The New Airline Caste System

Interestingly, the new airline-fee generation may actually be leveling the caste playing field, because it allows you to leap in and out of your place at will, depending on the perks or special services you want to pay for.

Southwest Airlines Priorty Boarding

Like my friend who became Queen for a Day on one low-cost carrier: "I was never a big fan of Southwest; I like assigned seats," she told me recently. "But there I was, on one of their flights to Indy, sitting in first class and loving it."

Wait a minute. Did the great "democracy of the air" make a sudden policy change I never heard of, and sneak in some wide, ultra-comfy seats at the front of the plane?

No. Southwest still has first-come-first-served seating, but it also has its own relatively new "go to the head of the line" fee. Pay 10 bucks, as my friend did, and board ahead of the herd. Not first, mind you -- the business travelers who pay more still get that privilege, but Southwest's early check-in allowed my friend to snag an aisle seat in the first row of the all-coach airline. Not bad.

Other airlines have similar programs, so we get to fly like elites, and the airlines gets to rake in the gravy, uh, fees.

Yes, they all do it now. Say you're flying United. You can pay for extra legroom (starts at $9), or pay a "cut in line" fee (starts at $19) or the extra perks of Economy Plus (prices vary), but be careful: As some travelers have discovered, on this airline and others, benefits are subject to change without notice.

A flier I know recently discovered (to her great delight) that she could bump up to a much better seat on US Airways for just $5 ("so totally worth it," as she put it), though I should point out, those fees can vary greatly, depending on the routes flown.

It's the new caste system in action, which proves that even on bare-bones, no-frills carriers, money talks. Get used to it.

And maybe you, too, will soon be strutting onto your plane, doing the new "perp walk," as the rest of us look on with envy.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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