1.09.2010

Air Travel in the Age of Entitlement

Honestly, us Americans are very impatient. We want everything now, faster, sooner. And there are few places where this mindset shines more brightly than at the airport.

I'm entering my 4th consecutive year of "Elite" frequent flyer status. This past December alone I flew over 10,000 miles. Now, I have friends who fly more than I do, but I am well above the average American. Those 10,000 miles translate into countless hours of people-watching, both on the plane and throughout the airport. Who are the worst offenders of being impatient or otherwise annoying? Not the holiday travelers with small children. Not the easily confused senior citizens. The worst offenders are my fellow "Elite" status members and First Class passengers, followed closely by your average air traveler.

The first thing one usually does when arriving at the airport is checking in and/or checking bags. The airline through which I have my status offers priority check-in lines for Elite status and First Class passengers. In theory, there are one to three kiosks designated for this line to have priority access to, significantly shortening our wait time in line. Now, just because someone is flying First Class, it doesn't mean they have a clue about how to use the touch screen kiosks. So much for shortening our wait time. When they figure out they need help, look out. The ticket agent to kiosk ratio is roughly 1 agent to 3 or 4 kiosks. These agents are helping ALL passengers by tagging bags, rerouting folks who missed their flight or were bumped or cancelled, and other folks who don't understand the kiosks. They are busy people and there is not an agent specifically assigned to the Priority kiosks. But these First Class people, when they want help, want it NOW. Screw you, economy class person. It's all about ME.

On one of my recent trips I was waiting to check my bag at a major international airport. A lady at the front of the First Class/Elite Access line was wandering around like she was lost and missing a few marbles. Let me paint the picture: she is wearing a hot pink, Capri length velour track suit with black trim. Setting this off are pink floral socks, pulled up as high as they will go, and black sandals (a la Birkenstocks/support sandals). She is wearing more eye makeup on one eye than I did on both of my eyes for 9 concerts combined. Her bleached, frizzy blonde hair is topped off with not one, but TWO hot pink cowboy hats. As I was trying (unsuccessfully) to surreptitiously take a picture of this hot fashion mess, she loudly announces to the overworked ticket agents, "We're in First Class and we need our bags tagged We've been waiting, here!" To make matters even better, what she wanted was a gate check tag. You know, those tags they put on a carry-on when it won't fit on the plane. She wasn't even checking a bag, and she insisted on being "helped."

Once you navigate the whole check-in procedure, we head to TSA. The much-maligned TSA. We are quite impatient when it comes to security, sometimes with good reason. People hate to practically strip, taking off jackets, scarves, shoes, and then we have to half unpack our carry-on bag by taking out our laptop computers and Ziplock baggie of 3.5 ounce liquids, gels, and aerosols. Those who don't travel often sometimes get confused and hold up the lines, not realizing they have to take off jacket/shoes, that their cell phone is in their pocket, etc. And sometimes TSA is to blame for the hold up; the last security checkpoint I went through we stood there for several minutes because they hadn't replenished the supply of bins and no one was at the X-ray machine in my line. But nothing annoys me more than those who think security rules don't apply to them. More than once I have heard, "But I'm flying First Class. That means I get to take full-sized shampoo bottles on board." Um, no, you don't. Or this favorite line of mine, "I fly all the time, and I'm cold. I don't want to take off my shoes." Sorry, but until all airports have those puffer machines, we'll all be traipsing through metal detectors in our socks.

One observation I've had is that these same people who complain about how long security takes or who try to get around some of the rules are the same who are the first - and loudest - to accuse the government of not doing enough to keep us safe when some yahoo tries to blow up a plane. What if that yahoo was like you, a frequent flyer or flying First Class, and got around security the same way you tried to? Food for thought.

We've made it through security and now it is time to board our flight. First comes those who think, as soon as pre-boarding is announced, that they have to crowd up to the boarding line. It makes no difference that it will be 15 or 20 minutes - or longer - before they actually get to board. They have to create a traffic jam, even though the gate agent has said, "Please remain comfortably seated until your row is called." Nope, gotta get on the plane NOW! Don't want to miss our boarding call!

Typically First Class and Elite status are the first or second group to be called, after those with small children or needing extra time to get down the jetway. Rarely is there a First Class/Elite boarding without that one guy who thinks anyone in line in front of him is "one of those economy people," especially a 30-something woman not wearing a suit. This person always tries to cut in front of us actually forming a line, because he (and unfortunately it is always a man) assumes I don't belong there. Usually the line, "I'm in First Class/have Elite Access" said politely but with a tone is enough to get this d.b. to back off. Really, what happened to manners? Newsflash: it isn't all about YOU.

Finally, we're on board. For this section, I've been upgraded into First Class. Many folks in First Class are frequent First Class flyers and you would think know the drill. Not always so. There is always the one who thinks the flight attendant is his or her personal valet and waiter. Then there are those who are so self-absorbed they don't hear the flight attendant say to the previous 5 people, "Today we are offering a cold plate for a snack. Would you care for one?" and they make her repeat it. And repeat it. And then repeat the explanation of what a "cold plate" is. Again. (This actually happened to me recently. I thought that poor flight attendant was going to go ballistic, since of the 12 in First Class only 3 of us had a clue when it came to ordering our snack.) It makes me think of that Allstate commercial where they guy orders steak tartare, "hold the tartare sauce."

I still think my favorite First Class "entitlement" behaviors are disregarding the take-off and landing procedures. Electronic devices off until 10,000 feet? I'm a busy, important business traveler. Those 15 minutes I'm away from my computer are killing me! Seat back up? Really? I have seen, more than once, a flight attendant ask someone in First Class to put away their tray table and raise their seat back, only to be ignored so the flight attendant has to ask again. And sometimes a third time. I'm fairly sure these same people wouldn't tolerate their child, or someone who works for them, having to be asked to do something 2 or 3 times before it actually gets done. To me, this is that entitlement mindset in action.

But First Class, while its own interesting sociological study, isn't alone in its snotty people. Now I probably get upgraded about 65% of the time an upgrade is possible (not all flights have First Class). When I don't get upgraded, I still get to board early, ensuring easy access to my seat and guaranteed overhead bin space. So this means I'm usually comfortably seated in my row 5 or 6 seat while rows 20-30 are boarding. On one flight, I was in my row 6 seat (next to an elderly woman who needed extra time to board) working a Sudoku puzzle when I overhear a woman, who is probably in her mid-50s loudly and snidely say to her traveling companion, "Look at all the people who boarded well before their row was called."

There is a lot to be gleaned from this statement and the tone with which it was said. First is the intimation that people who can't follow instructions are lesser people. Secondly, it screams "look how good I am, I followed the rules." Thirdly, it criticizes the gate agents, insinuating that they just allow anyone to board whenever even though their row hadn't yet been called. Fourthly, it's just plain RUDE. Sure, I've had thoughts along those lines myself, usually while shopping at Walmart, but I know better than to express them out loud, and loud enough where a person sitting 3 seats away on a crowded, noisy airplane, can clearly hear them. And of course, it never occurred to her that she might be wrong.

I flew just short of 34,000 miles in 2009. I had some great flight attendants. I had some mediocre ones. I had one who did the safety demonstration like it was a Bob Fosse number. I've had pilots who left divots in the runway upon landing. I had a pilot who landed a full 737 so delicately you didn't know you'd actually landed. And I have learned that an ounce of patience and kindness towards my fellow travelers and flight crew not only significantly helps situations, but it also leaves me feeling better. Remember, the crew is there for your comfort, but more importantly for your safety. And Thoreau had it right: Practice random acts of kindness.

Now, please bring those tray tables and seat backs to a full and upright position as we prepare the cabin for landing. Thank you for choosing this airline, and welcome home, or enjoy your stay in the city of your final destination.

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