Twenty-five years ago, I flew into Mumbai (then Bombay) and headed straight to the train station to buy a ticket to Delhi. Forearmed with the knowledge that it was a 30-hour trip and that the trains were overcrowded, I asked for a reserved seat.
Upon receiving the ticket, I asked the clerk to show me the seat assignment.
"You'll have to see Mr. Pawar," the clerk said. He directed me to an office where I found a small man sitting behind a large desk.
Mr. Pawar scrutinized my ticket. "Very full train," he said officiously. "Doubtful I can get you a seat."
He began turning pages in an oversized ledger. From where I stood, it looked as if there were many open seats. "What about here? Or there?" I asked, pointing at the pages as he turned them.
He waved my hand aside. After a minute, he asked, "What's your name?" He wrote it in one of the open spaces, filled out a chit with a seat number and handed it to me with a smile. "Would you like to compliment me?" he asked.
I gave him 10 rupees, about a dollar. He looked disappointed but pocketed the money.
I thought about that scene earlier this month as I stared unhappily at a United Airlines kiosk. It had just informed me that I could not get a seat assignment for my daughter, whose flight was leaving in an hour, because seats were still (as they had been from the moment I purchased the ticket 20 days earlier) under "airport control." However, if I paid $44 to upgrade to Economy Plus, she would be given a seat assignment, and all anxiety about getting her aboard a potentially overbooked holiday weekend flight would melt away.
Now, I am not among those who begrudge airlines the right to charge extra for food, pillows and earphones. The way I see it, those items can be carried aboard.
I accept that it's fair that passengers who add weight to planes by checking bags should be expected to pay for that extra weight (though I wish United would stop using the word "choice" to justify it).
And I fully support an airline's right to charge for extra leg room. People with long legs take up a bit more real estate, and real estate has value.
I think reasonable people understand all this because it's very transparent. Transparency leads to understanding.
And as regards United specifically, most flyers realize that the Friendly Skies have been replaced by the Desperate Skies. We know we're not going to get hugs just because we bought a coach ticket.
But must we be squeezed so relentlessly?
Facing the kiosk, I doubted I was the only one who wondered if United was playing a game of nerves with passengers in order to find who was willing to "compliment" the airline in exchange for a guaranteed seat on a plane for which they had already purchased a ticket.
To get some clarity, I later emailed Robin Urbanski Janikowski, a spokeswoman for the airline, asking her to point me to a document that explains United's advance seat assignment policy.
She replied that "no such document exists, as it is all handled via our computer systems. All flights ... have seats that can be booked months, weeks or even days in advance, depending on load factor. ... Yes, some Economy Cabin seats are held for airport control to accommodate guests with special needs. ... The Economy Plus cabin, which is different than Economy, is reserved for guests who have frequent flyer status or who purchase seats or an upgrade in that cabin, which is similar to how the First- and Business-class cabin is handled (i.e., First and Business seats are assigned to those who buy a ticket in that cabin or who have secured an upgrade). If we were to give an Economy-class customer a pre-assigned seat in First, Business or Economy Plus, it would not be fair to the guest who actually paid (or earned) that seat in the upgraded cabin."
It seems misleading to me to suggest that Economy Plus is a "cabin" in the same sense that Business or First is. Most obviously, it isn't set off physically in the manner those cabins are, but more importantly, unlike those cabins, seats are sold into it in advance, at Economy Cabin fares. Does that mean that passengers who are sold seats into this hybrid premium cabin risk being bumped if the cabin fills with passengers who "earned" or paid to sit there, right up to the last minute? (My daughter, by the way, was eventually seated in Economy Plus, at no extra cost.)
By pretending that Economy Plus is simply a fourth cabin, as distinct as Business or First, United muddies the issue rather than clarifies it. By refusing to state policies that govern advanced seating, there is no transparency.
And by claiming that this is a question of "fairness" rather than revenue enhancement, United damages its credibility. I once arrived at O'Hare and was offered a seat on an earlier United flight for a $25 fee (for Economy, not Economy Plus). I did it, happily. But in the gate area, I met a man who was ticketed on that same flight but who had not yet been issued a seat assignment -- who had, in fact, been told that the flight might be overbooked and to sit down and wait. That did not strike me or him as particularly fair.
It's possible that United wouldn't have offered me an earlier flight if it truly meant a ticketed passenger would be bumped, but without seeing its policy, I'll never know.
I once heard a radio program discussing the criminal justice system. The moderator asked a lawyer if there was truly justice for all in the courts.
"Anyone can receive justice in America," the lawyer replied, "just as anyone can stay at the Waldorf-Astoria."
Without transparency, passengers will increasingly get the sense that this is how "fairness" is perceived at United: in proportion to the price.
I have no objection to charging for advance seat assignments, by the way; some airlines already offer it, and they explain the rules. But without such transparency, United risks appearing to be merely the corporate reflection of Mr. Pawar.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].