The New Airline Caste System

Passengers are now paying to get to the head of the line and board first.

March 30, 2010, 8:07 AM

May 12, 2010 — -- Oh, how the mighty have fallen on their faces. I'm talking about all those so-called financial wizards of recent years taking that inglorious stroll to the pokey -- the "perp walk" to perdition, if you will. And if you had a wry smile of Schadenfreude on your face as you watched this on TV, you are forgiven.

But hold on: Today, there's a new version of the perp walk, one that has nothing to do with Ponzi schemes or other financial misdeeds: It's a walk that innocent business travelers take every day at airports around the country.

You know what I'm talking about: The new parade of "elite" passengers who barge past the throngs of lowly coach passengers (those in zones 2 through 6), waving their specially marked boarding passes as if they were VIP credentials.

Nothing criminal about what they're doing, but they do give off the same whiff of entitlement as the original perp walkers as the rest of us can only sit on the sidelines and seethe.

Call it the new airline caste system.

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Actually, fliers have always been a part of an air travel caste system, ever since the first commercial flight took off from St. Petersburg to Tampa back in 1914. Of course, it was a single caste -- of rich people -- but after all, that first flight cost $175 roundtrip, or $3,700 in today's money (which is especially steep when you consider the flight lasted only 23-minutes).

But eventually things got a bit more democratic, what with the introduction of first, business and economy classes.

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Coach vs. First Class Passengers

We in coach may envy those "elites" (while occasionally indulging ourselves, thanks to our companies or our frequent flier miles picking up the tab), but most of us are happy to let others take the cushier seats, finer meals and all the rest because who wants to pay the insane prices of first class?

So all was civil and there was peace on the planes, until, that is, the dreaded first checked-bag fee reared its ugly and expensive head.

This one fee alone has sent more passengers scurrying to their computers at T-minus 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds before departure time, simply to be in the "economy elite," those who get to board first (after the true "elites").

You know why: It's the only way to get a slice of that coveted overhead bin space for the carry-on bags we now tote to avoid that $25 checked-bag fee (hey, you've done it, and so have I).

So has my 79-year-old father-in-law. Or rather, he has me! Good old Rick. Yes, his main reason for flying in a handful of times a year is to see his beloved granddaughter, but he also knows that when he gets here, all he has to do is hand me his ticket, and his favorite son-in-law (who happens to be handy with a computer) will go online at just the right moment to ensure he gets the earliest possible boarding.

But I'm on to his game, and since I don't want to sit in front of the computer anymore than he does, I've recently been paying the cut-in-line fee for his flights. The result: For less than an Andrew Jackson each way, I no longer have to worry about timing his check-in, and I remain the son-in-law of his dreams.

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,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.