Touting service when there is none — except for the elites


When did America become the land of the elites? When did the common man begin to be treated like a second-class citizen? What has happened to our publicly-supported airports and airlines that receive so many perks and operate on an infrastructure provided by the public? Why are 70-plus percent of the travelers treated worse than dogs?

Here is a reprise, with a few changes, from last year about this same time. The situation has only gotten worse. Now JetBlue, once a carrier for the common man, has succumbed to the siren of business class and lay-flat seats. One of their recent commercials speaks about their good coach service as they plan to squeeze seats together in the back of the plane to make room for the lay-flat seats in the front.

United is rerunning their “Friendly in the sky” campaign just when they are taking all the friendliness out of their customer. They have redefined “friend” as the amenities that the elite enjoy. The airline is all but telling coach passengers they are not going to see any of that friendly stuff exhibited. Once on board, friendly disappears. I know, I’ve been flying them recently.

All of the legacy airlines are going out of their way to separate their top customers from the rabble that fills the back of their planes. In the old days, first-class passengers got bigger seats, full meals, free drinks and early boarding. They still do. But now, with new perks, some have separate terminals, seats that convert to beds, are excused from fees, allowed to change flights at a whim, can skirt TSA whole-body scanners and find themselves being chauffeured around the airport in Mercedes and Porsches.

This is in-your-face perk warfare that is adding to the poor customer service issues plaguing the airline industry. The common man is faced with airlines flaunting the special status of elite frequent fliers and the rich.

We see it in security lines. We see it when we march through first class on the way to the back of the plane. We see it when we wind through lay-flat seats to our 32- and 28-inch pitch. We feel it every time flight attendants pull the flimsy curtain between first and worse at meal times and smell it when airlines are handing first class passengers fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. We suffer when we have to fork out $200 or $300 to change a flight.

Here are some of the airlines’ most egregious efforts to coddle their top spenders.

Delta’s Porsche to the Plane
Delta is now shuttling top elites with tight connections between flights on a fleet of Porsches. The “others” fend for themselves.

[A Delta representative] runs them down jet-bridge stairs, loads them into a $66,000 Porsche Cayenne S and drives them across the tarmac to their connecting flights. Changing terminals in a 400-horsepower luxury SUV takes but a couple of minutes, and customers bound up the stairs used by pilots and ground workers and slip into seats without riding trains, fighting crowds or waiting in crowded boarding lines.

Diamond members, who fly at least 125,000 miles a year, get priority over platinum (75,000 miles a year). The top 500 Diamond members get special highlighting on the sheets used by the drivers, who make a special effort to always greet them, even driving them to their car in an airport parking lot or a nearby hotel.

Mr. Tikvesa [one of the Delta BMW drivers] prints out an extra boarding pass for the passenger’s connecting flight so he can scan them into Delta’s computer system once the passenger is on board.

In Frankfurt, Germany, Lufthansa has built a totally separate terminal for their first-class passengers. Air France has done something similar. Perhaps having the elites treated specially out of sight of the normal travelers reduces traveler class envy.

Advertising the joys of Business Class

Do you remember the last time you saw an airline commercial for travelers in coach (other than Southwest, JetBlue and some low-fare carriers which have only one class)? Each of the airlines touts their first class and business class products in as lush a way as possible. They celebrate the unattainable for most fliers.

TSA security lanes
Another place where the airlines rub the differential treatment of the elites in the face of the hoi-polloi is in the security lines leading up to TSA security checks. You see, the airlines control those lines (you see later why that makes a difference to TSA). The airlines have decided to allow their elite frequent fliers to move through a shorter and faster security line on their way to their TSA search.

Nearly all the airlines now allow well-heeled passengers to pay for the privilege of cutting ahead of the rest of us at the TSA checkpoint. At many airline checkpoints there are two lines. The long line looks like America; the short line is made up mostly of affluent white men.

Is this the future we Americans want: two lines at all airline security checkpoints, one for the privileged 1 percent and the other for the 99 percent who have to stand aside to let the people with lots of money pass? Alas, it appears that making economic apartheid formal in U.S. civil aviation is a bad idea whose time has come.

TSA PreCheck is fixed to handle elite and first class passengers

Once a passenger arrives at the TSA security checkpoint it would seem that the rich and frequent flier as well as the traveler in coach would be faced with the same security screening. Not so. If the airline frequent flier is traveling through one of the airports now running TSA’s PreCheck program, they can go through security without taking off their coat or their shoes or taking their laptops out of their briefcases. In the meantime, the unwashed masses are faced with shuffling, barefooted or in stocking feet, through whole-body scanners and having their luggage pawed through.

How did this happen? What happened to the old TSA motto, “On our side of the line, everybody is equal.” It was sacrificed by TSA to the airlines in order to get the special security lines. The airlines bargained with TSA to allow their frequent fliers to become automatic members of PreCheck based on their elite status. Hence, these PreCheck-passengers get a faster security line and a totally different, non-invasive security check. (Of course, TSA claims that PreCheck members are subject to random full-body scans, luggage checks and explosives screening.)

What about the rest of the traveling world that is not an elite member of the airline frequent flier program of the airline they are flying on that day? They are sore out of luck, unless they want to pay Customs and Border Protection (CBP) some moolah — about $100 — and go through a real background investigation. The CBP’s Trusted Traveler programs (Global Entry, SENTRI, NEXUS) all qualify automatically for TSA’s PreCheck program.

And there is more.

Elite fliers do not have to pay baggage charges. Elite passengers do not have to pay many change fees. Elite passengers do not pay seat reservation fees, for the most part. Elite travelers sit in quiet lounges with free WiFi, drinks and snacks.

America’s airline travelers already have a bad taste in their mouths without this in-your-face elitism that the airlines (and now our government) practice. The lists in the paragraph before this are for the most part unseen by the common traveler. It is when the total difference in service is flaunted that the proletariat really feels second class.

Security checks are onerous and arbitrary. Airline tickets are filled with fees that the airlines make difficult to find and that they can not purchase at every point where airlines sell tickets. Customer service hassles abound when the airlines are more interested in hiding passenger rights than educating the flying public.

Is it any wonder that the common airline traveler begins to feel mistreated when he should be filled with wonder at being able to soar from one coast to the other in five or six hours. The airlines that once marketed sweet dreams are turning them sour.

Does anyone else out there feel the gulf between customer services for first and business class passengers and the rest of us seems to be getting bigger and bigger? Do airlines’ claims of “friendly” and “human” service ring true? For me, they certainly don’t.

  • Ribit

    I have often wondered about the business practices that tilt so wildly in favor of the “elite” class of air traveler. I expect a given flight could be profitable with a full coach section even if no one was seated in first/business class. But I doubt if that same given flight could be profitable if no one was seated in coach even if the first/business section was full.

  • Greg48

    Much a I wish I was an elite flyer, I’m not– but, is it rally a bad business practice to give special treatment to those people who give the most revenue to the company?? Yep, it’s ‘in your face’ because everybody is flying on the same plane, but I’m pretty sure that the client spending big bucks in many sectors is given some special treatment as well.

  • Frustrated

    i have to be honest – your columns have become nothing more than whining. you want the highest perks available without paying a dime – is this a welfare state?. you are against a merger that is healthy for the industry. you basically want airlines to lose money to satisfy your demands. the problem is deregulation – bottom line. when fares were fixed, airlines had to compete on service alone – in all classes. with deregulation, the airlines have to compete for the high value passengers – those who actually bring in money and not those who want a coast to coast trip for $99 each way. although i am not a fan of fees, it was the industry’s reaction to those who want to pay as little as possible. it is ridiculous. but it is the truth. even the low-cost carrier darling of the sky southwest has changed its business model. it is airlines like spirit and allegiant that continue to cause the push to the bottom for the average traveler. cram as many seats in with the tightest pitch possible. strand travelers for days because you cant keep your schedule. but by golly, we are giving people an option and they want no frills. and the big carriers are forced to dummy down their product to match these bottom scraping airlines because otherwise they would struggle to fill cabins. every passenger is important to the bottom line – but those who are bringing much more to the table deserve a little more in return.

  • AKFLyer

    I think the issue that grates on me, and that some of the other commenters don’t seem to grasp, is your point about the fact that a good share of air travel infrastructure is paid for with my federal tax dollars. I work for the government and have seen my ability to travel severely constrained (even though my mission has not changed and we have sufficient funds to pay for needed annual face-time meetings in my national land-management program), so I may not even make the lowest level of my primary airline’s elite system this year. Meanwhile, though, as Charlie points out, a small group of affluent white men gets treated far differently than I and many other hard-working taxpayers do. There is significant overlap between the members of this subgroup and the individuals who benefited from federal stimulus give-aways. In a democracy, the widening gap between the few “haves,” who take care of each other at the expense of the far more numerous have-nots, is simply not acceptable. I paid for the airport terminal, I pay TSA salaries, I pay for FAA flight controllers and regulators, I pay for the tarmac, gates and stairs used exclusively to transfer elite passengers to their planes. Every airline vehicle that adds to the traffic and congestion in these areas affects the safety, security and on-time performance of all aircraft, airport staff, etc. It’s a classic case of the airlines getting away with externalizing the impacts of their elite-pandering policies on the backs of everyone else.

    Good article.

  • BobChi

    The reverse could be true. The premium seats go for many times the cost of the discounted coach fare. Enticing those passengers is essential to the bottom line.

  • BobChi

    I think the article mixes two topics – how airlines treat their best customers and how government agencies treat people. The airlines have every right to engage in business practices that will attract the most profitable paying customers. Many companies in many fields offer special deals and arrangements to their premium clients, and frankly I see a lot in the article that is just jealousy. The TSA should be substantially reformed and overhauled, if not replaced, but that’s another issue. While we have it, the TSA should deal with people based on security matters, not directly based on airline status. For someone who is constantly whining about everything about flying, Leocha is in an odd line of work. Perhaps he should find something he likes better.

  • BobChi

    I agree except where you say “the problem is deregulation.” Choice is good. Cheap tickets are good. Adjusted for inflation, airfares are far lower now than they were under regulation. Yes, that means air travel is no longer a privilege of the wealthy or near-wealthy, but something most people can afford if they can afford to travel at all. All in all, that’s a good thing.

  • KarlaKatz

    Wow, Charlie, I suggest you take the bus next time; everyone is definitely treated as an equal. If I’m paying $6,000 for a ticket in First Class, and coach is running about $900, I expect to be treated differently… a whole lot differently!