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The Complexities of Boarding an Airplane

In his Inferno, Dante assigned the doomed through nine circles of hell depending on how he judged their offenses. Meanwhile, Scripture posits that there are nine ranks of angels, from the top-tier seraphim to the lowliest common angel.

More down (or up) to earth, in the ever-vexing process of boarding an airplane by “status,” Delta Air Lines and American Airlines get by with eight levels; United manages with six.

Even Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats, has a pecking order, largely depending on whether you are a favored (read “lucrative”) frequent flier, on how much you paid for your ticket, or on whether you opted to pay extra for better boarding priority through the airline’s Early-Bird Check-In option, which accounted for a cool $358 million in extra revenue for Southwest in 2017.

Simply boarding the airplane has become one of the innumerable hassles of air travel, in large part because most planes fly totally full most of the time, and the coach cabin overhead bin space for that rollaboard is often hard to find if you’re near the tail end of boarding. That’s especially true on smaller regional jets with small overhead bins.

I recently traveled from JFK in New York to Tucson on Delta, an airline I seldom fly, and was baffled by the rules to get on the plane, which of course was totally full. Here was the pecking order as I heard it announced: Pre-Boarding; Delta One; First Class/Delta Premium Select; Early Boarding, including active duty military; Delta Comfort; Main Cabin 1; Main Cabin 2; Basic Economy.

My JFK-Tucson ticket had been booked by a TV network that flew me to New York for an interview. Because the network’s travel department obviously does volume corporate business with the airline, my basic-fare coach ticket came with slightly higher status, Main Cabin 1 zone, rather than the basic-economy end-of-the-line position I would have had if I’d booked the flight myself.

As always, a good company travel manager can make your trip easier. Otherwise, for those flying coach, there are several ways to get at least a better boarding position. One is to pay using an airline’s branded credit card. The airlines love this. The top 10 global airlines – led by American, United, Delta and Southwest -- pocketed a cool $35.2 billion in so-called ancillary revenue in 2018, according to an annual survey by IdeaWorks and Cartrawler. That pot of dough, which is over and above what the airlines receive in fares, includes an estimated $14 billion that the domestic airlines get from their partnerships with “co-branded” credit card companies. Most of those cards also offer perks that boost the passenger’s boarding status.

But there is another zone. Let’s consider the subject of preboarders, the group of passengers who are allowed on the plane before all others. Preboarding accommodates the disabled, most visibly those in wheelchairs who need priority access to get settled onto what will become a crowded airplane, often with a companion assisting them. No decent person has an issue with that.

However, there is some controversy over disability preboarding, especially on Southwest Airlines, but also on the other carriers. Given expansions in what constitutes a “disability,” confusion is growing about who gets to preboard – and about the extent to which some unscrupulous people are scamming the system.

Federal disabilities law is clear, and violations are often enforced through lawsuits. If a passenger claims to have a disability necessitating preboarding, the airline must accommodate them, and cannot by law ask that passenger for proof.

First, let me stipulate that grumbling about preboarders who appear to be as fit as anyone else can overlook those with hidden disabilities. That said, though, it is increasingly clear that preboarding abuses are occurring more often as some unscrupulous travelers claim disabilities they do not have in order to get onto the airplane first.

The issue is especially evident at Southwest because it does assign seats, meaning preboarders get first dibs to claim desirable up-front aisle seats. Southwest acknowledges some obvious abuses. As a customer-service agent explained on a Southwest community forum, “Regrettably, some customers have taken advantage of preboarding when they did not need it. Still, we cannot ask a customer what their disability is or for ‘proof’ of a disability. Additionally, we are unable to tell preboarding passengers where they can/cannot sit on the aircraft (with exception of the emergency exit row)….”

A letter to the editor in The New York Times underscored the typical annoyances some feel about scammers. It read, in part: “…Let’s also talk about what my husband and I have come to call ‘the cure at 30,000 feet.’ I am referring to the increasing number of passengers who require a wheelchair to board the plane, thus securing a seat at the front of the plane, and who, by the end of the flight, are miraculously able to bolt from the plane to baggage ahead of the rest of us. …”

For travelers with legitimate disabilities, a good travel manager will have useful advice on what to expect – and require – from an airline. And advocates for the disabled are rigorous in providing support. Unscrupulous people who scam the system, after all, make it even more difficult for genuinely disabled passengers, for whom access and other simple accommodations are crucial.

A personal note: A few years ago in Arizona, I was riding a frisky horse that suddenly spooked at a tumbling tumbleweed, reared, and toppled to the ground with me on board. The horse was unhurt, but I sustained a broken ankle, and for many months even something as simple as climbing a few stairs was painful and difficult. This might sound a bit glib, but the experience of being temporarily hobbled was edifying as a small lesson in how crucial physical access is, even though my own injury was fairly minor injury and disappeared with time.

So I get it. I also understand the complexities presented in travel, as disabilities of all sorts – the need for being accompanied by emotional support pets, for one example -- are defined by law. Better information all around is crucial.

For example, there’s a disability that the airlines have accommodated after a recent ruling by the Transportation Department found American Airlines in violation of the Air Carrier Access Act for not allowing the family of a child with nut allergies to preboard. Most airlines had previously dropped peanuts from inflight service, but now they all have also adjusted regulations to allow those claiming a food-allergy disability to preboard so they can wipe down their seats as a precaution against what can be a severe, and possibly even fatal, reaction.

By law, you don’t have to prove that you have a food-allergy disability. “No documentation is required,” Lisa Gable, the CEO of an advocacy group, Food Allergy Research & Education, told me. “Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of an individual” -- including simple activities like eating and breathing, which “are at risk for a person with a life-threatening food allergy,” she said.

A good travel manager should have timely, reliable information, not only about traveling with a disability, but also for those of us who are lucky not to have to manage to get from one place to another with a disability. That way the rules, and the reasons for them, can be made clear to us all.

Meanwhile, shame, shame on those who scam the system.

MEMO PAD – As of Nov. 3, Southwest Airlines says it is pulling out of the Newark airport, where it has 20 daily departures, and concentrating its New York-area operations at LaGuardia. Newark is a major hub for United Airlines.

…The three U.S. airlines with Boeing 737 Max planes in their fleets say they don’t anticipate the grounded planes to be back in service anytime soon. Southwest says its 34 Max jets will remain parked till at least January. American Airlines (which has 24) and United Airlines (14), have said their Max planes will be out of service at least till November. Those tentative plans may be optimistic. Quoting FAA and other sources, The Wall Street Journal says the 737 Max fleet – there are about 400 globally, all grounded – may not be certified to fly again till January. Boeing, staggered by the situation, says it is considering halting production of the plane.

…Near record: U.S. airlines carried 76.8 million passengers in June, 67.2 million on domestic flights and 9.6 million on international ones, says the U.S. Transportation Department. That total was just short of the all-time record ,77.7 million passengers in March. … The U.S. hotel industry had its most lucrative year ever in 2018, with profits of $80 billion on $218 billion in revenue, says the hospitality research firm STR. The top five markets in hotel revenue: Las Vegas; New York City; Los Angeles/Long Beach; Orlando; Washington D.C. metro region.

Top destinations: The top five meetings destinations in the U.S. this year, according to the meetings technology firm Cvent: Orlando, Las Vegas. Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas. In Europe: London, Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam. In Asia: Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong. Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai.


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Joe Sharkey
better corporate travel starts here.

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