Are airlines allowing some elites to become spoiled babies?

Every now and then airline passengers cross a line.

For example, a couple of years ago, when I had booked and upgraded a reservation for a cross-country flight, a guy came up to me and said, “You’re in my seat.”

I checked, saw my boarding pass was for the right seat and showed it to him.

He sort of laughed and said, “Well, actually, you’re in my favorite seat. It’s the one I always request, but couldn’t get it this time.”

At that point I just shrugged and said, “Sorry,” but I didn’t move. He looked disappointed but didn’t make a further issue of it.

But last week a gentleman — and I use that term loosely — took things to a whole new level. The experience left me openly questioning if airlines have gone too far in coddling their elites.

We were boarding a delayed flight in Mexico, with bulkhead seats, which we knew meant needing the overhead bins. Fortunately, my two travel companions and I are all frequent fliers with United, which gives us priority boarding, and we lined up early.

But just as they were starting boarding, this guy came in from the side, followed by a large entourage, and declared, “I am Global Services, so we get to board first.”

“Well,” the young female gate agent replied, “you can only bring a couple of guests.”

There were 12 people in his party, ranging in age from one woman with a toddler up through several pre-teens, teenagers and adults.

He started arguing. He was considerably larger than the agent and just shook off her protests.

He pointed to two of the teenagers and motioned them ahead. Then he started gesturing to others in his group, saying “Come on! Come on!” In every case he took their boarding passes and just handed them to the now flustered gate agent.

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And, no doubt, United has told employees not to upset its Global Services members, so she didn’t stop any of them. Those of us in line were also treated to the sight of some of the older kids skipping gleefully down the jetway.

Of course, we all got on the same plane and in the grand scheme of things there was no serious harm done. Except, of course, the family also put all of its bags in the most forward bins, so some of us who boarded after them had to go put our bags further back and then backtrack, which didn’t help speed up the boarding or debarkation process.

To be Global Services requires spending $50,000, maybe $75,000, a year with United, so it is in the airline’s interest to indulge these super-elites.

On the other hand, Global Services travelers are pretty indulged already. And with United, as with other airlines, highest-level travelers will automatically be given higher priority than lower-status travelers on the waitlist for sold-out flights and upgrades. (A higher-priced ticket helps, too.)

But sometimes you have to wonder: What’s next?

Editor’s note: While discussing a similar case with DOT, the Enforcement Division informed one of our advocates that airlines can create their own priority list detailing which passengers will be first to be bumped. This applies when bumping passengers from first class back to coach or when bumping passengers off overbooked flights. All passengers with tickets do not have the same privileges in every case. Check your airline’s contract of carriage. That’s where the boarding priority is outlined.

Janice Hough

I've been in the travel industry since I graduated from Stanford. Back in the days when computers were new, and air travel was comfortable. These days I'm also a travel and comedy writer. All opinions are strictly my own, and not necessarily those of

  • Scott Fagen

    For full disclosure, I am an AAdvantage Executive Platinum and HHonors Diamond member.

    Yes, there are people who are jerks and there are people who are elite members of various travel programs and then there are jerks who are elite members of travel programs. Neither the first implies the second, nor the second implies the first. Because I travel a lot for work, I get to see travelers of all stripes in action on a weekly basis. More often than not, however, I see people with no or mid-level status (e.g. silver, gold) demanding some perk (upgrade, priority check-in/boarding, improved seat/room, free something or another) that is not a benefit at their level of participation in the program. This is usually followed by, “…and I’ll never fly this airline again…” or “…and I’ll never stay in this hotel again.”

    What I find from most other elite passengers/hotel guests is that they tend to simply exercise their benefits in a polite way (yes, my family boards with me when we take a vacation and we all get free breakfast at the executive lounge) and tend to be more helpful (identifying seats, helping people put up their bags) than your typical passenger. Are there jerks? Absolutely, but they don’t seem to be created or exacerbated by airline loyalty programs.

  • MarkKelling

    While I am Platinum with United and enjoy what benefits I can (which are fewer and fewer every time I fly), I don’t know what all the Global Services customers get in addition to what the other higher level frequent flyers get. United is very secretive about that. I do know that as a Platinum level flyer, I can have everyone booked in my reservation join me for boarding in the earlier group that I end up in. Were all 12 of these people on the same reservation? If so, then they should be allowed to board together. But the stuffing of luggage into the first available overhead is ridiculous. They were the first on the plane, they had all of the overheads to choose from. Why would you not want your carry on in the nearest possible location to your seat? Some people are just jerks (was going to use another word, but … you know). I doubt this one would be any less of a jerk even if he was flying Southwest and had no status at all.

    I fly a lot (that’s how I got to my current level on UA and also top level on Southwest). What I have noticed is that it seems to be the flyers who just reached a new level of elite status are the ones who want to be sure everyone around knows that and do display a higher level of jerkiness. The rest of us fly so much we are just happy to get on a plane that is in good working order, has a flight crew and will leave and arrive somewhat close to the scheduled time. Putting on a show like this guy did just takes too much energy we don’t have left because of all the time we spend flying.

  • ctporter

    I too am a top tier elite with Alaska Airlines and a Honors Diamond member and I have to agree, the people that I most often see being jerks are those without status or very low tier status. I’ve com on board to find people sitting in my assigned seat because “they needed to sit here” and they assumed that because being allowed to board first (those needing extra time) they could select any seat on the plane ala Southwest. Should I assume or label all low tier or no status folks as spoiled jerks because of my personal experiences? No, for each idiot out there you will find many others that are good helpful people just trying to get through the day and eventually back home. Look around you at an airport, and notice how often you see someone seemingly lost, trying to figure out what gate they need to be at and where to find it, notice that it will usually be a frequent traveller that stops and asks “where do you want to go” and shows them how to find their gate. I have seen this more times than I can count.

  • Jeff W.

    Why are limiting your criteria of only elites can be jerks? Anyone can be a jerk.

    Airlines allow for early boarding for passengers that need assistance. I have seen a person in a wheelchair and their family of eight board first. I am sorry, eight people do not need to help someone in a wheelchair. Many people have certainly witnessed people with suspect disabilities. One time, I saw someone board first while on crutches and saw him take his seat in the emergency exit row.

    United also allows for uniformed military personnel to board early as well. I saw two young men in flannel and jeans try to board at that time. When the gate agent stopped them, they threw a fit. The operative word was “uniformed”. What was the gate agent to do?

    Extending your logic would now mean that disabled and military fliers are also spoiled babies. I do not think that would be your intent. But on a given flight, there are will be more elite fliers than military and/or disabled flyers. So you see more of that.

    But in the end, anyone can behave poorly.

  • RichardII

    There are many species if pigs. Many are found near the front of the plane. But, there are plenty in the back as well.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I am a Gold on Delta and AA, hold top or near top at 3 hotels and 2 car rental companies (down from previous years where I have flown just 1 airline). I have, on occasion, brought friends in elite lines, etc. but usually try to do it in a quiet manner or check ahead of time. Many elites know the goal is to not be disruptive, help an on-time departure, and don’t make a scene. For many elites, guests can cause anxiety for embarassment if they don’t follow the unwritten rules.

    I will say, on average, I find most people really are calm and polite. Many employees really do have empathy and try to act in the best interests of customers. There are a lot of positive stories out there.

    Anecdotally, I have found quite the opposite of the post premise is generally true. People who spend their lives on the road, tend to be nicer to the service workers, tend to not care about the perks as much as they are routine, and are usually the calmest and easiest-going people as they have “seen it all” and usually been through a worse delay or storm or whatever.

    Low-tier elites have, in my experience, been the worst about flaunting status and wanting perks as they usually don’t quite fly enough for the big perks (like upgrades) to be routine, are feel they give a lot of business to the airline, but then realize the reality of being #50 on the upgrade list most of the time and find out they aren’t any more special than a co-branded credit card holder. Think about it, a Delta silver flies every other week (25-49 segments per year), but may go a whole year with just 1 or 2 upgrades and doesn’t get Sky Priority benefits. This leads to some frustration which occasionally is seen as an entitled lash-out vs. trying to get something near what they thought they deserve. Not saying all are bad, and there is no excuse for rude behavior, but putting yourself in their shoes may help explain some of their thinking.

    In summary, the golden rule applies in travel like anywhere else. Act in good faith, be polite, and work collaboratively instead of combatively when things go wrong. Happy New Year and Happy Travels!

  • Randy Culpepper

    So the passenger with elite status is complaining about the passenger the super-elite status? Who is being the baby here?

  • Jadeveon Clowney

    Good point.

  • AAGK

    All I could think while reading this is the passenger 1st in line because they are priority actually getting annoyed about another prioritized passenger. Have you looked behind you lately. That is where Most passengers are standing. I don’t mean to offend but at least the global guy isn’t complaining about having his status slighted as the title would suggest……

  • AAGK

    Also, the you are in my seat “incident” was clearly someone being playful or perhaps trying to flirt with you. The rest that happened was clearly in your mind.

  • AAGK

    It is funny that this is so obvious to us but not the author. We all lack self-awareness sometimes though. I can relate to that part for sure!

  • BMG4ME

    That was my reaction too when I read this. This guy was a self opinionated fool who would be obnoxious in most circumstances.

    Most Elites are civilized and behave nicely because they’ve learned that the best way to be treated nicely is to treat others nicely.

    I’ll always remember when I got upgraded to first class and sat next to Tom Freston who ran MTV at the time. I didn’t know who he was until we started speaking, I’d actually never heard of him, however I could tell just by his presence before we spoke that he was a VIP. He was incredibly friendly, gave me lots of advice and I was very uplifted by the experience. He was very humble and nobody else on the plane knew how distinguished he was. He certainly didn’t make it known. This is more typical of the elites I know.

  • Extramail

    I, for one, would simply like to go back to the days when the only differentiation was between first class and coach and you boarded back to front. But, then again, all fees were included in the ticket price and I knew what the trip would cost before I purchased. And, yes, I’m a two million miler with delta and a HHilton elite but, like Mark, I’m usually content to just get where I need to go when I need to get there. Flying is so much more of a chore now. I suspect the airlines wish frequent flyer programs had not ever started also.

  • judyserienagy

    I’ve been fortunate to not personally experience many jerks when flying, but the stories are just comical. While I won’t be bulldozed, I think I’d probably just step back and let the dope with his small village push in front of everyone, while laughing at him. But I definitely would have asked the Head FA to make them move their carryons out of “my” space if I were sitting in a bulkhead row. Acceptance of jerkdom has its limits! Like many of the other commenters, I find that my peers with status are mostly nice people who don’t pull any rank. Maybe that’s why the ill-mannered people stand out so clearly. Great article, Janice.

  • AirlineEmployee

    To me, passengers putting their carry-ons in overhead bins where they are not sitting in the seats under those bins is a giant pet-peeve and the height of rudeness and greed. That would be the time to remove the offending bags, bring them up to the galley and tell the flight attendant that the bags were “left” in the overhead bins above your seats (with a very puzzling, quizzical look on your face). Let the airline find the jerks who did this or make an announcement that the bags will be put in the cargo hold.
    These over-entitled “elite”, ill-mannered slobs need to be taught a lesson.

  • MarkKelling

    I think airlines are very happy with their frequent flyer programs. All the miles they sell to their co-branded credit card, all the passengers who blindly book with them to get those miles. That end of it is a very profitable experience for the airline.

    What airlines hate is passengers who actually use those miles to book a flight. :-)

    A United executive was quoted as saying that their elites expect to much and the airline gives them too much as part of the current frequent flyer program. I think this is the result of them merging the Continental program with the United program and instead of picking one, they just threw everything together so as to not upset anyone. The result is their program has more perks than any other but more levels than any other (Platinum used to be top tier on CO. In the current UA plan there are 3 level above that (2 of which are invitation only)). Also a higher percentage of their flyers are members resulting in very few receiving any of those perks like “free” upgrades. (I have not been upgraded a UA flight in over 2 years even with my super duper status.) There were 124 people on the upgrade list on the most recent flight from IAH to DEN I was on – and only 20 seats to upgrade into!

  • just me

    When you see someone putting their bag in a forward bin and than walking to the back of the plane. Wait a little and call the flight attendant and tell them that this bag was there when you came but is no passenger to whom it belongs to – maybe it was left from previous flight or else… and ask them to call a bomb squad.
    This will teach them a lesson.
    On the other hand I do not mind getting spoiled as a elite of anything, but I do not like when my privilege creates a real problem to someone else.
    So of course, I prefer that non-elite is bumped from a flight so I can get in — but I also think that the bumping should be legalized, carry severe penalty for the airline and large compensation and triple damages for the bumpee.
    The human cost of flying empty seats for just in case situations is infinitely lesser than bumping a single person and altering a person’s live.
    Please spare me arguments. Flying is the right and necessity and should not be left to vagaries of random privileges of others. If airlines want to provide private service at a cost of paying public – get out of service to the public.

  • AAGK

    How could the writer possibly know who the bags belonged to? Of course everyone should put their bags above where they sit. People are rude. Last week I had to open 3 overhead compartments for space bc there was a row of straw hats placed there. The flight attendant was there and apparently thought that was a perfect use of space.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Would’ve been a shame if you’d “accidentally” sque-e-e-ezed your bag in. :-)

  • Fishplate

    I have no problem pushing articles of clothing to one side, or stacking them up to make room in the bin over my seat. In fact, I kind of enjoy it…

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