You’re not so special! The hidden messages of the airline industry

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By Christopher Elliott

Sometimes, airlines reveal their true feelings about you with a simple word or phrase.

I came to this realization as I squeezed into my ridiculously small economy class seat in a recent Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Paris. No sooner did we take off than the passenger in front of me leaned all the way back, cutting off the circulation to my long legs.

“Hmm,” I winced to myself. “Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in one of those Economy Comfort seats?” You know, the ones that offer about the same amount of legroom as the coach seats back in 1969, the year I started flying.

Then it hit me

By calling the seats with a reasonable and humane amount of legroom Economy Comfort, isn’t Delta admitting that its regular economy-class seats are uncomfortable?

I had eight hours to ponder that question.

I flipped through Delta’s inflight magazine, which was filled with uncritical reporting about the travel industry. One ad reminded me that I could qualify for Sky Priority benefits if I became an elite-level customer, which meant spending every travel dollar on overpriced Delta tickets.

Sky Priority, it noted, is “designed to improve your travel experience at every step. Now instead of waiting, you’ll always go first — whether it’s through the airport, onto the plane or exiting baggage claim.” (Related: I never got a receipt for my tour. Can Sunwing keep my $536?)

Really? To my non-elite eyes, this makes it look as if the air travel experience, particularly on Delta, is somehow lacking. It’s fraught with long waits to get through the airport, onto the plane or to collect my baggage.

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Of course, Delta sees this differently. It would say that it’s taking a good experience and making it better for those willing to pay a little extra — or a lot extra. But its marketers are oblivious to the fact that they’re sending a clear signal to the rest of us:

Delta’s economy class seats are uncomfortable.

You are not a priority.

You’re unimportant – unless you’re elite

Here’s where more egalitarian airlines like Southwest, and until recently JetBlue, had an edge. It wasn’t necessarily that their service was any better. In fact, I’d take a lie-flat business class seat on an international Delta flight over the best Southwest seat any day of the week. Who wouldn’t? (Read here about Delta’s Economy Confort that fell short, now they want a refund.)

It is the naming conventions, the taxonomy of air travel, that set these airlines apart — and also, our expectations. JetBlue says it will “inspire humanity” and when it gives you a premium seat, it offers “even more space.” There’s a subtle, but important, difference. Every seat on JetBlue is good, but if you want even more room, there you go.

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JetBlue’s lie-flat seats were an unfortunate step away from its culture of egalitarianism. It looks more like the other airlines than ever.

It’s hard to get any more customer-focused than Southwest, which advertises “wallet-friendly” fares and notes that every day is customer appreciation day. That kind of inclusive language is enough to make anyone forget about the privileged few who got ahead of you in line with the “A” boarding groups or who didn’t have to pay for their Wi-Fi. (Related: Level Airlines promised to cover her expenses after an emergency landing. Then it stalled.)

Not to pick on Delta, even though it deserves it. After all, United refers to its elites as Premieres — if you’re not one, you come second. American has its clunkily-named “AAdvantage” program. If you don’t belong, you’re presumably disadvantaged. (Here’s our guide to booking an airline ticket.)

I’m not sure if I want this to change. I think legacy airlines that purvey these addictive, customer-hostile loyalty programs are revealing their true feelings for us with their naming conventions.

All you have to do is pay attention.

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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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