Elite Fliers Are Better Than You

The New York Times has an article today about the ways in which elite flying status is having a larger impact on the travel experience. Elite passengers are subject to fewer fees, get priority boarding, and enjoy privileges that regular passengers don’t. “United is testing a new check-in and boarding procedure at San Francisco International Airport that completely separates elites from other passengers. Frequent fliers are checked in, screened and boarded in their own lines. The new program, tentatively called Airport Premier Services, will be added at United’s hubs in Chicago and Washington in early 2007, and at an undetermined number of other airports later in the year.”

More is in the mail: United is considering a program where nonelite passengers will have to pay a fee to check luggage or get an advanced seat assignment. Elite fliers would get these features for free.

“We’re trying to identify things that people are willing to pay for,” a United spokesperson said. But joining a frequent flier program isn’t enough.

“You don’t just have to be a frequent flier to get a better seat assignment,” said Richard Wong, a lawyer in Washington who is a United and American frequent flier. “You have to be a high-level elite. Otherwise, you could be stuck in the back of the plane.” — MEGHANN MARCO

I’m Elite and You’re Not [New York Times]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Mojosan says:

    I can’t wait to hear the whining about this…

    If your willing to pay to be an “elite eater” you can go to a 5 star restaurant instead of McDonalds.

    If your willing to be an “elite sports fan” you can sit in a suite with all the amenities instead of in a bleacher seat in the rain.

    There’s nothing wrong with charging people for elite status when flying.

  2. Gesualdo says:

    Stories like this make me feel no pity when I hear about the same airlines going bankrupt. I will be interested to see whether their plans to (further) alienate what I imagine is a large percentage of their customers helps their bottom line.

  3. zentec says:

    That’s just great; a fee to check luggage. Now as a special bonus on all flights, you’ll now not only have to deal with people in too much of a hurry to check luggage, but now those who are too cheap to check luggage.

    You’ll never get off the aircraft as a 75 year old couple struggles to pull their 49.995 pound carry-on luggage from the overhead-bins.

    Can the airlines make flying any worse? Apparently, it is priority to make travel an even worse experience.

    I think from now on I’ll take the train for all travel that can be done in a day. Flying is already an all-day event, might as well use the extra time to steer clear of obnoxious passengers and obnoxious greedy airlines.

  4. kcskater says:

    My solution: book through and fly European and Asian airlines.

  5. kerry says:

    It’s this kind of caste system attitude that got my boyfriend stuck in Detroit for a night when he was trying to get to Denver this weekend. His original ticket was direct to Denver, but got canceled due to the weather. United strung him along on the phone for hours, literally hours, claiming they could give him a new ticket and then relenting at the last minute. Eventually they were to send him to Denver by way of Detroit (we live in Chicago, btw) but when he got to Detroit they canceled the second leg of his trip and he had to spend the night there on his own dime, then return to Chicago on Christmas Eve. He never did make it to Denver, and now United won’t refund him any of his money. His sister is an “elite” flyer and got stuck in Houston on her way from El Salvador. Her airline (Continental) put her up in a hotel for 2 nights and then put her on a plane to Denver without a hitch. Why does she deserve to spend Christmas with her family while my boyfriend does not?

  6. MeOhMy says:

    They better not start charging to check bags until they can figure out how to handle baggage CORRECTLY. If I have to pay extra, I want a guarantee with REAL penalties to the airline if my bag is lost or damaged.

  7. crispyguy says:

    I’m with you zentec. One of my biggest pet peeves are the type of people that absolutely refuse to check baggage, now this will only increase their numbers. I am sick and tired of seeing passengers trying to jam suitcases that clearly exceed the dimensions that are allowed for carry on baggage, into overhead bins. They clog up the aisle while everyone is getting seated, they delay takeoff because of the long line, and they hold up the works when we are all trying to get off the plane because those same bags have conformed to the shape of the bin, and can’t be removed without a jack hammer and tube of grease.

    Rather than charging a fee for checking baggage, airlines should enforce the rules on the books, and charges assholes with over sized carry on items. That delay takeoff’s and waste fuel from the plane sitting at idle with the engines running, waiting to have the cabin doors closed.

  8. acambras says:

    Mojosan, you may have a point, but most of us in “steerage” are already tired of being treated like cattle. I resent the nickel-and-diming of the airlines. I’m particularly pissed off by the idea of charging people for (any) checked baggage, particularly because we’re forced to check more luggage than ever before due to new carry-on restrictions.

    I judge airlines on three things: prices, efficiency, and how they treat passengers.

    All of these little things — baggage fees, extra fees for aisle or exit row seats, $5 snack boxes, snarky ticket agents and flight attendants — add up to my not feeling the love from the major carriers.

  9. Magister says:

    As an elite flyer I can appreciate this. We already get priority boarding and special security lines. The weekenders are the people that tend to clog the system.

    For a few years now they have been cutting way back on the benefits for elite travelers. Most painful is when we don’t get our upgrades.

    Who wants to sit next to some red-neck girl that NEEDs to bring her full sized pillow with her? Jeez… That is a little much.

    When I don’t get upgraded, I really see how poorly the airlines are treating the customers. Atlanta-Seattle trips don’t even rate a meal in the cattle section anymore. Pretty harsh. And I think the flying waitresses only make 2 trips down the aisles for drinks any more.

    Good luck… Flying sucks a lot more than it used to. Can’t blame the terrorists for that.

  10. billhelm says:

    northwest airlines is doing the special security line thing at Minneapolis/St Paul International. Judging from the clusterf*ck line that I had to wait in a few days ago, it’s working great for those elites and not so well for the rest of us.

  11. LTS! says:

    Is it wrong to expect that those who spend more money with a company will receive more benefits?

    If a company chooses to ignore what we feel are its bread and butter customers then it’s their right to do so is it not?

    In flying especially, everyone wants great service with cut rate prices. Let me know where that market model has ever worked… shall we point you in the direction of the Wal-Mart posts?

    I guess I just don’t care what they do. If they make flying such a pain and a horrendous experience then I hope the consumer stops using their services.

  12. I think all these bells and whistles type stuff is just window dressing so the airlines can say they’re trying to improve profitability and the user experience at the same time. Charging a couple bucks to check in luggage (of all ridiculous things) won’t solve an airline’s bankruptcy issues just like charging for cup holders in Ford and GM vehicles will improve their eroding market share.

    Sure, some people will pay extra for the amenities like faster check-in and speedier security lines… but most people will fly Southwest, check-in online, and just get to the airport a little earlier. I too like to be treated like a princess but I don’t really want to pay for it.

  13. Tallanvor says:

    It’s not hard to see both sides of the issue. It sucks for airlines to nickel and dime the weekend traveler and those of us business travelers who can’t always book flights on the same airline often enough to earn elite status.

    However, at the same time, when you are able to travel often enough on an airline to rack up 25, 50, or 100,000 miles, that says something, and the airlines know this. For those people who only travel a few times a year and complain about how much it sucks, imagine if you had to fly 2-4 times each month! Those are the travelers who are the bread and butter of the industry, and they are the ones elite programs are trying to cater to.

  14. aka Cat says:

    I don’t mind the ‘elite’ passengers getting perks. Give them separate boarding lines, security lines, even their own priority baggage carousel.

    But making everyone in steerage pay for the privilege of checking luggage, especially with the current max 3oz liquid nonsense, is on par with McDonald’s making customers pay for napkins.

    And the result will probably be the same: a slim profit and a big mess.

  15. tspack says:

    Great. More things to make flying suck. I’ve already moved to driving long distances rather than fly. Clearly it is now time to expand the distance I’m willing to drive over flying or take a train.

    Are airlines really this stupid? If you want more money, wouldn’t it make sense to make flying as easy and pleasant as possible so people would actually WANT to fly?

  16. feralparakeet says:

    I’m with pfblueprint… I’m finished with the major carriers. I’ll drive 4 hours out of my way to fly Southwest from now on. They have comfy seats. And animal crackers. And they give you the whole soda. And… *gasp* they’re NICE. Imagine that!

  17. acambras says:

    Yep, feralparakeet — ditto all of those for JetBlue.

  18. somnambulist says:

    It helps to actually read the article, “United is also considering whether to charge some economy-class passengers a fee for checked luggage and advance seat assignments in exchange for a deeper discount on a ticket.”

    United is going to create new fare buckets with heavily discounted seats with any perks being paid use options. It’s a way to provide a cheaper product and more options to the customer.

    Compare with Meghann’s summary, “United is considering a program where nonelite passengers will have to pay a fee to check luggage or get an advanced seat assignment.”

    I don’t know if this is intentionally disingenuous or just sloppy.

  19. somnambulist says:

    And oh, the Richard Wong quote — taken out of context — is also wrong. For advanced seat assignments, Economy Plus fills on a first-come, first-serve basis, not by status. Any seating assignment at the gate is going to be handled by status.

  20. sonic0boom says:

    I’m a little confused … United is just now doing separate elite boarding and security check-in? Continental has been doing this since at least 2000 when i first became elite. I don’t feel that perks like this are a bad thing to reward frequent fliers (and at the worst, non-elites just have to wait a little bit longer), but charging to check luggage? Gotta be f-ing kidding me.

  21. sonic0boom says:

    Ah, a check-in that “completely separates elites”. That just seems a bit unnecessary. Admittedly, I would no longer have to smell those stinky non-elites.

  22. facted says:

    I actually don’t mind charging for checking luggage…if they cut prices and made the “service” optional, as I believe some of the European carriers like RyanAir and EasyJet are considering or are doing. In other words, if you don’t need to check baggage, you save money. However, at this point, I highly doubt price cuts will be matched to this decrease in services.

    I think the major problem for the airlines is that they want people to fly their airline alone based on loyalty and these frequent flier clubs. However, for the majority of travelers, it makes much more sense to fly based on price as frequent flier miles just don’t really add up sometimes. Just save money on each flight you take and you’ll save up enough money to make your own “frequent flier” trip without any of the restrictions.

  23. Jesse in Japan says:

    And, hey, these elite guys are rich, so why even send them through security at all?

  24. jacques says:

    I went through ORD the weekend before thanksgiving. In the United concourse, they have a mileage plus line and a regular line. They both come out to the same general area for security. The difference came out to the fact that the elite area had two x-ray lines and the steerage had two lines. Net time to wait for us in steerage: 15 min give or take a few. Net time for elite: less than a minute.
    Now if United charged $70 for economy plus instead of $40 and gave you early boarding and the elite security line, they’d probably sell out the section. As it stands, $40 for the little bit of extra legroom or the privilege of an exit row seems a bit of a rip-off.

  25. acambras says:

    This is why I REALLY don’t want to pay extra for the “privilege” of checking luggage:


  26. lemur says:

    somnambulist, I think the “deeper discount” mentioned by the United representative is just spin. The fact is that they are raising prices now and are going to continue to do so. In that context, it’s easy for them to claim that a ticket is sold deeply discounted from some imaginary figure that they pull out of thin air to try to give the impression to customers that they are really saving money.

    That’s similar to Amazon or Circuit City claiming that they are offering a huge discount on a TV because they are selling under the list price. Technically, they are providing correct information but that information is ultimately misleading since no one sells at the list price. What you want to know is how much lower they are selling than the next closest competitor and that you have to figure out for yourself.

    The situation is worse with United. Since United is the service provider and the seller, they can claim whatever imaginary “list price” they want to come up with and invent whatever discount they want.

  27. armishanks says:

    United already has a semi-secret, super-elite flier program with many of these perks. It’s called “Global Services” and if you’re invited to join, you get priority check-in, private Red Carpet lounges, and most important, a special customer service line to call for rerouting, ticket changes.

    The program is a revenue-rewards program, not a frequent flier program, in that you are invited to join if you spend $XX amount with UAL.


  28. somnambulist says:

    lemur – My issue is that the post is wrong. Meghann completely omitted the fact that the fees are, basically, ala-carte service charges for passengers who chose to purchase tickets out of the deeply discounted fare buckets. You’ll still be able to purchase a standard economy ticket and get your seat assignment, luggage checked, 100% redeemable miles, etc. This is just an extension of the byzantine system of fare basis codes, fare buckets, etc. (e.g., you pay more for a changeable or refundable ticket than you do for a restricted ticket. Or you pay more for a miles upgradable ticket.)

    Standard economy services are going to have to both match the service level and also compete with the rest of the industry. I doubt we’d see much of a price hike if any.

  29. Meg Marco says:

    For clarification:
    New York Times: “United is also considering whether to charge some economy-class passengers a fee for checked luggage and advance seat assignments in exchange for a deeper discount on a ticket. Currently, it does not charge for seat assignments and allows passengers to check two bags, each up to 50 pounds, free. Elites who buy these cheaper fares would probably be exempt from the fees.”

    Me: “United is considering a program where nonelite passengers will have to pay a fee to check luggage or get an advanced seat assignment. Elite fliers would get these features for free.”

    The point is that elite fliers will be exempt from fees to check luggage on “discounted” flights. As in, frequent fliers do not pay ala cart fees on this new tier of flights. This is the program I was explaining. Sorry if there was some confusion.

  30. somnambulist says:

    Meghann – the confusion comes because your paraphrase makes it sound like all non-elites are hit with ala carte fees instead of just those who purchase a deeply discounted ticket instead of a standard economy ticket. The NY Times quote is dead-on, “… in exchange for a deeper discount on a ticket.” You omitted that quid pro quo.

  31. Chairman-Meow says:

    Isn’t it amusing that the dinosaur airlines (American, United,etc) are always looking for new & clever ways to charge you more, give you less service but still manage to go bankrupt?

    Meanwhile, those upstarts like Southwest, JetBlue, etc give you much better class of service than the dinosaurs and still seem to rake in the cash. Hell, even AirTran figured it out.

    Me ? I will never, ever fly American Airlines and I will only choose United if its my absolute last resort. When I fly on either Airline, I feel like one of those outcasts you see hanging off the train in some third-world hellhole.

  32. robrob says:

    “Why do *elites* deserve _______ while *non elite* do not?

    well, elites usually buy full fare refundable tickets, as many corporate travel policies require them to do so. Not to mention elites fly multiple times a month for upwards of 50k miles a year.

    It makes sense and is, well, fair, that airlines treat their more profitable frequent customers better than random joe schmo who price shops for the dirt cheap discount airline ticket on any airline once or twice a year.

    i am stoked jet blue flies chicago now, but having platinum status on america isnt bad. priority secuirty and more often than not my full fare coach tickets get converted to first.

  33. “I think the major problem for the airlines is that they want people to fly their airline alone based on loyalty and these frequent flier clubs.”

    I USED to do that … until my preferred carrier (American) started to SUCK BALLS with its crappy service and constantly shrinking amenities. Loyalty comes from a good experience.

    This is why I go out of my way and pay a premium ($200 last time) to fly British Airways. BECAUSE THEY DON’T SUCK.

  34. Trai_Dep says:

    The major carries took billions of dollars of our tax money for 9/11. Let alone the tax shennanigans they pull every year. Or screwing 20-year employees out of promised pensions whilst the CEOs get paid more the worse their airlines perform.

    Love how they mouth pieties about Free Market while they’re absconding with cash/goods from all of us when they can.

    It is an interesting approach, that said. Make their product as unpleasant as possible. Charge more for it. Watch their business flee gratefully to JetBlue and SWA. Wonder why their profits continue to plumet.

  35. Ben Popken says:

    I’m banning somnambulist b/c he/she seems to be a United PR flack.


    Near exclusively comments on posts about United.

    Seems unduly irked by anti-United comments.

    Even after Meghann posts the direct text from NYT, still tries to discredit Meghann.

    Works in references to how Ted has free ice.

    Is a troll.

  36. caravanfan says:

    I disagree about banning somnambulist. Maybe he’s a United guy but he is being realistic. These airlines are basically charging a la cart fees for services that used to be lumped into a huge fare. Well the fares have dropped. I recall 15 years ago shopping months in advance for a $300 RT fare to the west coast from Chicago. I can get that fare on any number of airlines these days. Why? Because SW and the discounters have created these fare wars and the big boys have been losing $$. So they all cut their fares and what happens? They are still losing $$. So now they are trying the subterfuge of passing the costs on to the consumer. It actually seems logical though it sucks to be sitting on the plane hungry and they give you nuts. I come prepared these days and travel is still fun to me.

  37. caravanfan says:

    One more comment… if I were Delta or United or American and some guy wanted to drop $2000 on a ticket from Chicago to Fargo, I would have agents out there licking his boots if he wanted. People are mad because they pay $59 to fly on USA3000 and some guy that pays $1-2000 gets a separate entrance? That’s the whole idea of flying first class or being a loyal business customer that consistently flies on your airline. From what I can tell you, I don’t think these airlines really give a hoot about making Joe “I fly once every 5 years to Florida” Smith happy while sitting in his $99 RT seat. It’s kinda like the casinos in Vegas that try to reel in the whales who come in the joint and drop hundreds of thousands of dollars. They make them feel good and hope that can entice them to come back again.