You call that a perk? The truth about airline buddy passes

As anyone with a pulse knows by now, a passenger flying on a so-called “buddy pass” is suing JetBlue for forcing him to spend most of a flight on the toilet. The JetBlue spin machine is just getting warmed up (I note some pro-blue comments on our sister blog, Tripso that appear to be the work of bluewashers). But there’s a lot more to this story.

My friends over at Jaunted have urged us to take a metaphorical plunger to this piece. So I have.

Buddy passes — those “free” tickets airline employees give to friends and family — are sometimes not worth the paper they’re printed on. It turns out most airlines have significant restrictions on the use of the buddy passes issued to their employees. For example, on American Airlines, it’s often less expensive to buy an advance-purchase ticket than to use a buddy pass, once you factor in all taxes and fees.

One airline this week revised its buddy pass program significantly, turning it from a perk into something closer to the useless goodwill vouchers it doles out to dissatisfied customers. Continental Airlines has upped a “surcharge” on its buddy passes to anywhere from $100 to $400 per ticket, effective May 19, according to an internal airline document I’ve obtained. That’s a whopping 100 percent increase. According to one airline insider:

It’s a big hit for hourly employees. Internal employee stress is increasing. Place a frustrated customer in front of that employee, and you have the recipe for rapidly declining “customer service” just in time for summer travel.

What does Continental have to say about devaluing its buddy passes? Blame oil prices.

Buddy Pass service charges were last increased in November 2002. That increase was also a result of the rising cost of crude oil, which in November 2002 was approximately $26 per barrel.

But wait. It gets better.

As a result of current market conditions, CO is no longer in a position to absorb additional fuel costs for the weight of a Buddy Pass rider’s second checked bag. Like non-elite revenue passengers, Buddy Pass riders will be assessed a $25 service charge for their second checked bag. When applicable, excess, overweight, and oversized baggage charges will still apply.

This is sending a clear message to Continental’s employees: Our elite frequent fliers are more important than your friends and family. What a shame.

Related story:   Smoked out of my suite on the Carnival Miracle

So the next time some airline apologist points out that Gokhan Mutlu, the JetBlue toilet passenger, was flying on a buddy pass, it’s worth noting that these passes hardly pass for a perk anymore.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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