Ridiculous or not? Airline rules were meant to be broken (by elites)

By | May 18th, 2011

You don’t have to fly frequently to know the airline industry has some of the most ridiculous rules in the travel business. But if you fly enough, you may not have to follow all of them.

For example: Most passengers are herded through boarding areas in large, disorganized groups. Unless you’re an elite-level frequent flier; then you skip through a “breezeway” or over a red carpet, away from the long line, directly to your preferred seat. Frequent fliers also get to shortcut the lengthy security line at some airports, and they don’t have to pay many checked luggage fees and other surcharges.

It turns out that’s just the tip of a two-tiered system under which elites aren’t always held to the same rules as other customers. In interviews with current and former frequent fliers as well as airline personnel, a clearer picture of this two-class system has emerged. Airlines often waive rules for their best customers, go beyond their contract of carriage and even hold the aircraft for latecomers.

Of course, this is good business for an airline. Why not treat your best customers better? And no one begrudges the elites for taking advantage of it.

I can’t argue that if you pay for a more expensive ticket, you deserve certain amenities, like preferred boarding, a roomier seat and more attentive service. But creating one set of rules for regular passengers, and one for “special” passengers — that’s troubling.

One of the most dramatic examples is holding the plane. If you’re a garden-variety passenger, and you’re late for your flight, you’re out of luck. You may even have to pay for a new ticket. But an assistant for a “high-level executive” sent me the story of how they held the plane for her boss.

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“He was considered one of the most super-premium-platinum-plus elite on his preferred airline,” she says. “He had been stuck in traffic enroute to the airport. I personally witnessed the airline hold a flight for him.”

Most of the rules that are waived for elites are considerably less over-the-top. For example, one airline staffer told me that when it comes to weather delays, the contract of carriage — the legal agreement between the airline and customer — is clear: The airline won’t pick up the tab for meals and hotels.

But if you’re an elite-level traveler on an international flight, and your connection in the States is delayed because of a thunderstorm, it’s a little-known fact that the carrier will “take care of you,” the insider told me. The other customers on that flight are on their own.

More often, an airline will just bend a little rule for a good customer. Tom Logue remembers flying from Memphis to Denver with his wife recently, and receiving such preferred treatment. As an elite, he was easily able to upgrade to first class, but his wife, who was traveling on a companion certificate, wasn’t allowed up front. Companion certificates aren’t upgradeable. But when he flashed his platinum card, she received her upgrade.

“They were pretty lenient,” he says.

In fairness, there are also examples of compassionate airline personnel — mindful that their rules often defy explanation — ignoring policies for non-elites who just need help.

Still, there’s a growing perception that there are two groups of airline passengers: one to whom all of the absurd rules always apply, and the other for which they may not.

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Airlines call the practice “segmentation.” But ordinary passengers have another word for it: unfair.

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