too many middle-managers talking about “roll-outs” and too many holidaying couples overdoing the champagne. A lounge attendant addressed me as “mate”. And then I discovered the gold lounge.
It was John Micklethwait, The Economist’s former editor-in-chief and my long-time co-author, who first introduced me to it. We were on a business trip together and he casually invited me to join him in “his” lounge, much as the lord of the manor might invite a parish priest to join him in his drawing room. And what a drawing room! The seats were bigger. The food was better. The inhabitants were classier – the sort of people who ran companies rather than organised “roll-outs”.
It was a dangerous moment to taste this forbidden fruit, for we were on a book tour that had been a catalogue of humiliations. The New York leg included a reception at the triplex of one of the richest men in New York, which I was excited about until I saw in a footnote on the itinerary “John only”. When we arrived on the set of the “Charlie Rose Show”, the host ignored me completely but greeted John like a long-lost brother. Watching the broadcast later that week I was horrified to discover that the cameraman filmed John from the side, highlighting his thick and lustrous hair, but filmed me from above, lingering over my growing bald spot. All this on top of the familiar humiliation of appearing in public with a man insensitive enough to be six inches taller than me.
My ability to mutate from silver to gold became a measure of my self-respect, so I became obsessed with “tier points”. For those who aren’t in the know, “tier points” are different from air miles. Air miles can be used to buy upgrades or free flights – provided of course that the Moon is in the right relationship with Jupiter. Tier points can turn you from silver to gold.
I watched with rapt attention as my “tier points” mounted. I read obsessively about all the privileges that awaited me as a gold member. I told my wife that my imminent promotion was a metaphor for a wider change – I was about to move to the next level in life. All my books would become New York Times bestsellers. I would be given a permanent invitation to Davos. I would be voted columnist of the year if not the decade.
I was taken aback when I overheard my wife telling our daughters never to marry a man who talks about “tier points”, but that wasn’t the worst of it. I discovered the inevitable get-out clause: tier points don’t keep accumulating. They are reset to zero every 12 months. I booked every flight I could on BA rather than a rival, even if it meant travelling to Istanbul via Buenos Aires. All in vain: when the midnight hour struck I was 30 points short of gold.
BA did not handle my personal tragedy well. I needed sympathy, and all I got was emails threatening further future downgrades if I didn’t instantly book more flights with them to places I didn’t want to go to. But you have to hand it to them: they know how to play the status game better than anyone. Singapore Airlines is too polite to everyone regardless of class. Emirates Airlines is too impressed by bling. The American airlines are clueless: their business lounges are pig pens featuring bad food and blaring TVs.
This is one area where Britain can still play Athens to America’s Rome and the emerging world’s Carthage. We Britons understand the value of keeping the classes divided while holding out the possibility of social promotion. BA’s slogan is “one world”, but its genius is to understand that, however interconnected humans become, it still pays to divide them into gold, silver and bronze.