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Frequent criers: Elite fliers are ruining air travel

Travel columnist Christopher Elliott doesn't want to start a class war at 36,000 feet, but he's had enough, and must rant about how elite fliers are ruining air travel.
Image: first class cabin
Are first-class passengers ruining air travel? Do airlines coddle their high-paying travelers too much? Columnist Christopher Elliott thinks so.China Photos / Getty Images

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.

Every Monday, my column takes a close look at what makes the travel business tick. are always welcome, and if you can’t get enough of my column, for daily insights into the world of travel.