3 tips for handling upgrade guilt

by Christopher Elliott on January 15, 2013

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Do you suffer from upgrade guilt when you fly in first class? You probably do — and if you don’t, you should.

The woman seated in the last row of first class on my previous flight did. As I boarded the aircraft, our eyes locked, and I smiled as I shuffled back to seat 25D.

She looked away. I could tell she felt sorry for me.

I admit it: I’m gripped by guilt when I get upgraded or somehow score a premium seat, which happens almost never, because I refuse to participate in those addictive airline loyalty programs. But when it does, I always cast a hesitant glance back to the economy class section, where the seats are stacked so close together that you almost can’t move, and I feel a little ambivalent – and ashamed.

When I started flying four decades ago, even the worst seat in economy class came with good service and ample legroom. To want that in 2013 is not wrong. But it’s practically unheard of.

Thanks to market forces that have been misunderstood, incompetent airline management and a small, loud group of elite-level frequent fliers, we now have two basic choices: an abundance of too-cheap, substandard seats and a select few flying sofas in the front of the plane that only the wealthiest or well-traveled can afford.

Airlines say they’re just following the money – that they just reward their best customers by treating them like Pharaohs. But that’s not the whole truth. Some airlines have quietly gone further, systematically removing basic amenities from the back and redistributing them to these demanding customers.

Today, the disparity between the “haves” and “have-nots” is truly embarrassing.

If you’re sitting up front, and you have mixed feelings, don’t worry. That’s perfectly normal. Actually, it means you’re probably one of the good guys — an elite-level frequent flier with a conscience and compassion. Here are a few things you can do right now to feel better.

Donate some of your miles to charity. Award miles may be a dangerous habit, but you can put them to good use by giving them away. No, it won’t fix the disparity between the classes, but it will help someone less fortunate travel for medical treatment or to to see a sick relative. You have my permission to feel better about yourself.

Give up your seat. If you ever rode the bus or train, you learned that it was good manners to give up your seat to an elderly man or a pregnant woman. Works the same way on a plane. Why not offer your seat to someone serving our country in the armed forces? It’s a great way to say “thank you.”

Fly on an airline that gets it. Both JetBlue and Southwest have fairer one-class configurations, where everyone gets treated with a minimum level of respect. If these airlines succeed – and thank goodness, they are succeeding – then it sends a powerful message that the segmentation that gave rise to a class of crybaby elites will not be rewarded. And that will lead to their demise. It can’t happen too soon.

If you’re one of the entitled elites, I’m sure you’ll disagree with me. Maybe you think the passengers in the back deserve to be wedged into their seats without adequate food, water and ventilation because “you get what you pay for.”

You may also believe that because you — or more likely, your employer — paid the airline a lot of money for your tickets, that you should be treated like royalty on the aircraft at the expense of everyone else’s comfort. When you try to make that argument in the comments, you will only prove my point, and I thank you for that.

If you feel no guilt when you’re upgraded, have no empathy with the other passengers suffering behind the drawn curtain, I’m not sure if I can do anything for you. Helping passengers find their conscience is way above my pay grade.

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  • JoeInAtlanta

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you for writing it.

    As someone who usually flies economy, but who occasionally finds himself in first/business class, I’m really not a fan of the front-of-the-plane experience. It has long been my impression that the airlines (or, at least, Delta Airlines — which is my normal carrier) manage the boarding process to reinforce a class structure that should have died with Downton Abbey.

    First, even though there is no risk of not having an overhead bin, and even though the lounge (to which first/business-class travelers have access) is infinitely more comfortable than the plane, the people in front are boarded first and the other waiting passengers are unceremoniously commanded to step aside and let them pass.

    Second, the first/business class section of most planes lies between the entrance door and the economy section — so, as you point out, the airlines create a situation in which you are forced to think about your status as the economy-class passengers shuffle past the already-seated folks in front. I don’t like this when I’m one of the people shuffling to economy. And I like it even less when I’m one of the people seated in front. If anyone thinks this is a good scenario, I would say that she or he lacks a soul.

    Finally, despite the fact that takeoff is imminent, the flight attendants will dart between (and at the inconvenience of) the boarding economy-class passengers to deliver drinks and snacks to the people in front — items that will have to be collected, half-finished, a few minutes later.

    I don’t mind that a privileged area on the plane exists (although I wouldn’t spend my own money on it). But the ceremonial awkwardness that the airlines reinforce around that situation reflects very poorly on the airline planners and on the front-of-the-plane passengers who are clueless about it.

  • Dr. Vic

    For those who think that government interference is always wrong, here is one example where it’s desperately needed — the government should MANDATE minimum seat width and pitch in Coach class. That’s the only way that the airlines will provide travelers with at least a smidgeon of comfort.

  • Alex

    Oh please Chris, you sound like a disgruntled political left-winger who hasn’t gotten upgraded enough lately.
    “Redistributing” amenities? “Have’s and have-not’s”? Give me a break. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but service and amenities have been evaporating in every part of the plane, not just the back. The first class of the 20th century is gone. Today, on anything less than a transcon you’re paying for a bigger seat and free drinks, and maybe a mediocre meal if you’re lucky. IMO the disparities between first and coach have never been fewer than they are today.
    You may be surprised to know that most of F is populated not by the “wealthiest of the wealthy”, but by those “crybaby” elite flyers who’ve been upgraded after paying their dues by flying hundreds of thousands of miles in the back of the bus to get where they are today (and usually for work, not by choice).
    So quit your whining and go fly Southwest or jetBlue if you don’t like it. Fairness is not the end-all-be-all of human existence.

  • Alex

    And knowing our government they’ll probably MANDATE unncessarily wide seats/large pitch, and then what do you think will happen to ticket prices? Then you’ll be whining about that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.karpiel Michael Karpiel

    I think that the legacy carriers (Delta, United and others) have made changes with several of them now offering an economy plus (economy comfort, etc.). This provides a reasonable upgrade at a charge to get some decent legroom. Since I don’t travel that often I don’t get an elite level on any of my frequent traveller programs but now I have a little more in the way of options. Even JetBlue has premium seats that you can pay a surcharge for so it’s pretty decent. I don’t fly SouthWest so can’t comment on them.

  • MikeABQ

    Southwest has elite levels known as “A+” and “A+ Preferred”, which gets you guaranteed “A” group boarding passes, bonus points, priority lane ticket counter check-in and priority security lanes at many airports. No “preferred” or “elite” seating, however, unless you score the exit row upon boarding. I qualified for “A+” last year and I have to admit I’m enjoying the perks.

  • MikeABQ

    The airlines are not in the business of providing “comfort”; they are in the business of providing transportation. To go down this road, as you are suggesting, means the “Guvmint” should mandate “comfort” on ALL forms of public transport, and THAT, my good man, is a recipe for disaster. The airlines have spoken; you want “comfort”? You’re gonna pay for it.

  • MikeABQ

    Very, very well-put, Alex.

  • MikeABQ

    No one should feel guilty if they pay for first- or business-class or if the airline, for whatever reason, extends them the courtesy of an upgrade. And I’m not going to feel guilty for sitting up front, particularly if I paid for it myself. Anymore, an upgrade pretty much means some extra legroom, a wider seat and guaranteed bin space above. First-class, much like economy, is not the experience it once was. Commercial air transportation in the US, overall, is not the experience it once was. But we’ve all heard that plaintive whine before so I won’t expand upon it.

  • NSL14

    I upgrade to first or business class often, and feel no guilt whatsoever. I earned those miles by flying and more flying, and using my airline credit card for purchases. Most of the time, domestically, I get a free upgrade because of the amount of business and therefore my status with the airlines. I don’t feel guilty about that either.

    Moreover, as has been mentioned, the difference between FC and Economy, domestically, has never been smaller. To me the biggest deal is getting on board early to ensure you have room in the overhead bin for your carry-on. I get that anyway due to status.

    What do you get in domestic FC. You get a wider seat which is ok, and more legroom, but in such seating as United Economy Plus, which doesn’t cost much you get adequate seat width and you do get a lot of extra legroom which is far more than regular economy. You also get free alcoholic drinks in FC, but personally I never drink alcohol on a plane as it’s a diuretic and dehydration is already a problem when people are flying. You also get lousy food in FC. Frankly, my wife and I bring our own food on board.

    Why do I fly FC domestically. It is marginally more comfortable and all it costs me are points, if that.

    Internationally, the difference are stark, however, and I always fly BC, if at all possible, especially if it’s an overnight flight or in excess of 8 hours. Those lie down flat seat are remarkably great. Being able to walk around to stretch without a FA telling you to “SIT!” is a big deal to me. Again I don’t feel guilty, however, as I earned that seat.

    Finally, I have given up my seat on occasion to a soldier. Once there was one flying home to the US who looked exhausted. We were flying back from Germany and nothing was going to keep me awake anyway, and he was a lot bigger than me. I also regularly donate miles to Make A Wish Foundation, as they use the miles so well and do a fantastic job for people. Both are good things to do, but I don’t do either due to feeling guilty.

  • NSL14

    I personally don’t like flying Southwest one iota and no longer fly with them. It has nothing to do with them having no FC.,

  • AKFlyer

    When get upgraded due to my frequent flyer status, or use miles to secure a seat in First, I relax and enjoy it, especially on those loooong flights those of us living in AK must endure.

    When I’m (far more commonly) seated in the back, I relax and feel smug, knowing that the front of the plane is the worst place to be in a crash.

    Bad things happening to us is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

  • dcta

    OMG!! Guilty? Come on Chris. I look at Coach, Premium, Biz and First in much the same way as I do tickets to a Broadway musical or a rock concert. You’re wiling to pay for it (in whichever way you do – points, dollars…) then pay for it. But guildy?

  • dcta

    Oh for goodness sake – you have a seat in front? Then wait and board towards the end, then you don’t have to cry crocodile tears as watch the unfortunate in Coach file past you.

  • James Penrose

    “Do you suffer from upgrade guilt when you fly in first class?”

    Not in the slightest. If I paid for it and I sometimes do on medium length hops if I find the price is not extortionate, (very rare any more) then why should I feel guilty.

    If I use miles, same thing: I earned those miles and anyone else can do so also even if they don’t fly much. Can you say “affiliated credit card?”

    If I get thwapped on the head by the “upgrade fairy” as has happened maybe a half dozen times in my life, well, that’s just how things go.

    Learn to be really nice to gate staff and maybe you’ll get that once in a while also when things go sour and the airline owes you something. You sure won’t get it by treating gate staff as though the delay or cancellation was their long-planned doing.

    I once got upgraded to first when the last flight of the evening was cancelled simply by smiling at the poor guy at the counter and telling him I absolutely did *not* demand to be on the first flight out in the morning. He thanked me for my courtesy and upgraded me without even telling me just because I was the first person in an hour not to snarl at him.

    The airlines overall are screwing up badly as the dichotomy in pricing rarely reflects the service and comfort inside the U.S. Look at so-called “first class” on a short or mid-range jet and then look at the five hundred per cent premium often charged and laugh.

    But feel guilty? No. No more so then when I go into my decent home do I feel guilty about it compared to people living in a cr***y apartment or when I check into a Hyatt I don’t feel guilty when I pass a Motel 6.

    What I have, I earned and how I choose to enjoy it is for me to decide.

  • James Penrose

    Then one would like more choices than “cattle car” or pay five hundred per cent more for 10 per cent more legroom and even less extra width.

    I love “economy premium” sort of deals, I just want more room and less crowding and will willingly pay “proportionally” more for that.

  • reasonedthought

    The problem is that historically speaking, the vast majority of travelers have opted not to pay for an extra inch or two, even when the difference in the fare was as little as $10.00. It was less than a decade ago when AA pulled a row out of each MD80 and gave passengers more room. On short hauls the difference between AA’s fare and everyone else was about $10.00 each way. AA lost sales to other carriers. The lesson that the airline management teams took home was that the buying public didn’t really care about space as much as money.

  • TonyA_says

    Jetblue went the other direction towards more pitch and they are still alive and well last time I checked.

  • TonyA_says

    You forgot the ceremonial closing of the curtain. The final slap to the face of the cannot affords. How dare them stare at what the elite are eating and drinking?

  • TonyA_says

    By allowing all the airline mergers and by not doing a serious study on passenger comfort, the government has ALREADY de-facto mandated. What you see today is the effect.

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