Richard TurenSometimes columnists have to take a courageous stand in defense of what is right. This is one of those days.

It is very clear to me that the airlines have received a bad rap on customer service. I think the innovations they have introduced make a great deal of sense, so I guess it falls to me to defend some of their more creative ancillary fees.

Let's start with my favorite new innovation: rewarding rich folks who like to cut in front of the line at airport gates. Let's face it, rich people should not have to stand in line with the rest of us. They should be able to buy their way to the front of the line.

That's why American has announced its new "Your Choice" program, which, for a few extra bucks, permits you to board ahead of other coach passengers. And there are other benefits, as well.

American is also testing "Group 1 boarding" for those who can't stand being in Group 3 and are willing to pay an extra $10 to be in Group 1.

I sympathize with this completely. Imagine if you are rich and important and yet you're assigned a Group 3 boarding pass at the gate. Look at all the folks who board ahead of you. There are the wheelchair folks, those traveling with kids, those who need a little extra time, first-class/business-class passengers, airline employees and then Groups 1 and 2. By the time Group 3 is called, you're not feeling too important, are you? So 10 bucks makes you feel important, even though half the plane has already been seated.

United Airlines has generously decided to give rich people still more choices when they fly coach. I love the new packages like "Premier Line." This little offer, with pricing that starts at just under $20, includes priority check-in, priority security and priority boarding, but not ahead of the really rich people who can afford first class.

As Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney recently pointed out in an excellent article about airline fees, our government is in control of the actual screening by Transportation Security Administration officers. But it is not, it turns out, in charge of the queues that lead to the screeners. So now, if you pay a little bit extra, United will let you use their very special line leading up to the body scanning machines. I've experienced these lines, and a person can save as much as 45 seconds trying to get to an actual TSA employee.

United has an even better package for rich folks called the "Premier Package." Am I mistaken, or is this starting to sound like a fast-food menu? If you buy the Premier Package, the supersize version, you get to sit in Economy Plus, those seats set aside for passengers who don't need the best seats on the plane but do need the best seats in coach. It's sort of like being named the ambassador to Liechtenstein.

But this package includes some other neat stuff, like complimentary check-in for two bags and bonus frequent flyer miles to use the next time that no mileage seats are available.

I know what you are thinking: "Richard, this should all be easy enough to explain fully to my clients." But confounding that assumption is the fact that there is actually a "Premier Travel Plus" package that gives you everything in the Premier Package plus even more bonus miles and one-day admission to a United airport lounge.

I also love the way U.S. airlines are working hard to ensure flyer comfort. Take, for example, the problem of free pillows and blankets.

You know how it is. You go to sit down and can't find your actual seat cushion or seat belt because they are hidden under plastic-wrapped items from the distressed-inventory section at Bed Bath & Beyond. Finally, airlines are starting to do something about this surplus bedding problem.

American stopped stocking pillows in economy two years ago. Delta, in order to ensure a degree of Southern comfort, still has blankets in economy, but you've got to be flying first class to get a pillow on a domestic run. I think this is about right. Look at first-class passengers and then at the folks in coach. It's clear which group more needs to cradle its brain stem.

JetBlue decided to sell a pillow-and-blanket combination for $7, and passengers get to keep them. I mean, what more does the consumer need? The rich really should stay warmer as they fly, and what a fine addition this $7 acquisition will make to the family linen closet back home.

The weird thing is that both American and JetBlue announced they were no longer providing free pillows, for environmental reasons. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of toxic substances we were resting our collective heads on in the old days.

Finally, the airlines have dealt effectively with the issue of baggage. They first identified a major problem: the proclivity of vacationers to want to bring several changes of clothing and various accessories with them when they travel. This has tended to leave the aircraft cluttered, and it has created weight issues on takeoff, meaning it takes more of that expensive fuel to get airborne. This is why we now have to pay extra for actually bringing stuff along with us on vacation. Clearly something had to be done.

The chairman of the budget European carrier Ryanair made worldwide headlines when he suggested that he might start charging one euro to use one of his planes' restrooms. He was roundly criticized, and his airline became the butt of jokes on late-night TV.

But once again, I must defend the airline. Those rest-rooms are so elegant that any objective person should be able to see how using them is truly worthy of a surcharge.

Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].  
This column appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of Travel Weekly.


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