Out of the Blue: The delinquent-flier upgrade

Like high-altitude ninjas, they abandon the crowded coach cabin for an unoccupied seat in first class.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Published June 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Moments before the departure of our two-hour flight from New York to Chicago, I scanned the first-class cabin, wondering if this would be a good day or a bad one.

The gentleman seated in 5-D seemed most likely to pose a problem. Scowling, demonstrative, irritable as an old coot who'd forgotten his medication, he'd stormed the aircraft demanding a double bourbon on the rocks. "Now!" he said, before allowing me a chance to respond.

When I asked him to wait until the boarding process slowed and the aisle was clear of passengers, he flung a hand in the air and mumbled something about lousy airlines and flight attendants who hoard the goddamned liquor.

I had my answer: It was going to be a bad day.

As with most Boeing 727s, our first-class configuration accommodates 12 passengers. On this particular day there were only six passengers aboard: three double-breasted business types on the left of the cabin, three on the right. All of them -- as is so often the case -- were men.

The gate agent shut the door, the aircraft pushed back from the gate and I began to feel as though something wasn't quite right. It was more than the constant piercing stare from Mr. Bourbon, who had demanded -- and had yet to receive -- his second drink. The feeling was more intuitive. It felt as if something or someone had suddenly moved out of place.

I made the routine departure announcement, walked through the cabin to pick up pre-departure glasses and returned to the galley. Instinctively, I poked my head in the aisle to take a quick passenger count. Had I been the type of flight attendant who enjoys putting passengers in their place, I would have trembled with glee after finishing my count. Instead, I just shook my head and sighed. Though six passengers were listed and accounted for, seven people were sitting in the first-class cabin. Someone from coach had given himself a "delinquent-flier" upgrade while I wasn't looking.

Throughout my 15-year career as a flight attendant, I've run into these stealth passengers many times. Here is their standard M.O.:

Convinced that the onboard class system can be easily thwarted, they wait for just the right moment. Moving quickly and quietly -- like high-altitude ninjas -- they abandon the crowded coach cabin for an unoccupied seat in first class. Sooner or later, of course, the crew becomes aware of the infraction. We always catch them, but it often seems as if not a week goes by without a delinquent-flier conflict.

As is the case with many flight attendants, I've had to challenge men, women -- even cute doe-eyed children who plopped their rear end where it didn't belong. I've been forced to eject business travelers who cursed beneath their breath before gathering a laptop and briefcase and slinking back to a sea of mocking faces in steerage class.

I've tossed out healthy passengers who cited a mysterious disability that required the comfort and girth only a leather seat can provide. I've deposed doctors, college professors, sweet little old ladies, even a Catholic priest who looked up at me and swore that he had misread his seat assignment. (How in God's name can 28-F be confused with 3-A?)

The excuses are as wide ranging as the personalities on any given airplane: "Oh ... I'm sorry," a bookish female passenger once said after being asked to leave. "I'm going to be in a hurry to make my connection. I didn't think you'd mind if I sat up front." Another good one: "I'm a fearful flyer; I'm scared to sit in coach." Slightly more direct, but equally ineffective, is the always popular "Hey, THEY told me I could sit in any empty seat!" The most outlandish excuse came from a meticulously groomed interloper who was wearing what appeared to be a custom-tailored suit. He'd just requested a glass of champagne when I asked to see his boarding stub. He somehow managed to look down at me, even though I was standing above him. In a voice that could have come straight out of "The Great Gatsby," he said: "Do I look as if I should be sitting back there with the plebeians?"

People certainly have a financial incentive to sneak into first class. While round-trip airfares from New York to Chicago are as low as $200, the average first-class ticket costs $1,700. In spite of the huge cost disparity, all passengers arrive in Chicago at exactly the same time.

Plebeian-hating snobs notwithstanding, most flight attendants could care less about who sits where on an airplane. If it were up to us, there would be no first-class compartment -- nor seat assignments. Seats would be occupied on a first-come, first-served basis, as at Southwest Airlines. The advantages are obvious: no seat duplications, no families complaining that they're not seated together. And no inferiority or superiority complexes related to the size and location of one's throne. It's communism at 30,000 feet. But hey, whatever works.

Most airlines do not share this user-friendly vision of the skies. Instead, they train flight attendants like police dogs -- we're supposed to sniff out perpetrators and put them back where they belong.

Why all the fuss? A first-class seat is a virtual gold mine for airlines -- especially on international routes. On one of our recent flights from New York to Paris, the luxury section was filled with full-fare passengers. There was not a single upgrade in the bunch. For the privilege of caviar, fine wine, scrumptious food and supercomfortable seats, each passenger paid a whopping $9,000. The total first-class revenue came to $126,000. Not bad for only 14 seats.

Free trips and first-class upgrades are the carrots dangled before loyal frequent-flying faces. Although upgrades normally make up a large portion of the premium population, those who actually pay for a seat can fork over more than 10 times as much as their economy-class brethren. This does wonders for an airline's bottom line, which explains why airline executives bow down to the big seats. Unsanctioned use of these moneymakers sends the wrong message and undermines profits in the long run.

Hoping to ferret out the delinquent flier on my flight to Chicago, I stepped into the galley and studied the Passenger Information List. The PIL is stocked with enough airline intelligence to give a CIA agent multiple orgasms. It lists the names and seat assignments of disabled passengers, grieving passengers, VIP passengers, airline-employee passengers, passengers who ordered a vegetarian meal, passengers who should not be served alcohol, passengers who've pestered other passengers and passengers enrolled in the airline's frequent-flier program. Occasionally, the PIL contains spicy little tidbits about the guy in 14-C who went ballistic on the agent after the airline botched his reservations. (His seatmates can only wonder why he's being plied with free drinks.) But for my immediate purposes, the PIL provided the first and last names and seat assignments for each and every first-class passenger.

After checking the list, I walked over to the gentleman seated in 4-B. Gray hair trimmed with military precision, a silk tie loosened around the collar of his slightly wrinkled shirt, he chatted quietly with the man sitting next to him. According to my paperwork, all occupied seats were matched with a name. All, that is, except 4-B.

"Excuse me, sir," I said, in the most humble voice I could muster. "May I please have a look at your boarding stub?"

Raising his eyebrows, he threw at me a look that was both daunting and dismayed. How dare you question my right to sit here, it said. How dare you interrupt my conversation with a fellow first-class passenger. But rather than vocalizing his displeasure, as I expected him to do at any moment, he let that cold hard stare continue to do all the talking. Because I'd seen that stare many times before -- because I'd felt the same "I'm gonna intimidate you into caving in" hostility during similar confrontations -- I didn't blink.

"Your boarding pass, sir. I need to have a look at it."

"OK, OK," he said begrudgingly. "I'm not supposed to be sitting here. My seat is in coach, but I came up to discuss an important matter with my colleague." He then gestured to the man sitting beside him in 4-A. The man nodded in compliance. "Do you mind if we finish our discussion?"

"Sir, I don't mind. But my employer does. I'm afraid you'll have to return to coach."

After another volley of stares, I told him that if I allowed him to sit here, I'd have to do the same for everybody else. Still, he pleaded his case. Just then the captain issued his takeoff announcement. We'd be in the air in maybe 60 seconds. Not enough time for me to reason with the man. I needed to strap into my jump seat.

"All right, sir," I said. "You can continue your discussion here until after takeoff. But once I start the food and beverage service, you'll have to return to your seat. OK?" He sort of rolled his eyes, acquiescing in the most obstinate way. I had made a big mistake -- a mistake that would teach me to never again bend the rules for anyone.

After the aircraft reached cruising altitude, and the time came for the beverage service to begin, I walked through the cabin taking drink orders. When I reached Row 4 I stopped and smiled at the man in 4-B. This time, he threw a look that was downright nasty.

"Sir," I said. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the cabin now." I turned and walked to the galley. He got up from his seat and followed.

"What is your name?" he demanded, pushing his twitching face into the galley.


"You heard me, I want your fucking name."

"Why do you want my fucking name, sir?"

"Because I don't like the way I've been treated."

My last shreds of professionalism were evaporating by the second. The guy was an obstinate prick. If I couldn't get him to leave soon, I feared I might say or do something that would cause a drastic reduction in my income. There are plenty of air-rage reports that tell of passengers attacking flight attendants. But this could very well be the first documented case in which a crazed male flight attendant unleashed an attack upon a passenger.

A little voice whispered inside my head. "Careful," it said. "Careful ..."

I took a deep breath.

"You don't like the way I've been treating you?" I said, finally. "You don't like the way that I'VE been treating YOU?" I felt my voice begin to rise, but did not have the fortitude to contain it. "To be perfectly honest, sir, I shouldn't be treating you at all because YOU SHOULDN'T BE UP HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!"

Heads turned. The moment froze. It seemed as though I was choking on the echo of my own ill-advised outburst. I heard the familiar rush of air, the distant roar of engines -- common airplane sounds magnified by the sudden cabin silence. Embarrassed, I looked into the eyes of my nemesis. Though his face had begun to swell like an overexcited blowfish, though he cursed and snarled and vowed to "never fly this fucking airline again," he retreated in a flurry of angry footsteps and disappeared.

I was left in peace with five sniggering first-class passengers and one who started screaming for another bourbon on the rocks.

Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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