3 tips for handling upgrade guilt

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By Christopher Elliott

Do you suffer from upgrade guilt when you fly in first class? You probably do — and if you don’t, you should.

The woman seated in the last row of first class on my previous flight did. As I boarded the aircraft, our eyes locked, and I smiled as I shuffled back to seat 25D.

She looked away. I could tell she felt sorry for me.

I admit it: I’m gripped by guilt when I get upgraded or somehow score a premium seat, which happens almost never, because I refuse to participate in those addictive airline loyalty programs. But when it does, I always cast a hesitant glance back to the economy class section, where the seats are stacked so close together that you almost can’t move, and I feel a little ambivalent – and ashamed.

From legroom to luxury

When I started flying four decades ago, even the worst seat in economy class came with good service and ample legroom. To want that in 2013 is not wrong. But it’s practically unheard of.

Thanks to market forces that have been misunderstood, incompetent airline management and a small, loud group of elite-level frequent fliers, we now have two basic choices: an abundance of too-cheap, substandard seats and a select few flying sofas in the front of the plane that only the wealthiest or well-traveled can afford.

Airlines say they’re just following the money – that they just reward their best customers by treating them like Pharaohs. But that’s not the whole truth. Some airlines have quietly gone further, systematically removing basic amenities from the back and redistributing them to these demanding customers.

Today, the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” is truly embarrassing. (Related: Family seating controversy.)

If you’re sitting up front, and you have mixed feelings, don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. Actually, it means you’re probably one of the good guys – an elite-level frequent flier with a conscience and compassion. Here are a few things you can right do now to feel better.

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Donate some of your miles to charity

Award miles may be a dangerous habit, but you can put them to good use by giving them away. No, it won’t fix the disparity between the classes, but it will help someone less fortunate travel for medical treatment or to to see a sick relative. You have my permission to feel better about yourself.

Give up your seat

If you ever rode the bus or train, you learned that it was good manners to give up your seat to an elderly man or a pregnant woman. Works the same way on a plane. Why not offer your seat to someone serving our country in the armed forces? It’s a great way to say “thank you.”

Fly on an airline that gets it

Both JetBlue and Southwest have fairer one-class configurations, where everyone gets treated with a minimum level of respect. If these airlines succeed – and thank goodness, they are succeeding – then it sends a powerful message that the segmentation that gave rise to a class of crybaby elites will not be rewarded. And that will lead to their demise. It can’t happen too soon.

If you’re one of the entitled elites, I’m sure you’ll disagree with me. Maybe you think the passengers in the back deserve to be wedged into their seats without adequate food, water and ventilation because “you get what you pay for.” (Here’s how to buy the best airline tickets.)

You may also believe that because you — or more likely, your employer — paid the airline a lot of money for your tickets, that you should be treated like royalty on the aircraft at the expense of everyone else’s comfort. When you try to make that argument in the comments, you will only prove my point. I thank you for that.

If you feel no guilt when you’re upgraded, have no empathy with the other passengers suffering behind the drawn curtain, I’m not sure if I can do anything for you. Helping passengers find their conscience is way above my pay grade.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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