American Airlines announced new names for the groups in its boarding process. This made it much clearer how, if you’re an ordinary non-preferred customer, you’re one step above steerage. The clarity is great: it further weaponizes envy even as it deflect attention from the privileges American is slowly squeezing out of flying.
Here’s the email that I (and all other American Airlines Frequent Flyers) received yesterday:
Introducing a new boarding process
Simplified boarding process
Same order, new group names
Starting March 1, we’re simplifying the boarding process and introducing new boarding group names — numbers 1 through 9. The boarding order will not change, just the group names.
As an AAdvantage® Platinum member, you will continue to be the third group to board, which will be referred to as Group 3. You will still board through the Priority boarding lane.
This is followed with a button that links to a description of the new boarding process.
Is the uproar about changing names, or customer experience
After American Airlines changed the names, the critics came out of the woodwork.
Jay Baer, in his Jay Today videocast, asks “would you rather have the airline confuse you or marginalize you?” He wonders if they focus-grouped this, especially for the people in Group 9.
In MarketWatch, Christopher Elliott, a consumer travel advocate, said, “This is a case study in corporate double-speak.” He added, “American has created at least eight distinct groups of passengers, from the have-nots to the have-it-alls. This kind of stratification would make even an aristocrat blush. It has absolutely no place in the 21st century.”
Let’s take a look the old and new names, in this graphic from One Mile at a Time:
It’s clear why they made the change. In the past, when gate agents announced who was boarding when and listed the different status levels and classes, there was much confusion at the gate. The emotionally charged atmosphere was worse because the people who boarded later (the ones in groups 4 to 9 in this chart) were more likely to be confused, annoying the frequent flyers in the first few groups who imagined they were members of a more exalted species.
Some of these status-impaired people, confused by the announcements, strode up to the podium ahead of their spot. At that point the gate agent might have had difficulty identifying if they belonged there and let them in, or shunted them aside for jumping the line. Either way, this pissed off the strutting peacocks with status.
The new process eliminates the problem. You don’t have to figure out if you’re Emerald, Ruby, Sapphire, Platinum, or Executive Platinum — or have some special spot in line because you either got a Citibank American Airlines credit card with some inflated annual fee or purchased a special seat with 1.7 inches more legroom. They figure it and give your a group number.
This is much clearer. It is the opposite of double-speak.
It’s easier for the gate agents, who don’t have to verify what card you hold or whether you got a special seat.
Good work, American Airlines!
Why this still feels like crap
Wait a minute, you’re thinking. There is still a problem. And there is, from a customer experience standpoint.
To enhance the value of its frequent flyer classifications, American has created five classes of advantaged service. You used to need a secret decoder ring to figure them out; now they’re just Group 1 through Group 5. But there are still five ranks on this ladder.
They’re not done monkeying around at the low end, either. The new Group 9 is Basic Economy, similar to the low, low class that United Airlines announced last year. Those tickets have no overhead bin space and the airline assigns you your seat, you don’t get to pick it. And you board last.
American has rejiggered seat spacing, packed us in like salarymen on the Tokyo subway, and is now removing every possible amenity for those with less expensive tickets. This is a neat trick, because it creates resentment and competition between passengers, deflecting their anger from the airline itself. The Group 1s and 2s look down their snouts at the 3s. The 4s and 5s aspire to the be 2s and 3s some day. The people in the cheap seats — the 6s, 7s, 8s, and especially the new 9s — suffer and vow to spend a little more in the future. Every bit of that dynamic creates profit for American Airlines; they laugh and laugh as we fight over inches of bin space and knee space.
I salute the new clarity. But the announcement could be clearer still. So I rewrote it for you:
Know your place
Hi. As an American Airlines frequent flyer, we know you may have noticed confusion at the gate as we call different classes of service to embark onto our planes.
We’ve now taken steps to eliminate that problem. As you board, your boarding pass or mobile device will indicate your group number, from 1 to 9.
By doing this, we clearly label each passenger. We encourage you to envy those in groups higher than yours, and disdain those in lower groups. We promise to continue to remove privileges and space for less expensive seats, allowing you to feel superior to them and thereby creating a demand for upgrades to regain those benefits.
We know this creates resentment, so we created an ad campaign to make you feel friendly towards others and feel good about your superiority. That’s either our contribution to making the world better or our penance for making it angrier. You decide.
Since all the other airlines will have similar classifications, you may as well fly with us. If you get upset and switch to, say, United or Delta, you’ll lose your status and go straight to the back of the line.
America has become polarized into different, resentful groups. Now we’ve done our part to reflect those same divisions on our aircraft. We hope you enjoy the results.