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

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.
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Your turn! The other side explains why we’re so wrong

I’m frequently accused of using this site as a bully pulpit, which is, of course, completely true.

I leverage this little corner of cyberspace to advocate for travelers who don’t have the clout of an elite-level frequent flier or the power of a corporate travel department to support them when they’re on the road.

Still, there’s something to be learned from listening to the other side — the folks responsible for inventing the fees and silly rules you have to put up with, the ones whose elite status affords them god-like treatment, the people who, let’s face it, don’t see the world the same way we do.
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Ridiculous or not? Airlines are charging their best customers extra to be nicer

An offer from American Airlines, which landed in Greg Nieberding’s “in” box last week, looked almost too good to be true.

The airline was offering “five star service” that included meeting him curbside, helping him check in, access to its first-class lounge and pre-boarding.

Just like the good old days.

But it was too good to be true. American wanted to charge Nieberding, a Dallas business owner and elite-level frequent flier, $125 for its VIP service.
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Do-good passenger slams elite seatmate in open letter

minneapolis airport“I’m sorry your Silver Elite status on Northwest Airlines didn’t qualify you for a first-class upgrade on your recent flight from New York to Minneapolis,” Kevin Winge quips. “All of us, your fellow passengers, shared in the incredulity you expressed so vocally to the gate agent when informed that you would be flying coach.”

Winge is the executive director of Open Arms of Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that provides nutritious meals to people living with diseases, so he knows a thing or two about entitlement. And I think he’s succeeded in writing an open letter that could apply to every annoying airline passenger we’ve ever shared a plane with.
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Is United Airlines getting a customer service upgrade?

You’d think reports of superior customer service from an airline like United would be random — a one-off for a carrier that consistently gets inferior scores.

Maybe not.

We know that the folks at United who work with super-elite Global Services members were sent to the Disney Institute, which offers courses on ways to improve customer service. United-watchers know that Barbara Higgins, a former Disney employee who is now in charge of customer service at the airline, is behind many of these positive changes.

But in the last few months, I’ve seen evidence that these improvements have trickled down to the people on the front lines of customer service. All the way to people like Rachel Schachter, a camp counselor who wrote to United with the following concern.

My colleague traveled with your airline on 6/11 on the itinerary below, from SAN-SFO-PDX to work as a counselor at our summer camp near Astoria, OR. His connecting flight in SFO was delayed and he missed his connection to PDX by just two minutes. As a result, he was rerouted through Seattle, arrived several hours late and was unable to take the shuttle that we had reserved for all the staff to come from PDX to our camp. He had to spend the night in Portland and fly to Astoria the next morning.

Our camp is a not-for-profit organization for children, and in light of the current economic situation we have very little extra funds, and we had not planned to pay an extra $75 for Mr. Max to fly to Astoria on Seaport Air. Because his inability to arrive at PDX on time was the fault of United, we would be extremely grateful if you would refund the $75 for Mr. Max’s flight to Astoria, OR.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing in United’s contract of carriage that says it has to offer a refund in a situation like this. And Mr. Max was not a Global Services member, nor was he what would be considered a “premium” passenger.

But two days later, she received the following response:

I am sorry to hear [Mr. Max] was delayed from San Diego to San Francisco in which he then had to overnight due to missing his connection to Portland. We realize the importance of getting our guests to their destinations safely and on time, we are very sorry to have let you down on this occasion.

A check in the amount of $75 will be issued under separate cover, directly in your name which you can transfer to Camp Young. When we issue a check, an individual name must be listed on the check instead of an organization or business.

Also, for the inconvenience Mr. Max incurred in having to overnight in San Francisco, we are enclosing an electronic travel certificate as goodwill that can be used towards a future flight on United or United Express.

As a valued guest with United, we appreciate your business and hope you will give us another opportunity to serve you under more pleasant circumstances.

Great job, United.

To be completely fair, Schachter sent her first email to Higgins, not to the main United customer service address. (I advise people with a legitimate grievance to start at the front door and only escalate the complaint if they’re ignored.) But something tells me, based on the many recent reports I’ve received from happy customers, that she might have had the same response if she went through normal channels.

I hope this trend continues.

How tAAcky! American Airlines adds elite lines while economy implodes

Like most other travel bloggers, I normally ignore any press releases sent to me on Monday night or Tuesday morning, because they’re what I like to call “paper fodder” — failed pitches to the marquee business travel columns in one of the dying national newspapers. But for this one, I’ll make an exception.

Here’s what crossed the wire a few moments ago.


Privileges Ease Check In, Security, and Boarding for AAdvantage Elite Status Members, First and Business Class Travelers, AAirpass Customers, and Passengers Traveling on Full-Fare Economy Class Tickets

FORT WORTH, Texas – American Airlines will soon introduce to its top customers PriorityAAccessSM privileges, which are an array of enhancements designed to make the airport process and overall travel experience more convenient.

American’s AAdvantage® elite status members, First and Business Class travelers , AAirpass customers, and passengers traveling on full-fare Economy Class tickets will receive more control and be offered an easier journey when they travel with dedicated PriorityAAccess check-in, security screening lanes (where available), and exclusive boarding lanes at the gate.

“American Airlines greatly appreciates the loyalty of our customers, and we have been working hard to deliver the product features and recognition we know they value and deserve,” said Mark Mitchell, American’s Managing Director – Customer Experience. “PriorityAAccess benefits provide a differentiated experience for our top customers at the ticket counter, at security checkpoints, and at the gate.”

American will introduce PriorityAAccess privileges on Sept. 30 and expects to complete the rollout by the end of October.

Following is a summary of American’s PriorityAAccess benefits. These benefits will be available to First and Business Class customers; AAdvantage Executive Platinum®, AAdvantage Platinum®, and AAdvantage Gold® members; AAirpass® customers; oneworld® Alliance Emerald, Sapphire and Ruby members; and customers traveling on full-fare Economy Class tickets, which are booked in American’s “Y” ticket category.

PriorityAAccess Check-In

PriorityAAccess customers will enjoy their own dedicated check-in area at the ticket counter with distinctive signage clearly identifying PriorityAAccess lines. In addition, “PriorityAAccess” will be printed on boarding passes, designating travelers as American’s top customers. American will offer PriorityAAccess check-in areas at all of the airports it serves worldwide.

PriorityAAccess Security Screening

Where permitted by airport policy and government security regulations, American will offer exclusive PriorityAAccess security screening lanes. Like the dedicated check-in lines, PriorityAAccess screening lanes will be clearly marked with special signage. Currently, American plans to offer PriorityAAccess screening lanes in its 10 largest airports, as well as in other airports where permitted by the TSA.

The airports that will have exclusive PriorityAAccess security screen lanes are: Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Miami (MIA), Los Angeles (LAX), New York JFK (JFK), New York La Guardia (LGA), St. Louis (STL), San Francisco (SFO), Boston (BOS) and San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU).

PriorityAAccess Boarding Lanes

To further enhance convenience for its top customers, American will offer dual boarding lanes at its gates – one for PriorityAAccess customers and one for general boarding. Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun.

“PriorityAAccess is aptly named on several levels since it highlights American’s priority to expedite and smooth our customers’ journeys,” Mitchell said.

I have just one thing to say: How tacky!

At a time when the economy is on the verge of a collapse, this is the last thing American should be doing. A more fitting move, if you ask me, is to give the least fortunate passengers — the ones who can barely scrape enough money together for an airline ticket — some relief.

American could start by lifting the fee for the first checked bag.

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.