Some Air Travelers Are More Equal Than Others

Airline passengers delayed by terrorist threats this week, were not uniformly affected. Elite flyers moved to the front of security lines, while coach passengers suffered long waits.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

I'm Debbie Elliott. Airline travel was complicated this week after British authorities said they'd thwarted a plot to blow up commercial flights between the U.K. and the United States.

Travelers at American airports waited for hours to get through security; that is, most travelers. The wait was quite a bit shorter for those passengers lucky enough to be holding first class or business class tickets.

From Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport, NPR's Martin Kaste sends us this reporter's notebook.

Unidentified Male #2 (P.A. Announcer): Take your laptop out of its case and place in it in the bin.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

I'll admit up front, on this story I'm biased. I've been standing in long security lines for years now watching first class passengers cut to the front.

Unidentified Male #2: First class, business class, airline club?

KASTE: I don't mean the first class line at the ticket counter, and this isn't about the government's program for pre-screened flyers either. What we're talking about here are the special short lines leading up to security that are reserved for first class passengers. Or even coach passengers who hold the airline's elite club cards.

I've been grumbling about this for years, mainly to myself, like some kind of old crank. But all of the sudden I've got company.

Unidentified Woman #1: That's outrageous. Everybody should be equal, whether you are first class or you're coach.

KASTE: In Americas long airport security lines, class resentments are simmering.

Ms. BRIDGETTE GARGON(ph) (Traveler): They said let them eat cake. I felt like a proletariat. It was very frustrating.

KASTE: On Thursday, Bridgette Gargon waited in a line that snaked all the way back to the airport parking garage, and after two hours she missed her flight. Trying again on Friday, she was ready to storm the barricades.

Ms. GARGON: You know what? I think in times like this we should all be in this together, and if it really is for the good of the country, it was frustrating yesterday to wait two and a half hours in line, to watch people because they have a little more money be able to waltz through.

KASTE: First class flyer Ryan Shull(ph) hardly notices the indignation brewing in coach as he's waved to the front of the line.

Mr. RYAN SHULL (First Class Flier): If you travel every week, it's a nice little benefits so. It just saves a little bit of time.

KASTE: You don't hear any grumbling from the proletariat back there about...

Mr. SHULL: Just walk right by, and don't listen to it.

KASTE: And whom does Shull and other first class passengers have to thank for having their own line? The airlines or the publicly run airport? As it turned out, a little of both. Standing at a railing and looking down at the rat maze of passengers waiting for security, airport spokesman Bob Parker(ph) explains.

Mr. BOB PARKER (Airport Spokesman): We may actually control the shape of the line as the airport operator. But if the airlines chose to have a special line for a special category of their customer, they can.

KASTE: Parker says many airports have similar arrangements. The airlines are tenants in a public facility, but their traditionally allowed to arrange for special treatment for their best customers. Even in the airports public areas.

Mr. PARKER: It's really no different than buying the first class seat on the airplane, at the front of the airplane with your own restroom and a nicer meal.

KASTE: And that explanation seems to satisfy a lot of the people standing in line. Truth me told, even as bad as things got on Thursday, a lot of the people in the economy class line shared the view of these gentlemen from Texas, Herbert Hasket(ph) and Larry Louis(ph).

Mr. HERBERT HASKET: I guess they paid to be first class so they should get first class service.

Mr. LARRY LOUIS: If I paid for the ticket I'd want to do the same thing.

KASTE: So things don't look to good for a revolution in the departure lounge anytime soon. They say we Americans don't resent rich people because we're all brought up to believe that we have a crack at having our own fortune someday. Could be the same is true about flying first class.

Martie Kaste, NPR Seattle.

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