Traveling Classy on American Airlines

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118280929_342d6b692f_zThe gate agent appeared as a silhouette, her face eclipsed by the morning sun rising behind her, its rays reflecting off of the silver airplane.  “Good morning,” she announced, “this is US Airways flight 7638, also American flight 427, also United flight 22183750… Thank you for flying American Airlines, operated by U.S. Airways.”

Naturally the gate agent, who just recently changed her Facebook employment history from US Airways to American Airlines when the merger went through, turned to her partner and asked if he had figured out their new retirement program.  Meanwhile the groggy passengers wondered if their U.S. Airways miles would transfer to their American Aadvantage points.  As some nursed their 64 ounce venti Starbucks coffee, they pondered calling customer service to inquire but got distracted by a cat video on Facebook that an acquaintance had just posted.

I was contemplating something else.  I was wondering how different the day’s flight would be in comparison to traveling on my choice airline – Southwest.  I had saved $120 on this particular flight, especially since I didn’t have any bags to check.

I’m personally quite fond of Southwest.  I know that many refer to it as the “Greyhound of Airlines” – a moniker it received mainly from its lack of seating assignments, which resulted in passengers squatting for hours in front of the jet-way door, gnawing on their airport-quality Burger King Whopper (Southwest has since created a much better system for handling lines).  But over the years, as other major airlines have nickel and dimed passengers… pardon me… adopted an a la carte pricing structure, I pondered if my trip on American would seem more classy than my usual Southwest flights.

As I waited at the gate, I checked my boarding pass, conveniently located on my phone.  While I’m used to standing in a line based on a boarding number, American issues boarding zone numbers instead.  It seems like a nice way to board.  Instead of standing in a cramped line and inconspicuously peeking at other people’s boarding passes to ensure that you and they are in the correct place, we could sit comfortably until our boarding zone was called.  My zone was “3.”  Naively, I resorted to Sesame Street logic in imagining how the gate agent would proceed in boarding. First, she would call zone 1, then zone 2, and then bingo- zone 3. It seems so easy.

Ah, if only…

Instead of beginning with zone 1, the gate agent began boarding the triple elite reward diamond members or TERD for short.  Considering these travelers have wracked up so many frequent flyer miles and get to board before military, people with disabilities, and the actual flight crew, I can only imagine these are people that just live on the plane.  Every day, they wake up early, get fondled by TSA, and then board a plane where they’ll work until their return flight home.  You know how there are people that stay at their seat when everyone else is disembarking? I bet these are those people.

After the TERDs boarded, only to wait longer in the confines of a stuffy plane, the gate agent announced the next boarding group. One would think, “Ah, now it’s time to start the boarding zones.”  Nope, that would be overestimating the ability of American Airlines to make traveling simple.  Instead another special group got to board. I can’t remember what they’re called – “platinum” or something. But all I could think about as this group made their way to the jet-way is, “Wow, what a disappointment! That’s like coming in second place.  That’s like going 18-0 and then losing the Superbowl to the New York Giants.  There’s nothing like being extremely loyal and then being told that you’re not loyal enough.  And knowing how the airlines space out their rewards programs, there’s never a chance these second tier members are going to reach the TERD level.

I can imagine the conversation now:

Passenger: Can I be the very first to enter the stuffy plane and sit and wait?

Agent: Well sir, I’m afraid you’ve only traveled 500,000 miles with us this year. That qualifies you for platinum membership. To reach triple elite reward diamond, you’d need to travel 500 million miles in a year… and get divorced.

And so as the second place travelers disappeared down the jet-way, disappointed that they couldn’t wait slightly longer in the stuffy plane, the gate agent announced the next group.  “Ok,” I thought, “let’s get on with zone 1.”

Strike 3. Nope, it was the next wave of priority members.

Now let’s pause here to talk about another phenomena of the boarding process- the two different boarding lanes. There’s a few airlines that have resorted to this, and every time I see it, I immediately feel more self confident, like, “No matter how ridiculous of an idea I come up with, I could probably successfully market it to an airline company if it involves them making money.”

I have a few suspicions on where this idea came from.  Perhaps it came from a very successful travel consultant who was running out of ideas on ways to nickel and dime passengers.  One day, he thought, “Why not create two boarding lanes?”  When the airlines paid him a million dollars just to come and talk about ways they can increase revenue, he pitched it.  And reluctantly, like a mom in a museum gift shop, they bought it.

It’s either that or the CEO’s son came up with it, and everyone hated it. But since it was the CEO’s son that invented  the idea, they all nodded with butt-kissing fervor and said, “Brilliant!” They then proceeded to stumble over each other, interjecting ways to make these lanes more distinguishable.  “Let’s use Helvetica for the main boarding lane and some fancy script typeface for the priority lane,” one person assuredly offered.

Seriously though, I’m sure this idea was conceived while traveling down an express toll lane, zooming past all of the traffic on the non-toll lane.  But here’s the thing and the phenomena of this whole two boarding lane concept.  It would be one thing if all of the main passengers were lined up in the general boarding line, but no one is.  That line is completely empty.

As I imagine this conception of this idiocy, I hear the gate agent specify that these groups may board using the “priority lanes.”  Wow, what an honor!  The members of the next priority boarding group, bee-lined towards the agent.  Humorously, however, the lane closest to the agent was for general boarding. The priority lane was actually further away.  I watched as many of the other passengers walked around the entrance of the main lane to the more inconveniently located priority lane (marked by a slightly fancier font).  Then I noticed a couple of passengers (I can only assume savvy NASCAR fans) grab the inside general boarding lane and beat their fellow priority members getting to the gate agent.

I briefly wondered if someone had turned the signs around. I thought that because I know if I were a member of the night cleaning crew, I would go to various gates, change the signs, observe the social behavior that ensued, present my findings on TedTalk, and be awarded a teaching fellowship at some university.

I’d love to say that the gate agent finally got to boarding the general zones. Instead she called about fifteen more priority statuses – gold, silver, sapphire, pearl, opal, amethyst…  The good news is that if working for American wasn’t as fulfilling as US Airways, she could probably do well at Kay Jewelers.

After going through her exhaustive list of elite statuses, she then invited parents traveling with small, screaming children to torture the priority members.  As screams of tired children and worn out parents, faded down the jet-way, she finally  announced that the rest of us losers could come on board through the general lane after our zones were called.

I was no eager beaver to get on the stuffy plane, and so I stood back and waited. The agent announced that this would be a full flight and they could no longer accommodate overhead bags; however, they would check our bags for free to our final destination. “Perfect,” I thought, “now I don’t have to scour the bins waiting for an opening, lifting my heavy bag up, while my shirt gets untucked, and I fall over into some passenger, only to discover that my bag isn’t going to fit. “Sure, you can take my bag,” I said, patting my back for saving $25.

Another female passenger was not as accommodating. “I paid extra to sit in the front of the plane,” she argued. “I did that so I would get extra bin space so I could carry on my bag, and now you’re telling me there’s no space, and I have to check my bag?” The ramp agent, wearing a reflective vest that said “Manager,” politely insisted that she would need to check her bag or would need to be booked on a later flight.  I was impressed with the agent’s ability to maintain her cool and keep it from escalating to something Greyhoundesque.

As impressed as I was with the agent, I felt more sympathetic for that poor passenger. She probably paid $20-50 extra for a “premium” seat but neglected to pay the extra $20 or so for the priority boarding in order to guarantee overhead space.  What a sucker.  She must have felt like she had walked into an Applebees that suddenly changed their pricing structure to a la carte.

It seems to me since they call themselves American and are on a clear trajectory away from classy, they should resort to amusement park storage for the overhead compartment. Instead of large shared bins, they should just have those lockers that require you to insert money, and then turn and remove the orange key to open the locker.  Just don’t lose that orange key, or they’ll charge you $5.  “Where could you lose a key on a small airplane?” you ask.  Have you seen those airplane toilets.  I’m convinced those tornado-force vortexes they call lavatories are responsible for creating black holes… and turning the sky blue.

As the boarding continued, the agent proceeded calling the general boarding zone numbers. After the twenty minutes of priority boarding, the agent crammed five zones of general boarding into a span of about fifteen seconds. Considering there were only 21 rows on this particular aircraft, they could have boarded by row and finished the boarding process the day before.

But as for me, I waited and waited. I like the personal touch.

“This is the final boarding call for US Airways flight 7638, also American flight 427, also United flight 22183750,” the agent announced.  “We’re looking for Mr. Justin Hibbard. If you are in the terminal, please proceed immediately to gate C7 for an on time departure.”

I had been waiting in C7 the whole time just waiting for my moment. I smiled at the gate agent, gingerly walked forward via the general boarding lane (after all it was closer), and scanned my boarding pass on my phone. The screams of children echoed through the jet-way like a Wagner choral symphony.  I stepped into the plane (don’t need to watch my head- I’m pretty short), strolled past the frazzled moms and priority boarding groups who looked like they had been on the plane for five hours already.  I looked up at the closed bins and felt the weightlessness of having checked my bag.

I found my seat in the last row.  It wasn’t an ideal location, but considering my seat was the only place on the entire plane next to an empty seat, it was all the luxury I needed.  I glanced up at the sea of heads in front of me, and for a brief second I panicked at the thought of how long it would take to disembark once we arrived at our destination.  I paused, took a deep breath, and smiled.  Why did I need to be in such a hurry?  After all, I would need to wait for my checked bag that American insisted on valeting for me for free.

Thanks American for the travel experience.  You were determined to nickel and dime those regular people, but you gave me the complimentary, upgraded treatment.  Very classy.

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Hibbs is an ordinary man on the pursuit of freedom - from evil, from tyranny, from the mundane, and from neckties.
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