Why do airline employees discriminate?

I think I’ll never understand why anyone in a customer service field would ever discriminate, but I’ll try to keep it more specific to the airline industry. I should preface this by saying that if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels it’s that profiling people at airports/on planes is almost impossible, at least in terms of the “first class” vs. “riff raff” way. Some people are under the (idiotic) assumption that those that wear suits are flying first, and that those wearing hawaiian shirts are flying coach. In my experience more often than not it’s the exact opposite, but of course that’s from actual observation and not profiling.

 So on the point of this. While I’m probably one of United’s most frequent flyers out of TPA, I really don’t know the staff by name for two reasons:

1) I have no need to interact with them, and therefore always check-in online, so my only interaction with them is when they scan my boarding pass. Furthermore I’ve never had a cancellation, delay, etc, so starting any conversation would just be odd.

2) I fly out at 6AM and I’m usually not too talkative at that time.

 So anyway, the one time I did need an agent in TPA (probably a year ago) I went to the check-in counter. As I got into the Premier line the agent said “wrong line, buddy.” Suffice it to say I wasn’t too happy about that.

So anyway, fast forward to yesterday. I was going to the airport to ticket my trip to Hawaii (which I wrote about below) using a $300 certificate, and had just come from class. I was wearing a sweatshirt and shorts (hey, I’m a Floridian) and was soaking wet cause it was pouring outside. Ted doesn’t have a huge presence in TPA, so the check-in line has a single head, and Premier passengers queue a little bit to the left while everyone else goes straight. I’m at the entrance to the line and turn left and the line organizing agent or whatever you want to call her immediately stops me and asks “where are you flying to?” I explained I wanted to ticket an itinerary, and she directed me to the general check-in. I said “Why that line and not this one?” while pointing to the Premier line, instead of just saying I’m a 1K since I wanted to be subtle about it and see how far she would take it. At this point I guess she assumed I was just some dumb college student and she didn’t want to explain to me that the line I was in was for “special people,” so she just says “This line is better, they can help you here.” Again, wanting to be subtle and seeing where it would take me, I again said “But why not this line?” and she repeated what she said before. At this point I was done with this little game of her’s and asked why a 1K couldn’t use the Premier line. Her jaw dropped and she said “oh, go right ahead,” of course being too proud to apologize.

This just really ticks me off badly. While she wasn’t totally rude about it, she was just moronic for assuming that I wasn’t elite because of my age, and beyond that for not asking whether or not I’m elite since I walked into the Premier line with conviction and not a confused look on my face.

The lady that finally helped me at the counter was awesome. After I gave her my confirmation number she said “Wait a second, are you [Mr. Lucky]?” I said “yep,” and she immediately asked if I was sure, to which I responded indeed. She goes “Wow, you look so young, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as young as you with so many miles.” She called over her colleague to show her my account since she was apparently so shocked, which I actually found amusing. While I’m not a huge fan of this whole “wow” thing that some agents do, I don’t have a problem with it if it’s in a playful way. She ended up having to call the support desk and was on hold for over 20 minutes, during which time we talked. She told me about her past, I told her about mine, and she recommended a book to me which she thought I’d like. She told me to call her when I read it, although my plan is to just drop by the ticket counter on my next mileage run to say hi to her and show her my progress on the book. It was definitely a pleasant experience once I got to the ticket counter, and I was happy to have my itinerary ticketed. I think I finally made a friend at my home airport, something I’m surprised took so long considering the frequency with which I fly outta there.

Filed Under: Misc.
  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Jason Rakowski

  2. It wouldn’t have hurt for you to be less subtle about your status. The line checker is not a mind reader and was playing the (very good) odds by making the assumptions that she did.

  3. Well that was the reason I did it, I wanted to see what the agent would end up saying, hoping it wouldn’t be like last time with “wrong line buddy.” I really think it’s incredibly stupid for an agent to play the odds and assume what she did. Why not just ask if I have status?

    It was more of an experiment on my end, which is why I did it in a roundabout way.

  4. Removing the line checkers completely and instead (consistently) asking for the Premier card when performing the transaction would probably be my preferred way. Just assume that most people play fair and line up correctly. Those who don’t should be send back to the end of their appropriate line once they get to the counter of the inappropriate one, which will then teach them a lesson for the next time.

    Of course, this being United, consistency is a difficult thing to ask for.

    By the way, if I *had* to bet, I would generally place the suit passenger in the premium cabin and the hawaii/shorts guy into coach. While there certainly are “poorly” dressed elites/premium pax (including yours truly… never in a suit), I do thing business travelers are generally more likely to fly C/F than leisure travelers.

  5. Yeah, I agree with the first part, would probably be the best to just remove them, but at the same time we know how confused people are (or pretend to be), and it would lead to a lot of missed flights or gaming of the system if they didn’t check.
    As for the second part, I totally agree, but that’s making a big assumption. I think that those in a hawaiian shirt are often traveling from business. In general not too many companies pay for first domestically, so it’s all about upgrades (of course there are exceptions, but I’m talking in general). As a result it mainly comes down to frequency, and that leaves a lot of upgrades for consulstants and the like, those that travel a lot, and often less for those that might buy high fares and not travel qiute enough for status (which IME is often what “the suits” are). Consultants often work till Thursday and on only fly home on Friday, so they can where whatever the heck they want.
    Just a thought…

  6. Glad to see other people doing this too. Im only 2P this year, but ALWAYS get the “wrong line” bs from passengers, and occasionally staff when in the premier line. Sometimes I will go that route, but generally its just too annoying to play that game

  7. I agree. The assumptions are not appropriate. If they have doubts, they should simply ask if you are an elite member. If the answer is, “no” or “huh?”, then “wrong line, buddy” is okay. 😀 Just kidding.

    As for categorizing C or F pax? Couldn’t tell ya. I didn’t realize till now, after reading this, what people wear isn’t something I focus on… unless it’s something blatantly hideous.

  8. > unless it’s something blatantly hideous.

    Like that guy in swim shorts, polo shirt, and flip flops in C on a UA 747 from FRA to SFO today??

  9. I had a chip on my shoulder when I was asked if I was “Premier” out of MSP. (I’M 1K on United ) until my husband in his finest business suit was asked the same thing.( also 1K) on United) I felt discriminated against until that point. Now I see that the lines are monitored and I appreciate it.

  10. Hey Lucky, how about you do some investigative journalism? Pull a Barbara Ehrenreich. On an upcoming trip, don’t put in any upgrades, and remove your MP number from the itinerary. Dress like a typical college student and see how you’re treated. Or, put in the upgrades and have them clear as a 1K, then remove your MP number.

  11. Worked for an airline that flew into Big Sky Montana, lots of Hollywood types.

    Had a mechanical cancel, the gate agent was doing her best to help each passenger one at a time, three people back in line one of those “special” people, tired of waiting with the “riff-raff” spoke out, quite loudly “Miss I need to be helped, don’t you know who I am?”

    To which the agent replyed “yes ma’am I do, you are number three in line”.

    I find it just as arrogant to think that premier status makes you a celebrity that allows you to expect special service just for showing up.

    Look like you belong, act like you belong, treat the agents with respect, cut the profiling crap.

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