United Airlines has a new sneaky trick up its sleeve. It may not get you where you're going within five hours of your promised target, but it's sure in a hurry to soak you with fruitless charges.
Its latest cash grab is the right to buy "Premier line" access, either when you buy your ticket online or check in at the airport. United tempts customers with a come-on that starts: "Take a fast track through the airport!" Blow $39 ($78 round-trip), and you'll get the "Premier" check in line, the "Priority" security line, and "Priority" boarding. Of course, there are terms and conditions.
United's "Premier" passenger fee is a rip-off. Thursday at both LaGuardia airport in New York City and at Dulles airport outside Washington, D.C., I saw first-hand what makes it such a complete gyp:
* You don't really go through security faster. You may get to the person who checks your I.D. faster, but after that, you're piled in at the scanners with everyone else. Many times of day, the $39 you've paid only lets you jump the few people who might be waiting at that initial checkpoint. When I checked in at LaGuardia at 8 a.m., there were about three people in the "poor folks" line. The sap in the green tie who paid $39 for that "premium" upgrade saved about 10 seconds. Congratulations.
* The charge is confusing passengers. At Dulles, I ran into with one guy who told me that he had to pay $39 to change his flight that day. When I asked him to look more closely at this ticket, he realized he'd been confused by the self-serve check-in kiosk, which presents the charge more like an opt-out than an opt-in. He thought he was paying a change fee for a new flight he wanted to take. "Oh, well," he said. "I'll just expense it back to my company." I wouldn't be surprised to learn that United is banking on a lot of business travelers getting confused like this and just writing it off.
* He wasn't alone. Looking around the Web, I've found passengers who mistakenly thought the $39 was buying them more legroom. United has, perhaps intentionally, priced the speedier lane access at the same level as seat rows with more space, and passengers are consequently mistakenly buying the upgrade.
* The charge won't get you higher up a standby list any quicker. That perk is still reserved for Mileage Plus members. When my airport friend's flight was canceled and he tried to get on the next one, he was told his $39 wouldn't help him at all. Among the other things that $39 won't get you: club access, free change fees, priority seat assignment status, upgrades, more respect from its harried and overworked employees, or a cleaner plane. My friend's flight got canceled and he kicked around Dulles for six hours before finally calling it quits and getting a hotel. His $39 was useless.
* The charge is gumming up the lines at security. At Dulles, the "premium" passengers feed into one particular gateway to the checkpoint, and the poor folks feed in everywhere else. When things get busy, the poor folks who discover too late that their portal is shared by the "premium" people grow increasingly annoyed as their line is halted to let the suckers pass first. (If you've ever been to Disney and stood by in silence while the Fastpass riders zoomed past you in line, you'll know the feeling.) Now, everyday passengers have to scout the security area layout and figure out which line doesn't merge with the "premium" fliers. Thanks, TSA. That's one more planning hassle for everyone.
There's yet another, more serious complaint about the fee. This one's about equal representation by the federal government. I agree that there are plenty of frequent and put-upon travelers who would appreciate being rewarded for smooth and considerate preparation in the security lanes, and who shouldn't have to wait longer for the clueless baby stroller types who travel once a year. However, the Transportation Security Agency has already accommodated that with its newly implemented lane types at busy airports: "Expert" travelers get a different lane than families.
Arthur Frommer, in his blog, is pounding his fist over the matter: "Where does [the TSA] get off in acceding to and cooperating in a blatant effort to create different classes of air passengers?"
He has a point: Why should anyone in this democratic country have improved access to the government just because they're rich? OK, sure, it's always been that way, but never so openly, and never without uproar. We're all paying the same fee to the government for the same service, yet the TSA has agreed to give us unequal treatment for the profit of the airlines.
The $199-a-year Clear membership program, in place at 20 airports, at least registers members with the TSA and subjects them to additional background checks (iris scans, fingerprints) to enable a smoother security check. United's Premier Line rip, though, is only about creating a for-profit two-class system in our safety procedures.
The TSA lets United charge $39 for better security access. This is fair how?