SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When Americans traveled by stagecoach, they had to worry about rocks, rattlesnakes, robbers and other varmints. But I wonder if there weren't fewer passenger complaints.
Ralph Nader is not running for president this year, but he's giving a couple of speeches in Dallas this weekend, and booked an American Airlines flight a couple of weeks ago for $750. The flight takes three hours. Mr. Nader is 6 feet, 4 inches tall. His longtime travel agent tried to select an aisle seat, which is more comfortable for Mr. Nader - probably for whoever might be next to him, too. The seating chart showed dozens of open aisle seats. But he couldn't book any of them.
An airline agent said those seats were being held for preferred economy class ticket-holders. One might still be open by flight time; one might not. The agent said Mr. Nader could only be sure to get an aisle seat if he changed his booking to a last-minute, full-fare ticket - which cost $2,680. That's to get to Dallas in economy, by the way, not Abu Dhabi in first class.
I knew that it might be $50 more for aisle seats, Mr. Nader was quoted as saying on Twitter, but it's extortion. They're charging you for knee lengths.
The airline says they simply hold back seats for their most frequent fliers. Mr. Nader says he prefers to fly another airline, but only American goes between Hartford and Dallas. The computer tells them there's no competition, he complained, and they pull back all the aisle seats, looking for money.
Now, I am a little astonished that in these times when airline agents can practically see your DNA profile onscreen, there's not a popup to instruct them in huge, bold letters: Give Ralph Nader Whatever He Wants, And Save Us All A Lot Of Trouble. Mr. Nader once sued an airline agent for bumping him from a flight. Eight years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, to create the rule that compensates bumped passengers.
American gave Mr. Nader an aisle seat as a goodwill gesture. Mr. Nader says he told the customer service representative: You've fixed my problem, but you haven't fixed the overall problem.
Of course, where some see overall problems, airlines see revenue opportunities. Many families have discovered they're no longer seated together as a matter of common sense and courtesy, because airlines have learned they can sell adjoining seats for small fees. But if there's some kind of problem in the air, do airlines really want children unable to reach their parents?
People don't mind paying extra for extra service. But what's the price of plain decency?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME FLY WITH ME")
SIMON: The Chairman - been too long. You're listening to NPR News.
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