The older I get, the more I get the “young elite” treatment

Back when I first started mileage running at the age of 14, I remember I would always dress up to fly. It was a combination of a couple of factors. For one, flying was “special” to me. More importantly, though, as a young elite (at the time a 14 year old 1K), I wanted to avoid being discriminated against due to my age as much as possible. I had read a countless number of times on FlyerTalk about how poorly young elites are treated, and most of the people weren’t even “young” in my book (they were often 30+). So I would wear khakis, loafers, and usually a sports coat. And you know what? In seven years of being a top tier elite, I could count on a single hand the number of times I was discriminated against for being young.

Oddly, though, the trend has been reversed for me, that the older I get the more I get the “young elite” treatment. The problem is, I just can’t bring myself to actually dress up when I fly anymore. I knew it got bad when I left my mom’s house this morning to head to the airport and she said “where do you think you’re going dressed like that?” as if I was some 14 year old girl sneaking out at 11PM with a short skirt.

And I guess I should thank her, because perhaps a t-shit and sweats isn’t the most appropriate way to fly for 20 hours straight (though it certainly is the most comfortable, and makes for the most enjoyable full body pat down… or not). She convinced me to “dress up,” which nowadays means a t-shirt and shorts. Ah, the joys of being self-employed and working from home.

So I’m sorry for taking the “class” out of “first class,” but then again, there wasn’t all that much to begin with.

But the lesson here is simple. I actually do think people are discriminated against based on age when flying – but typically only when they don’t dress up at all.

I flew American from Chicago to Tampa a week ago, and I was queuing in the first class check-in line. American lets Executive Platinum members check in with international first class, so I got in the line, though I was the only one there. I always wait for the agent to gesture for me to come over, though despite her looking at me, I was ignored. After about a minute I said “are you available to help?” She snapped back “yes, but this is for first class and Executive Platinum members only; main cabin check-in is over there.” As soon as she saw I was in fact an Executive Platinum member she couldn’t have been nicer – “oh Mr. Lucky, we have upgraded you to first class and they’ll be serving dinner on your flight this evening, so I hope you enjoy.”

So that’s my conclusion. If you’re young and dressed business-like, I doubt you get discriminated against. If you’re young and dress like a slob (like me in the meantime), you’re in for a ride.

I’m a mess…

Filed Under: Travel
  1. Oh I am bad – Ive rocked flip-flops and cargo shorts in First Class! Often times I am next to a business traveler that could be my father. Lord only knows what they think of me!

  2. That’s one reason I love the SF bay area – the 25 year old in jeans and a T very well could be a millionaire. I’ve never had any issue at SFO with being young and elite.

    I went to the Ferrari dealership a few months back because I was driving by anyway – the salesman was nice to me even after I said I was just there to drool & dream. He said “You may not be able to afford one today, but around here it could be tomorrow.”

  3. Haha, I don’t really dress up much, I just wear what is comfortable… Usually, wool sweater of some sort with jeans and leather loafers…

    One time in LAX I was #1 on the upgrade list on CO and there was only one F seat left. Five minutes before boarding, I inquired the gate agent about the upgrade she immediately told me that first was full. I double checked the CO APP and it still showed 1 empty F seat and when I showed that to her she said that’s right. Then I asked, so the upgrade? She shook her head and made a gesture that there is some one much higher on the upgrade list than I am. I retorted, so did I fall down from #1 to #2, the agent went silent with confusion then took my BP and let an uneasy smile while telling her colleagues that this is the “Platinum” on the top of the list.

    Well, agents need to stop being so judgmental and judging customers by the cover. In your case, the agent should have called you over and if you were indeed not an EXP or in F then redirect you to the main cabin queue rather than inappropriately ignoring you assuming you are one of those impatient people lining up where they don’t belong…

  4. As a young elite myself (only 23) on Delta I’ve found that I rarely run into cases of being “discriminated” against because of my age. Sometimes I’m told that I’m “too young to be a Medallion”, but never in a bad way. Along with that I’ve never been ignored in the Sky Priority lanes or onboard and I usually fly in shorts/t-shirt even when flying for work (unless I’m going straight to/from the office, which is rare).

  5. I always wear business casual clothing at a minimum, and I only wear shorts if I go to the health club. Regardless, one should still receive good service whether one’s appearance is young, middle age, or older.

    For an interesting experiment, try dressing up in a suit(or dress coat) and tie and see what type of service you receive. I have experienced some excellent service both from the ground staff and in the air from flight attendants and pursers when traveling dressed in a suit and tie. And it does feel good to be dressed posh. Wishing you good and happy travels.

  6. Tell me about it! I’m 19 (I won’t hit EXP for another two weeks…) and get this crap all the time. Once at check in I got “you can’t credit to your father’s AAdvantage account” upon handing over my card. I didn’t even know what to say to that and just stood there with my mouth open for a second before responding “this is my card, my father is named Jim.”

    I wear nice clothing about half the time I’m in F, but when I don’t I look forward to the smug smile that sometimes awaits me as I walk up to the F lounge of the day, BP in hand. (I should note that the AAngels, at least, are always gracious once I hand over my credentials)

  7. Similar things happen to me all the time. Once I was even turned away from the BA Lounge in JFK because I was “inappropriately dressed” sorry for dressing comfy for a long journey to HKG!

  8. I’ve been Premier Exec since I was 17, ever since then I put on a nice shirt and some slacks. I’ve been to Australia and Singapore in that attire, and I find it to be quite comfortable. I guess I wouldn’t know what it is like to be treated like I don’t belong in the United First, United Business, or *G line, because I always look like a champ when I travel.

  9. I think in most of this country, a lot of places/ppl nowadays are fairly tolerant of casual dress, but there’s rare situations when being dressed up makes a difference. In other countries, particularly Asia, you find that being dressed up will make much more of a difference in how people look at/treat you.

  10. At 16 and Super Elite at AC (equivalent of 1K). Also have DL Gold and UA 1P. Yes, lots of travel. Usually wear jeans and a black shirt/t-shirt. Sometimes still get the young treatment, especially when I’m doing trip reports (ie taking pictures).

  11. It’s funny. On my most recent trip I observed a difference between the treatment I received from US airline staff and non-US staff.

    Not a single NZ or AC staff member questioned my right to be in the priority lane or the Biz class checkin. On the other hand, the UA ground staff at PDX gave me a hard time and made it so difficult I ultimately ended up using the Y class kiosks to avoid problems.

  12. Got UA status when I turned 17, and have had it ever since. The only time I had a GA question me was boarding ORD-MCI. I handed her my 1K/F BP, and she said “nice to see that your dad let’s you use his 1K number, but it’s not against allowed.. You could get in trouble”. My Dad is 1P, fwiw.. My mouth was so open, and all I could say was “pffft”.. :rolleyes:

    That’s been the only time I’ve experience something like that. These days, I get “You’re telling me that you’re 1K and 21? Holy shit!” :p

  13. I won a pair of Qantas business class PJs on the Star Mega Do and I was tempted to wear them off the plane I’m Denver in honor of you 🙂

    See you on the Oneworld Mega Do?

  14. I guess I don’t think it’s very hard to throw a casual polo shirt on…still very comfortable, but 99% of the time would eliminate situations like this.

  15. So, when you STARTED at 14, surely you couldn’t have STARTED as a 1K, or could that somehow have been granted at launch? So, assuming a ground zero start you must have been maybe sporting the sportcoat without having status for the first 100k?

    When I started really trying to accrue I was 1P on UA (although we really called it premex) I was always pretty well dressed but that was more habit than effort. I don’t think there was any discrimination at the time or unrealistic expectation on the part of the ground staff or inflight crews. I can’t really remember but I don’t think we had the red carpet (on UA at least) honestly, I can’t even recall what the boarding process was like. Later, being early 20’s and flying paid int’l C all around on LH, UA, AF, KLM, I can’t recall anyone having any other expectation or response based on age. I was just happy for the experience and EASE of it all. Honestly, I can’t really say ever that I walked up to a counter and was turned away or looked down on.

    I THINK what is happening and HAS been happening for about the last 10-12 years is the entire SYSTEM and PROCESS has changed. The ground staff (many but certainly not all) are just not happy, don’t like the hassle of everyone coming up and wanting to upgrade, “where am I on the list”, etc., and it works better for them just to put on a frown or scowl which has the effect of turning many would be upgrade wannabes away. Again, SOME not ALL staff.

    And as others have said above, flying locals like IAD, SFO, BOS, LAX, that flip flop wearing, t-shirt, jeans and HOODIE sporting yougish looking flyer could well be an internet millionaire, screen writer, bio-tech savant, MIT quant expert, hedge fund analyst, or song of millionaire. As a society we’ve learned that we cannot judge by the nature of ones appearance in that way one could have historically.

  16. The “dress up to fly first” crowd are hysterical. You can always tell the non-revs and the noobs in international first because they’re dressed up while everybody else is in short/pyjamas. Don’t get me wrong…fine, maybe even preferable, to look decent getting on and off the plane. But once on…

  17. Coins, Even when I’ve worn shorts and a t-shirt in the heat of summer (with a confirmed First seat on UA), nobody ever gives me a hard time. Maybe that’s because I’m old enough to be your father. Hmmm. I’m old enough to be everyones father.

    My advice to the ‘kids’ reading, hold your ground. Be polite. You can have a lot of fun telling the agent that ‘I think you’re mistaken’. No need to rub it in, especially when you’re right. You win. Remember to take a picture of their face. I’d like to see it. Priceless.

  18. Perhaps its a function of my Hawaii environment, but I usually wear respectable shorts and a nice t-shirt when I travel because I find the cabins to be a bit stuffy and the loose clothing is just more comfortable.

    No flip-flops though. I still wear shoes and socks for the benefit of my fellow passengers.

  19. I know how you feel Lucky. I’m 21 and a 1P on UA. A few weeks ago, I was flying out of DFW to IAD, I was at the check-in counter waiting for the agent to help me check-in, since my BP and my flights were messed up. I was standing in the, whatever they call it now since the merger, line for a solid 10 minutes and there was a line for main cabin, and about 5 agents working. Then one of the agents looked at me and said in a rude voice, “Sir, that’s for our elite flyers.” I stood there for a moment, and looked at her and replied, “Well, I happen to be an elite flyer. But seeing as you’re no help, I’ll just talk to your supervisor.” Within a few moments, I was helped.

  20. I’m 29, so certainly not too young to be an elite, even if I’ve only had status for about a year. I did, however, have a TA at TLV not seem to want to deal with me. After being grilled by Israeli security (this is what happens when trying to check in at TLV after having been to RUH the week before), I wanted to use the SkyTeam Elite+ desk with AZ and get to the lounge as quickly as possible. I was wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and had large backpack on. I think the backpack is probably what caused the TA to think I was in the wrong queue and ask if I was in business class (with a healthy dose of attitude). I said I was ST E+, and then she was OK with me coming up to check in. I’d bet if I had a rollerbag and a laptop she wouldn’t have batted an eye. I find a big backpack is a great thing for long weekend trips, as I hate dragging a suitcase around with me all day if I’m sight seeing and then taking a late flight home.

  21. Although I live my life in flip flops and shorts, To fly, my minimum wardrobe is jeans or khakis, collared or buttoned shirt and closed toe shoes. I think I have only even worn shorts to fly inter-island in Hawaii a couple of times but any flight longer than 1/2 hour gets the above.

  22. I have a question? What is the minimum age to enroll in a frequent flyer program? I have a 1,5 year-old son and I am wondering when to enroll him in the AAdvantage program (since we would be very much flying AA or Iberia when we do it)

  23. Very surprising to see the number of people here saying they won’t wear flip flops on a plane. Flip flops are about the only thing I will wear in flight…I can’t count the number of times that I’m still wearing a suit at the end of the week, but the instant I get on that rental car shuttle, those flip flops are coming on, even when the rest of the suit stays on.

  24. LOL at anyone who cares about what someone else wears or thinks they need to dress up to get respect. Those people need self esteem instead.

    Here is the deal…usually, the business people who are forced to dress up in clown suits are not making the most money, it’s the guys wearing t shirts and shorts (because they can) and who like to be comfortable who are the players.

    Lol at the guy above who only wears shorts to the club…weird.

    If you care what anyone thinks of you wearing shorts and a t shirt, get some confidence. If someone does judge you for dressing comfortable, they are idiots who are probably miserable themselves and have nothing else to do but judge others’ clothes. You want to stay away from those losers anyway so it’s all good.

  25. Of course by now you realize that your age has nothing to do with the treatment, it’s your sloppy dress that earns you “sloppy elite” treatment.

    If you don’t think that what you wear makes a difference, tell me: would you wear a t-shirt and sweatpants if you were invited for dinner with the President? While dining the White House and flying have nothing in common, the point is that dressing appropriately for the environment you’re in is a very important social aspect.

    Wearing a t-shirt and worn jeans is OK in tech heavy Bay Area (I live there), it’s not the norm amongst first class travelers, with the few slobs sticking out as mud.

    I know. I had a consulting job at 21 that flew me first class and I made top-tier elite in 9 months. I was never discriminated against, but always wore a suit during the week and dressed business casual on personal flights. I once did have an FA that mothered me, but she would have done the same had I not been an elite!

  26. The image you convey with your appearance usually sets the tone for how strangers interact with you for the first time. If you don’t care about their reactions, dress as you will. If you want a positive first impression, then dress the part.

    Holds true for everything in life, not just airlines.

  27. I just had a conversation with an SFO President’s Club agent (who now works at the RCC) and she told me she has a “regular” who is a 19 year old paid PC member who happens to be an internet millionaire. He is a CO Presidential Plat (like UA GS, in fact now one in the same.) She always treats him well and reminds him that he cannot have alcohol and reminds the bartender to enforce that.

    recently while going through IAH, this guy was denied entry to the PC there on account of his age – even thought he is a paid member and the minimum membership age is 18. Great way to piss off a very high revenue customer.

    I was also kicked out of the UA IFL at LAX while travelling with a younger friend of mine. We both had international first class * alliance boarding passes for a flight leaving that same airport that same day. I kind of think she was discriminating based on age – as I’m often assumed to be much younger when travelling with this friend who is 22. The agent claimed that people with first class tickets on singapore airlines from LAX-NRT who just got off a UA flight and are on a UA issued ticket cannot use the UA IFL.

  28. Lots of travel said:
    “Wearing a t-shirt and worn jeans is OK in tech heavy Bay Area (I live there), it’s not the norm amongst first class travelers, with the few slobs sticking out as mud.”

    Wearing a t-shirt and jeans is great anywhere, except church. I actually feel bad for the suits who have to wear their clown suits on airplanes because it’s definitely not the comfortable way to travel. They either have to wear them for work or they are trying to impress people they don’t know which shows me they have a major lack of self esteem. Either way, I always feel bad for them.

  29. I have found that much much worse than ageism or clothing-ism in the elite line is baby-ism.

    I gave birth to my son in April and have flown with him on 7 trips, which amounts to 21 flights. In fact, Baby should qualify 1P this year, by the time he’s 8 months old. You wouldn’t believe the effort some people go to to DIVE in front of me in the red carpet lane, as if a woman with a stroller couldn’t possibly be in the right place when 1K boarding is called. I always laugh when Baby and I stop at first class and watch them continue on into coach.

    Seriously, why is a chick with a baby automatically not a frequent traveler?

    And don’t get me started about the discrimination from the TSA, even though I’m fast and efficient enough to jump 3 people in the security line when I’m by myself and handling a stroller, car seat, baby, and diaper bag…

  30. I have told this story on FT a few times, but it is a perfect “never judge a book by its cover” situation: On a UA ORD-SEA flight in F, my seatmate was a very large guy wearing an old Harley-Davidson t-shirt (stretched over a fairly substantial beer gut), shorts, tennis shoes, and black socks.
    Turns out he worked for General Electric doing maintenance and repair for the blades of power stations. In other words, this guy literally keeps the lights on in the U.S. He was required to be ready to fly at a moment’s notice and was not allowed to ever be more than 2 hours away from a major airport. He always flew paid F, per company policy.

    I was wearing a suit and tie and was on a <$300 T fare with an upgrade using 500 milers. His fare probably cost AT LEAST 4 times mine.

    So, really, what DOES an F customer look like?

    By the way, he was one of the nicest guys I've ever sat next to in F.

  31. Being only 20, I tend to dress more “casual”. Note that that does not mean sloppy at all. And I must say, I have never noticed discrimination in front cabin or in elite lines. Either I play the part of a elite traveler well or they are out to get you…

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