It was the Alaska Airlines boarding gate sign directing “Elite” passengers to head toward the red carpet that got to me.
I made my way to the front of the line. I passed young parents trying to maneuver a stroller while prying off a toddler who attached himself to a parental leg like a barnacle on a pier.
I walked around older people whose faces seemed to show the wear of every airport delay they’d ever endured. I breezed past the hipsters with earbuds and phones firmly in position; they looked up just often enough to let me know they’d noticed who got on first.
The first time I had a pang of Airport Elitist Guilt (AEG) was when I asked a woman standing near the priority boarding area if she was in line. She seemed surprised that I asked. “Oh, no,” she quickly responded. “I’m no one special.”
At first I thought she was joking, but then I wondered, What if she wasn’t? What if she truly felt “less than” as a result of certain groups of people being allowed on the airplane first?
What if the comfort game of airline-reward programs was less about rewarding customers and more about maintaining classism? What’s my part in this, and what am I willing to do about it?
Are pre-check lines the first rung of the selective privilege cycle? It wouldn’t be hard to feel comfort-envy from a seemingly endless, snaking line while watching carefree elites stroll casually to the security booth. No worries about taking shoes off for these folks, they’re elite.
Is there more to it than just a business strategy to build customer loyalty? I sometimes feel like it is a reflection of our divided country where the haves and have-nots are reminded on a daily basis about all the ways status defines us.
In our current political climate, the word “elite” has taken on a whole new pejorative spin; I’m thinking it’s time the airlines change their language.
Couldn’t the airlines just replace the “Elite” sign with something more honest?
“This Line is for Hard-Working People, Just Like All of You in This Room, Who for Whatever Reason, Have Flown Very Frequently and We’d Like to Have Them Board First as an Expression of Our Gratitude Since Clearly We’re Making a Ton of Money Off Them, Not That We’re Not Making Money Off You, But Someone Has to Sit at the Front of the Plane.”
I think about it every time I take a flight. I’ve considered stepping over to the microphone and making a public announcement at the gate. “I’m only in this ‘elite’ line because my husband racks up the reward miles with work travel. I am only an elite by marriage.”
I’ve also thought about not playing the game and just getting in the same line everyone else does.
My big dilemma is that I’m not really excited about giving up perks based on principle right now.
I’ve done my share of long lines both in security and in boarding, and I’ve done the airline elite status thing. Even though I still get there at the same time, having little breaks from the stress of travel makes a big difference.
While I may feel more relaxed, less tired or just less pushed and shoved, on some level, I feel a certain discomfort with comfort.
My early roots of growing up poor have developed a strong system of values about equity, class and fairness.
And even though I walk on that red carpet when I hear, “We’d like to invite our Elite and MVP Gold members to board early,” I take a moment of gratitude, and then remind myself, “I’m no one special.”
Ted Broussard is retired after working as a counselor and administrator in community and technical colleges. A downtown Tacoma resident, he is one of six reader columnists writing for this page. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org