To many air passengers, frequent flyer programs are like the gold stars we used to get as school kids as a reward for a job well done. But unlike those little affirmation stickers we got in elementary school, frequent flyer programs—and the elite status we earn if we collect enough of them—can help whisk us to exotic lands for free, or in a much better class of service than we could otherwise afford. Yes, the stickers you got in Mrs. Crabtree’s third-grade class were nice, but they never got you a free first-class ticket to Madrid.
With that said, airline loyalty programs and the elite status they confer might be having an unintended effect on air travelers: turning some of them into whiny, entitled children.
“There is a class of entitled travelers that don’t just believe that they deserve to be treated better than the rest of us; they believe that they are better than the rest of us,” says Christopher Elliott, travel journalist and founder of the travel site elliott.org. In a column Elliott wrote for USA Today, he discussed the growing phenomenon of “silver spoon travelers”—a class of travelers who believe their elite platinum or gold loyalty program status, their insane collection of airline miles and/or their very presence in first class entitle them to lord it over airline staff and fellow passengers. And the stories Elliott told are shocking aerials tales of “oh-no-they-didn’t” audacity.
Take one passenger, Camille Jamerson, who told Elliott she was once “ordered” to give up her first-class seat by a fellow passenger who said he had Medallion status and, therefore, wanted to move his friend from back in economy class to Camille’s seat. “That didn’t happen,” Camille told Elliott.
And there was an airline employee, Brian, who told Elliott of an incident at the gate where 90 people, many of them with some sort of elite status on the airline, were competing for 22 seats on the upgrade list. “The scene at the podium can be fun to watch,” Brian told Elliott. “Grown men and women acting like children when they don’t get their upgrades.”
What Creates the “Silver Spoon Traveler?”
“It all starts with the loyalty programs,” Elliott tells Yahoo Travel. “Once you start segmenting your customers and calling them ‘Silver,’ ‘Gold’ and ‘Platinum’—and saying, ‘Because you are Platinum, you are more special than you who is only Silver or you who doesn’t have any loyalty designation or elite level’—that kind of elitism is an incredibly dangerous thing.”
Elliott says the problem is exacerbated by a new class of loyalty point hoarders: those who follow online blogs devoted to discussing ways for average flyers to rack up airline miles and accrue superior loyalty status.
“They tell people to exploit things like mistake fares and loopholes in loyalty program memberships,” Elliott says. “Things like opening four or five credit cards, spending on them and then returning the merchandise and accruing more miles than you could ever need.”
The result: passengers getting elite status and taking that “e” word to heart. “The message is pretty clear,” Elliott says of this new class of the nouveau elite. “That we are not only smarter and more deserving, we are just simply better than everyone else on the plane.”
Some flight attendants have noticed this phenomenon as well.
“A lot of airlines have lowered their standards with rewarding priority boarding, upgrades on flights, and the offering of free drinks,” flight attendant Sydney Pearl, author of Diary of a Pissed-Off Flight Attendant, tells Yahoo Travel “These perks have given some passengers the attitude that they are somehow better and they tend to act up like people who are classified as ‘new money’ do. People that are established, used to class and a certain way of life, are generally pleasant and humble. It’s the new crop of ‘new money’ a**holes that treat people crappy, as if they’re not one paycheck away from being the help themselves. ”
Even budget airlines without a first class aren’t immune to these silver spoon travelers. “Some of our frequent fliers do act like they own the place,” a flight attendant who asked to remain anonymous tells Yahoo Travel. “It’s trivial but I have seen them get-down right pouty about not getting their favorite seat.”
With airline perks getting more luxurious and more people buying or spending their way into loyalty programs, while conditions in economy class get so bad people struggle to avoid sitting there at all costs, Elliott says it’s only natural that we see an explosion in entitled travelers.
“Some people honestly feel that because they are so important, they deserve to be treated well and you don’t deserve to be treated well because you are not such a good customer,” Elliott tells Yahoo Travel.
One psychologist who literally wrote the book on narcissism believes Elliott is onto something. “In some ways, the airlines were bad parents who spoiled a subgroup their children in the name of loyalty and are now left with a bunch of spoiled narcissistic brats,” says California psychologist Ramani Durvasula, author of the new book, Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship With a Narcissist. She says the incredible perks offered to elite status flyers, combined with the rigors of air travel, are turning flying into what she calls a “crucible of narcissism.”
“In the high-stakes game of comfortable air travel, telling one group they are special leaves them grandiose and entitled, and temporarily narcissistic,” Dr. Durvasula explains. “They actually start believing that they are special—i.e., demanding that people change seats with their traveling companions—not realizing that this specialness lasts until the tray tables go up and their seats are in the upright and locked position.”
And when these entitled travelers’ elite status fails to get them what they want, watch out. “People fight hard for the ‘status’ and are often unable to cope when all of their needs are not being met,” she says. “When the elite traveler gets onto a very full flight where his ‘elite’ status doesn’t get him any perks, that’s when the sparks fly. Narcissists do not do well with falls from grace – especially when they are from 35,000 feet.”
In Defense of the Elite Traveler
Some flight attendants disagree with the notion of silver spoon travelers.
“While bad behavior is on the rise, I can’t say I’ve noticed it happening more in first class than in coach,” says flight attendant Heather Poole, author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. “When a passenger does act out in first class, it’s a little more shocking because they have it pretty nice up front compared to everyone else on the plane. Normally they’re pretty happy to have escaped coach.”
Flight attendant Kara Mulder, creator of the “The Flight Attendant Life” blog, tells Yahoo Travel that entitled people are entitled no matter where they are. “Most people don’t have an on/off switch for a**hole,” she says. “The cost of a ticket and an airline doesn’t determine if someone deems themselves ‘special.'” A person’s character is the ultimate determining factor of how he or she will act when given life in excess.
Even Elliott agrees “It’s important to note that not everyone in the front of the plane is a spoiled brat,” he says of the silver spoon phenomenon. “There are so many people who sit in first class who are well behaved. This is the behavior of a very small minority.”
How to Deal with the “Silver Spoon” Phenomenon
Elliott thinks airlines could still cut down on that small minority’s bad behavior by reforming their loyalty programs. “Maybe they need to stop using these precious metal terms [where] you say, ‘I’m Gold!’ ‘I’m Platinum!’ ‘I’m special!'” he says. “You can’t keep telling everyone how special they are because it’s not true. We are all going to the same place.”
Elliott wants those over-the-top perks gone, too. “Get rid of the Porsches,” he suggests. “Maybe take some of the room you would save from removing the bar or this shower [from the first class cabin] and give us a little bit of extra room in the back of the plane.”
But such an “Occupy First Class” movement to make air travel more egalitarian may not fly with airlines, for whom loyalty programs are extremely valuable. While airlines generally don’t reveal such specific figures about their frequent flyer programs, Business Insider reports the value of the loyalty division of one airline, Australia’s Qantas, is estimated to be up to $2.5 billion. It’s doubtful any airline would give up something so lucrative just because some flyers don’t know how to act.
It appears, however, that airlines have found another way to solve the problem of the silver spoon traveler. Just this week American Airlines became the last of the Big Three U.S. carriers to announce its changing its loyalty program so that frequent flier miles are awarded based on fares paid, not on miles flown. Time reports the move is widely expected to “stir things up in the ‘travel hacking’ scene, in which people read the fine print to game loyalty programs and fly for cheap or even free.”
In other words, these elite programs are about to become even more exclusive. And the fewer people in the premium passenger ranks, the fewer silver spoon travelers there will be to cause problems.
That may come as horrible news to many passengers who, once it becomes harder to climb the ladder of elite traveler status, may find themselves living their worst nightmare: flying in economy class with everyone else. That’s the problem with “elite” status: by definition, not everyone gets to have it, or keep it. Perhaps that’s how it should be. Says Dr. Durvasula: “As they said in ‘The Incredibles’: ‘If everyone is special, then no one is.'”
WATCH: Flying in First Class for an Hour Ruined My Life
This article was originally published by Yahoo! Travel! under the headline Are Airlines Creating a Class of Spoiled, Entitled Brats?. It is reprinted here with permission.
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