There is no better way to learn about the latest manifestation of the seven deadly sins than to take a business trip. Business travellers are confronted with every possible opportunity for sinning from their first step into duty-free at the airport to their last drink at the hotel bar. Many find that their resistance to vice declines the farther they get from home.
I’ll pass quickly over what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the sots and thralls of lust”. Suffice to say that, particularly in the emerging world, the bars of business hotels are plush with workers of the night. Before the rise of free internet porn, adult-entertainment channels were some of the biggest money spinners for large hotel chains.
The modern air-transportation system is built on two great sins: greed and envy. Most airports look like high-end shopping malls with a few aeroplanes thrown in for decoration. You walk through an endless corridor lined with watches, perfumes, whiskies and, for some reason, super-sized Toblerones. Then you find yourself killing time in a giant superstore, first disdainful of the over-priced tat then casually wondering whether you’d look good in a pair of slim-fit Paul Smith trousers.
Airlines have turned envy into a precise science. Various gold and silver cards control access to lounges that carefully calibrate degrees of exclusivity. Then there is the issue of business class. The acute discomfort of flying cattle class is magnified by envy for those who sit on upholstered thrones supping gourmet food. The populist revolution that is currently reconfiguring Western politics is surely explained by the division between the little people at the back and the bulging wallets at the front.
Business class is an invitation to gluttony. Passengers in the chicken coop of economy are reduced to a diet of pretzels, but those with freer range receive four-course lunches accompanied by two wines and a brandy. The same applies to hotels. Who can resist loading their plates with pastries and pulled pork when breakfast is “all inclusive”?
Gluttony invariably leads to sloth. One justification for flying business class is that you can work while you hurtle through the air. Yet after the substantive meal a nap often seems more appropriate, particularly as you’re already in a lounging position – followed by a quick look at the inviting “new releases” on the screen in front of you. No matter how long the flight, I usually find that I get round to starting work just as the pilot announces that we’re preparing to land.
The combination can be toxic. I once hit the jackpot on an overnight flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg by being awarded a double upgrade on Cathay Pacific, not just to business but to first class. All the high-flyers who had actually paid for their flights immediately put on their eye masks and went to sleep. As the cuckoo in the nest I decided to go for the full six-course menu, which started with caviar and vodka and culminated via various Far Eastern detours with stilton and other cheese. My fellow travellers arrived in South Africa fresh as daisies for their meetings. I arrived drunk, dishevelled and desperate to nap.
Travel is always an invitation to anger. There are all those delayed or cancelled flights courtesy of God or the French air-traffic controllers. There is the luggage gremlin: if you keep your bag it won’t fit into the overhead bins and if you check it in, it’s immediately dispatched to the wrong part of the world. Then there is all that waiting around as people take half an hour to perform seemingly rudimentary acts such as sitting down.
The greatest travel sin of all is pride – this, after all, is the vice for which Lucifer and his minions were “hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky/with hideous ruin and combustion down/To bottomless perdition.” Business travel is designed to massage the egos of those who assume that special treatment is bestowed on them not because they made a superior seat purchase (at a very superior price) but because they are the geniuses who drive the capitalist machine. Yet this pampered elite is nowhere near as clever as it thinks: witness the financial crisis and the righteous anger consuming much of the world’s politics. Even if it were, both common sense and common decency should suggest that the people stuck at the back of the plane deserve a little more leg room. It shouldn’t take the threat of hell fires to make that clear.