Frequent criers: are elite fliers ruining air travel?

The last thing I want to do is start a class war at 36,000 feet. But enough is enough.

Several weeks ago, when I questioned the efficiency of airline boarding processes, I was deluged with e-mails from elite passengers who were furious that I challenged their right to get on the plane first.

Here’s one missive that landed in my inbox just this morning from reader Roy Gallucci. While waiting for his luggage in Los Angeles recently, he overheard a fellow passenger grumbling about premium passengers being allowed to board before everyone else, and having to buy a $5 lunch box while folks in the front of the plane dined on steak.

Gallucci, who was flying up in first class, turned to the unhappy coach passenger and suggested that if he wanted to pay an extra $2,000, then he, too, could board first and enjoy a steak dinner.

“That shut him up,” he said. “And maybe it will shut you up about elites boarding first.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

My problem isn’t the two-class cabins that draw a curtain between the have’s and have-not’s. That’s been a part of air travel since almost the beginning, and I think most passengers have made their peace with it.

No, what irks me are two important issues. First, it’s the way airlines today are adding amenities to their premium cabins while quietly removing basic services from their economy-class sections. Food is a good example, but such additions and deletions are taking place across the board, and it shows up in every aspect of air travel, from reservations to boarding.

Meanwhile, airlines disingenuously insist their economy class passengers “asked” to have essentials like in-flight meals and the ability to check a bag at no additional cost taken away from them. They do it every time they claim passengers are only interested in price. But that’s only half the story. Air travelers may be cost-conscious, but I have yet to meet one who wants to pay half a dozen extra fees, to wait in a long line and to be starved on a flight.

The other issue? The attitude of elites. I mean “elite” in several senses of the word: not just elite-level frequent travelers and the well-to-do who can afford to pay full price for the good seats, but perhaps in a broader sense, passengers who think they deserve preferential treatment. Some of these air travelers — and it’s important to emphasize it’s just some of them — are ruining it for the rest of us.

Here’s how:

1. Not minding their manners.
Whether it’s mile-high tantrums or clashes with other passengers, the antics of premium passengers are exhaustively documented. The latest case is British supermodel Naomi Campbell, who lost her temper after learning that British Airways lost her luggage. The 37-year-old TV star was hauled off her flight in handcuffs after allegedly spitting at a policeman and trying to punch and kick others.

An extreme example? Oh, maybe. But hardly an isolated one. Just a few weeks ago while I was patiently waiting my turn at a ticket counter in New Orleans, a passenger pushed ahead of me, waving his ticket. “I’m late for my flight,” he said. “Besides, this line is for first class.” (Was it the way I was dressed — in a Hawaiian shirt — that suggested I belonged in the back of the plane? I let him have his way even though I was in the right line.)

2. Behaving as if the rules weren’t written for them.
Airlines coddle their elites so much, it’s no wonder these passengers are left with the impression that the rules don’t have to be followed. Apparently, that’s what Thomas McSherry believed. His flight from San Francisco to New York last year had to be diverted to Salt Lake City after the first-class passenger refused to cooperate with the flight crew when he was told to fasten his seat belt and stop using his cell phone. According to the charges filed against him, McSherry used profanity, insulted a flight attendant’s nationality and made a threat of bodily harm.

McSherry isn’t necessarily a poster boy for the “rules-are-for-the-little-people” attitude that can infect groups of elite-level frequent fliers. If you want to witness a more common but no less disturbing variety firsthand, just visit one of the discussion forums for frequent fliers, like FlyerTalk. Or read one of the columnists often quoted on these forums, who, in a perversion of reality, seem convinced that elite-level frequent fliers are actually victims.

3. Insisting on special treatment — even when it’s unwarranted.
Elites can be demanding customers, but hell hath no fury like a card-carrying frequent flier bumped down to steerage class. I’ve seen it. Every time I snag a bulkhead or exit row seat with the other un-upgraded suits, I get a lesson on how to get a free drink from a flight attendant. It’s embarrassing.

Some travelers don’t even bother to ask. Consider the case of Bert Niepel, a German banker who was apparently unaccustomed to sitting in the cheap seats. So Niepel reportedly upgraded himself to a seat in the first class section on a recent flight from Berlin to New York. Then he refused repeated requests to return to his seat in economy class. Finally Niepel flew into a rage, forcing the pilot to lock the cockpit door and divert the flight to Manchester, England, where Niepel was arrested and fined. It could have been worse. Two years ago, passengers stormed the first class section of a Boeing 747 operated by Pakistan International Airlines after it sat on a hot Islamabad tarmac. More than a dozen would-be first class passengers were arrested.

So whose fault is this? Are more platinum-level passengers acting like spoiled children? Or have airlines enabled this destructive behavior and created a toxic and decidedly un-democratic culture of entitlement?

I think you know the answer.

Tom Signore does. On a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago, the executive recruiter from Oak Park, Calif., was sitting near the front of the economy class cabin when he stood up to use the restroom. The closest lavatories were in first class. But a flight attendant emerged from the galley and blocked his path to the head. “These are for first class passengers only,” she scolded.

“Do the math,” he told me. “Two bathrooms for 180 people. One bathroom for 12 people. Does that make any sense?”

No, and neither do red carpets at the boarding gate. Or over-the-top gourmet meals with all-you-can-drink booze, while the rest of the plane starves. You can’t blame airlines for singling out their highest-revenue passengers as VIPs. But something is wrong — very wrong — with air travel today when only some of us are treated like people and the rest are stowed away like cargo.

All aboard: 5 tips for getting on the plane pronto

What’s the fastest way to board a plane?

A free-for-all, like Southwest Airlines? Boarding by window, middle seat or aisle, like United Airlines? Or by zone, like AirTran Airways?

If you answered “none of the above,” you’re probably right. Fermilab’s Jason Steffen just published a research paper in the Journal of Air Transport Management that concluded loading smaller groups of passengers in every other row could accelerate the process by up to 10 times.

And if you said “who cares?” — well, I’m with you on that, too.

You’d assume airlines would just want to get us on the plane as quickly as possible. But nothing could be further from the truth. Generally speaking, airline boarding procedures are as short on logic as they are long.

For example, United’s elite customers are allowed to board first from a red carpet, “while the rest of us poor slobs stand next to them on the black airport carpet,” says Lee Paulson, a manager for a nonprofit organization in Washington. “It’s pompous, elitist snobbery at its finest.” Never mind that it’s also inefficient.

I don’t mean to pick on United, so in the interests of fairness, let me also pick on Delta Air Lines. Its Breezeway — a dedicated lane at each gate that allows elite passengers priority boarding anytime — is equally flawed, to hear passengers talk about it. “It’s a joke,” says Marge Purnell, who works for an employment services provider in Moline, Ill. “And the announcements they make during boarding are even more ridiculous. Just my opinion.”

You don’t have to be an overpaid airline analyst to know that the airline industry would prefer passengers feel good about the boarding process than for it to actually work better.

I mean, come on. Do you really think allowing an elite passenger to board at any time is going to speed up the boarding process? Wait, let me back up a minute. Can anyone tell me why these quadruple-titanium status frequent fliers need to be on the plane first, to begin with? Do they really have to sit there in their oversize leather seats and sip Mimosas while the rest of us shuffle slowly to the back of the plane?

I’m not hopeful that anything I write will change the way in which these chronically unprofitable companies operate. But maybe I can change they way you do, to help you get on the plane faster. Here are five secrets for boarding a plane quickly.

Pack tight and light
No doubt you’ve heard that almost every airline now charges extra for a second checked bag. You might be tempted to cram more into your carry-on, but you’re better off resisting that temptation. I recently made the mistake of bringing a large bag on board and ended up having to gate-check it under less than desirable circumstances. Fact is, the lighter your load, the faster you’ll board. And the faster the passengers standing in line behind you will be able to board, too.

Be first in line
Even if you’re assigned a seat in the last zone to board, you should make every effort to be the first member of your group. Why? Because early boarders are rewarded with more generous overhead compartment space, access to pillows and blankets, and can stake out armrest space (oh, please don’t get me started on the armrest wars). Latecomers, on the other hand, are disadvantaged in many ways. There may not be enough room for their carry-on bags. Pillows and blankets are usually gone as well. The savviest air travelers stand in the boarding area at least one zone before they’re called. As that zone winds down, they move in closer, anticipating their number will be next. And they’re at the gate before it’s their turn.

Don’t hold up the flight
“Nothing’s worse than cruising down that seemingly empty jetway, only to be brought up short by a logjam of 50 people and have to stand around, waiting for people to finish stuffing their oversized carry-on in the overhead compartment,” says Kathryn Morrical, who works for a software company in Silver Spring, Md. How true. You may get to your seat with time to spare, but there are no extra points for winning that race. It’s only when everyone else is seated that the plane can be cleared for takeoff. How do you avoid the jam? Stow your luggage quickly and get out of the aisle immediately so that others can pass you.

Mind your manners
For example, don’t put your luggage in the bin above someone else’s seat. That’s an old trick used by in-the-know passengers on back-to-front boarding airlines. (If you store your bag in the front of the plane, you’re guaranteed a spot for your luggage.) In my experience, most of the altercations between passengers and crewmembers involve luggage disputes during boarding. Debra O’Bryan, a medical claims auditor from Chicago, suggests a little courtesy might cause fewer delays. O’Bryan often travels with a cane, and is “knocked into, shoved, and bypassed rudely” by elite flyers when she tries to preboard. “They are so gimme-gimme rude,” she adds. If they backed off a little, the boarding process might become more orderly — if not faster.

Better yet, bring nothing (or close to it)
Why travel light when you can travel luggage-free? Impossible? No. Today’s laptop computers fit in manila envelopes. Smart travelers ship their luggage directly to their destination. And how quickly we forget the liquid scare from a few summers ago, when carry-ons were banned. “It was absolutely proven that carry-on luggage is the single biggest inhibitor of efficient boarding,” remembers Robert Wing, a software consultant from Penfield, N.Y. “The planes that I was on during that time period, both large and small, boarded in literally half the normal time.” I’ve pondered the elimination of carry-on luggage in the past but Wing doesn’t think an extended ban on carry-ons has a prayer. And I agree with him. Still, you can downsize your carry-ons so that you don’t slow down the process.

Boarding the plane faster is not difficult. Just downsize your luggage, don’t be the last person in line, be considerate of other passengers, and you’ll overcome the bumbling ways in which airlines insist on boarding their flights.

And make no mistake, ultimately it’s up to the airlines to find a boarding system that works instead of making excuses for the schedules they can’t keep or making a select few passengers feel special.

Brian Cohen, a senior information technology specialist based in Costa Mesa, Calif., says airlines need to reform their boarding procedures by strictly controlling which group boards the plane, practicing better crowd control, enforcing carry-on limits and, darn it, at least pretending they care. He told me he’s tired of apathetic gate agents that allow chaos in the boarding area, and understands they think it’s acceptable behavior because they’re “underpaid and mistreated.”

“But as long as they continue to cash their paychecks,” he adds, “I will never accept that as an excuse for not doing their jobs.”