I recently returned from about two weeks of non-stop business travel; for some reason I got lucky, and upgrading to first class on each of my flights was relatively inexpensive (and this girl likes a hot towel, so yeah I went for the upgrade). I would say my travel experiences are fairly typical, check-in, go through security (I've never not been patted down by TSA, and depending on my hair style it might get its' own pat down as well, I don't know how common that is) and board my flight with the rest of the economy passengers. I decided to pay close attention to my experiences on this trip. I don't "dress up" to fly, I like to be comfortable; however I also don't look like I just rolled out of bed. It's winter right now so most on my flights I was dressed in jeans and a sweater. In order to provide the most accurate context I can, I'll say that I do like nice things. I was born with expensive taste so normally my coat, shoes, and bag etc. are normally some kind of name brand (nothing too extravagant: remember I've been a graduate student for the past four years) but nice. I hope I'm setting the scene without being too obnoxious, basically I never look like a hot mess...
One of the perks of flying first class is priority bag check and security screening. At each airport there was an usher of sorts directing traffic and answering questions as passengers checked-in and sent their luggage off. Without fail as I approached the priority line I was stopped and my electronic boarding pass was inspected, I did not see this happen to other passengers. The same thing happened at security, I pulled out my phone and showed the usher I was indeed supposed to be in the priority line just as he or she was about to redirect me to the general line. Other passengers walked directly to the line without being stopped or questioned. Once my hair was thoroughly inspected just to make sure "nothing bad is in there" as one TSA agent stated, as she felt around in my braids which were pulled into a bun on top of my head I was cleared each time and proceeded toward my gate.
First class passengers also board flights prior to business and economy passengers with the exception of passengers who may need more time perhaps due to elderliness, disability, traveling with small children (pre-boarding). Most of the "premium zone" as they call it jump up and start getting inline during the pre-boarding, I did the same. I think it helps with efficiency if people are ready to go when their zone is called. Every single flight a gaggle of white men would cut in front of me, they likely made an assumption that I wasn't flying first class and was out of order, so they "needed" to be in front of me. Once I cut back in and made my way to the boarding agent, they would do a double take. First they would look up at me back down at my boarding pass just to be sure I was boarding with the correct zone. Again the only thing that sets me apart from the other passengers is my blackness and my femaleness, not the way I dress or how I carry myself. Perhaps my youthful glow is a factor, but there were other young professionals in each of the first class cabins, one flight even had a few kids in first class, so I doubt it's my age alone.
As the cabin filled I noticed that all the other passengers in first class were white men; there was one white woman on one of my flights (the kids I referred to above were hers). I think I had a total of eight flights by the end of my trip and there were zero people of color other than myself. So there I was flying around the country with the white me who didn't think I belonged among "their ranks" and airline employees who were skeptical of my seat assignment. I'm not angry, or even very annoyed, not shocked, or surprised (I'm used to assumption, stereotype, and micro-aggression) but I'm still disappointed. I think I'll keep flying first class (when financially able) just to shake things up.