The widening gulf between first and worst on airlines

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-inch pitch. We smell it every time flight attendants pull the flimsy curtain between first and worse at meal times or when airlines are handing first class passengers chocolate chip cookies. We feel it when we have to fork out $150 or $250 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 elite’s 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 fill with wonder at being able to soar from one coast to the other in five or six hours. The airlines that once marketed sweat dreams are turning them sour.

Does anyone else out there feel the gulf between customer services for first and business class passengers and rest of us seems to be getting bigger and bigger?

Photos: Title shot — Qantas 380, Courtesy Qantas, American Airlines lay flat seats, elite security line from Reuters/Salon.