In few other affairs is your life-status so publicly displayed than during the airline boarding process. This is by design. Airlines revel in publicly grading you by airport megaphone. It’s their preferred grandstand to reward or demean customers based on how much you spend with them.
The stress of traveling and the battle cry for the arm rest and window shade begin long before you’re seated. It starts with trying to determine what time to leave for the airport, followed by the wildly inconsistent process of “security” screening. Next is procuring one’s $9 bottle of municipal water to allay the low humidity, desiccating journey. Finally, you face the fire-sale of airline boarding.
All airlines all do the same thing – move people from one place to another via the troposphere. The way in which they begin their process, however, can greatly vary and is most evident in the boarding process.
As soon as the gate attendant blows into a hot mic, people leap to their feet into pole position, blocking all pathways to the jetway ready to blitz the ticket scanner.
There are notable reasons we act like Billy goats during the boarding process, to include the following:
- Mob Mentality. Research scientists have found that the actions of as few as five people can influence a crowd of 100 to follow suit. Trust your inner oracle and initiate ‘active observer’ status.
- Competition. We want to be first on and the first off the plane. It often becomes every passenger for him/herself, as if airports and planes are netherworlds where common sense and courtesies don’t apply.
- Impatience. People crowd the gate under the illusion of getting to their destination faster. The plane doesn’t leave until everyone is on-board. A superior use of time is to find nearby space and do some birthing squats and leg stretches to avoid the onset of DVT.
- Baggage fees. Ever since the airlines started charging for checked baggage, the boarding process has been more like a Walmart Black Friday than a process conducted by grownups. Planes almost always have enough overhead bin space for every passenger. In fact, newer planes have increased bin space. But they still don’t want you using it.
The airlines have mastered the manipulative art of anxiety seed-planting so you’ll pay a little more to check your bag or opt for earlier boarding. They depend on such fees to remain profitable. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s annual airline baggage fee report found that domestic carriers collected nearly $5 billion in baggage fees in 2018, up from $4.5 billion in 2017 and $1.1 billion a decade ago. They’ll do whatever it takes to scare you into dropping coin.
When you pay that $30 to check a bag or $25 to move up a boarding group, the fees go straight to the airline’s profit margin. While base ticket prices cover only operating costs (i.e., fuel, salaries, maintenance, etc. After making you feel lucky to get on their plane at all, airlines will ease your angst by selling an Economy ticket holder Priority Boarding for $15 and up. How selfless.
To maximize profits, airlines create the illusion of grossly limited bin space, while continuing to splice boarding groups into thinner stratifications. You board according to your value to the airline, with the last group boarding at a bargain price in exchange for a willingness to be degraded.
You must only consider the 10 tiers of the Delta Airlines boarding process as a depiction of the psychological game you’ve entered:
Reverence to this esteemed group for their sacrifices – whether in battle with enemies overseas, with unruly toddlers on the home front, or because they’ve been injured or debilitated along life’s way. No one can hate on a pre-boarder. Unless, they’re faking it to avoid the stigma of #9 below.
2. Delta One®
Like most of the groups in this boarding sequence, it’s unclear what these terms even mean – but, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. Delta One® is the Illuminati of boarding groups. The only way into this stratum is to kill and assume the traveling victim’s identity.
3 & 4. First Class – OR – Delta Premium Select
Ah, a group where you may know someone who knows someone. It’s fancy like the others. But, it’s an extravagance that only the 1% or some lucky voyager of an oversold flight can aspire to.
5. Delta Comfort+®
It’s true, the birthright of comfort has been filched from us and monetized. “If you want to travel humanely, you’re going to pay.” Sincerely, The Airlines.
6. Sky Priority®
This subset of marquee member designees is a “who’s who” cadre of worldly movers and shakers. If you can’t be one, kindly step aside so they can crush your toes with their carry-on and confidence. If you’re lucky, they’ll apologize like you’re some sort of equal.
7. Main Cabin 1
A bougie collection of explorers who like sitting on the plane longer than others, and later scorn you for kindly asking if that window seat in their row is available, as if you’ve broken into their home to sit on their lap in a recliner. They’re the last lot of semi-elites before the fuselage filler-fruit of overhead bin peckers come nipping at their totes.
8. Main Cabin 2
The fodder of nameless, faceless passengers now trudge toward lap tray nirvana. These are hapless folk who roll onto the jet bridge like the end credits of a sad movie. Airline personnel avoid making eye contact as if they know you barely chipped-in for gas.
9. Main Cabin 3
This is Delta crypto-code for “you’ll be punished for your frugality once the cabin door closes.” Maybe sooner.
10. Basic Economy
These are my people – the pauper class. You can identify us by the panicked craning of necks toward airport windows to see if the plane is still there. We our further flagged to all by repeated announcements of “Lastly, BASIC ECONOMY and anyone without status or esteem may board.” The terminal feels empty. Our muted shame is palpable.
In order to increase your anxiety and subtly pressure you to pay for priority, the airlines apply these divisions while trading longer boarding times for additional revenue. United boards in six groups, while American and Delta each have 10.
However, because they’ve created so many layers, many early boarding groups are sparsely populated. In the seeming cataclysmic event no bin space is available, your bag will be gate-checked for free, and will likely appear before you do at the other end of the destination airport.
I’m a bag-checker. I like to travel nimble at the risk of landing in Bismarck while my bag lands in Biscayne. It has yet to happen, and I stride onto every flight with only a backpack of books, snacks, Sani-wipes, and the accoutrements to enhance an aerial penance. Truth is, I’ve flown Basic Economy on Delta countless times, on fully-booked flights, and sometimes with a carry-on. I had no issues. The illusion of a gate bag-check is worse than the reality, even if your bag ends-up in a bin rows behind you.
In the future, airlines could be under any array of boarding procedures – to include removing the seats altogether and tethering each passenger to a standing pole.
Airlines have razor thin margins, and they’re crafty at separating us from our money. Which is why they invented turbulence and baggage fees. One thing’s for sure: They will remain profitable, and we will remain uncomfortable.
Now, enjoy THIS parody of the aforementioned.