Monday, October 1, 2012

**Scraping the bottom of the airline barrel

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, October 5, 2012] © 2012 

Now that coach travel on airlines has deteriorated into abject misery, everyone is looking for a way to raise themselves above the fray, however briefly.  The airlines, recognizing that we all want to feel special (and since they have absolutely no intention of making us feel special once we’re in the air) are throwing us crumbs in the form of opportunities to go through the First Class security line, or to get priority boarding.  An aisle seat has become a coveted prize, and boarding early is not only a status symbol but a way to up the chances one’s bag will fly free in an overhead space and better, arrive at your destination when you do.

But as my husband, Olof, and I found when we took a recent trip on an airline we rarely fly (they had a non-stop to our destination), the new system may have run amok.
It was at boarding time that things got really loony.   As always, the Grand Poobah million mile fliers, First Class folks, and the elderly, infirm, and child-encumbered had priority, followed in turns by the Gold, Silver, and Semi-Precious Metals mileage club members.  (We actually have frequent flier accounts for this airline but somehow – expiring miles, I think – seem perpetually mired at the Cubic Zirconium level.) 

When all those folks were safely seated, they called for people who bought early boarding rights by virtue of purchasing the airline’s pricey credit card, then summoned the people who had responded to their announcement of a pre-board if they allowed their roller bag to be gate checked.  Somewhere in there, Star Alliance members also made the cut, followed by military members in uniform, and then members of a special club that one could join if one lived in the airline’s ancestral state (some kind of quaint local pride thing, I think).  Then – finally! -  the folks in rows 20-35!  Actual civilians!  The crowd had really thinned out by then and we, in row 15, were poised to step forward when they announced that anyone left who did not intend to use the overhead bin space was now free to board.

This was a new one on us.  Now, we applauded this idea in theory, since on Southwest, if you’re not in the first boarding group, your bag isn’t going to make it into the overhead.  However, at this point, a lot of people began boarding who had roller bags that clearly weren’t going to fit under the seats.  Now, some of them could have been people who qualified for boarding in the previous 30 categories but inexplicably didn’t.  The gate agent wasn’t even checking at this point – just scanning the boarding passes as fast as she could. 

I looked at Olof with my WTF look – and the implied message that we should be doing this too.  We had a fairly short connection to a small commuter flight from a local airfield to a wedding in a remote location in the Pacific Northwest, and having our bags lost even temporarily would mean we would be wearing the same clothes all weekend. But I am married to Honest Abe Lincoln, Mr. Integrity of this century and last.  The look he gave me was “Do not even THINK of getting in that line.  I would sooner attend this wedding naked but for down gleaned from native geese than board before being called.”  He can be so annoying this way.
But finally all the no-bin-intendeds had seated their sociopathic reprobate selves.  Rows one through five were First Class, but with six seats across on the rest of the plane, that still left a theoretical 84 passengers in our totally full aircraft for the yet-to-be-boarded rows six through nineteen.

I looked around.  There were exactly NINE of us left.  I was agog to hear what the next category was going to be.  People wearing the airline’s logo colors?  Still, both Olof and I were fairly impressed that the gate agent could keep straight the list of who was slightly better than whom, a system that seemed more complicated than the IRS tax code.
The gate agent eyed our little group and seemed to decide against further categories.  She picked up her microphone: “All rows may now slither aboard.” 

OK, so those might not have been her exact words.  Two hundred passengers, 191 pre-boards and us.  And thus we began our walk of shame, the last dregs of humanity to be allowed aboard this aircraft, the ones who had insufficient miles, no affiliations, the wrong credit cards, and certainly no class.  We were the chaff separated from the wheat, the adult versions of the kids picked last for the dodge ball team in elementary school, the new caste of airline Untouchables. “I’m not feeling loved,” I whispered to Olof as we slunk aboard with our reviled roller bags that we’d been too cheap to check. 

I guess you can’t give people a feeling of superiority without giving them someone to feel superior to.  And this time we were the inferiors.  Or maybe that should be posteriors.  It’s a lousy job, but someone’s got to do it.  But having done it, I think we might just stick with United who loves us.

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