Airline Elite

Although I am one who benefits from being a member of United’s “elite” program (Premier, Premier Executive, etc.) it is hard for me to take such a program as anything other than a perquisite given to frequent business travelers as a way of recognizing their business. Certainly, I don’t think it makes me innately better than my fellow travelers who do not have such benefits. (Nor do I feel any less than those travelers who maintain a higher status level in the elite program than I do.) Every now and then, I am thankful that I am a member of such a program because it saves time standing in lines or affords me upgrades to first class, but that is the extent of my enjoyment.

Not so others, as I discovered yesterday at LAX. While waiting in line to check-in at LAX yesterday, I witnessed human nature at its worst. The check in line was placed right next to the entrance to the Premier security line, which was naturally, much shorter than the main security line. At some point, some frustrated passenger, desperate to make his or her flight, readjusted the flow of the lines so that many of the people in the regular security line were dumped into the Premier security line. I noted this with mild amusment, as it seemed that many of the “elite” passengers were discomfitted by this. But no one, of course, was seriously delayed, and if it helped some late comers to get to their flights on time, good for them.

The people who stood in front of me in the check-in line, however, were furious. Mind you, we were not in the security lines yet, had not even checked in, but the couple standing in line in front of me took it as some kind of personal insult that the unwashed heathens in the regular security line were being allowed ad nasueum into the Premier line. Such was their frustration that they reported this mixing of classes to the check-in agent. This annoyed me but what could I do?

I checked into my flight, and made my way to the Premier line. The people who were in front of me had wandered off somewhere to fiddle with their luggage, so that I wound up in the security line just ahead of them. There was still the occasional person from the main security line flowing into the Premier line ahead of us. In fact, I allowed a woman on crutches in front of my because, frankly, I like to think I am a decent human being. The couple behind me, without saying anything to me directly, complained outloud that they were allowing “just anyone” into this line. “Just look at these people,” the woman said. That just about did it for me. That one statement, taken back forty years in time, might have referred to, for instance a minority like African Americans, and I was indignant.

It is to my great shame that I kept my mouth shut, mainly because I had by this point approached the metal detector and did not wish to make a scene.

The whole ordeal bothered me for the rest of the day, however, and it made me question my own motives. I take full advantage, for instance, of my “elite” benefits. I gain access to the short lines. I am frequently able to upgrade to first class. I get the “priority” labels on my baggage. I am allowed to board the airplane first. But none of that seems worth the distinction it sets up between the haves and have nots. In otherwords, I don’t think I want to be a member of the same “club” that would allow as its members elitists like those who stood behind me in the security line.

The question then becomes, do I give up my Premier membership as a protest of this ugly behavior? Do I write a letter to United Airlines, including my membership card and explain exactly why I no longer wish to be a part of their program? Certainly this would hurt United Airlines and the elite program members far less than it would hurt me. And yet doesn’t principle dictate that we take a stand against this kind of behavior because it is the right thing to do, regardless of how it might adversely affect us? I can’t honestly say I will do it, but after my experience yesterday, I have never felt a stronger temptation to protest the class divisions that such programs create.