Christopher Elliott Has Some Good Points

A lot of frequent flyers hate Christopher Elliott. I never even read the guy’s stuff until Gary and Ben started complaining about him, which means they were fanning the flames, not Elliott. But since people keep brining up his articles, I do read them. And one article on Linked In today actually has some valid points.

First, understand that YOU are not his audience. The upper elite tiers of a frequent flyer program are like the 1%. They are important in terms of revenue, but they are a small number of actual people. Furthermore, only a fraction of those actually read the blogs and FlyerTalk. So not everyone is as points obsessed as we are. Elliott writes for the vast majority of travelers who might enjoy reading our stories but probably shouldn’t get in the game because, let’s face it, it’s not for everyone. Just like we all like to read about celebrities in the news, but not everyone can or should grow up to be a movie star.

His post today is focused on what makes you an “entitled” elite traveler. Here I think he is spot on. He’s not arguing against being an elite traveler. He’s arguing against being an annoying DYKIA (“Do you know who I am?”) traveler. So I’ll take his headlines one-by-one and explain why I think he’s right.

You think that if it doesn’t have wings, it’s not important.

I love to fly, but it’s about the destination, not how I get there. When I am flying, I like to do it in comfort, so I do appreciate my elite benefits. There are also lots of places I like to visit when the train or car or just walking is preferred. I really enjoy driving between the Bay Area and Santa Barbara. US-101 is one of the more scenic highways in the United States, and it’s not nearly as windy or time-consuming as Highway 1 on the coast. When I was commuting every few months between Cupertino and Irvine, I often chose to drive instead of fly, and I would drive on US-101 instead of I-5 even though it took an extra hour. More recently, I’ve been taking the train between Seattle and Vancouver. It’s late. It stops often. But it’s incredibly scenic and goes by places you can’t even reach by car.

You would do anything for a mile.

Definitely a sign of obsession. I love my miles. I do try to make sure I have some good credit cards in my wallet and I sign up for the quarterly promos. But I don’t do every little thing. I only bought $2,500 in Vanilla Reload cards, so seeing the deal die wasn’t all that traumatic for me. I don’t mind using my American Express Platinum Card for dinner even though I carry my Sapphire Preferred in the same wallet (I’m trying to hit a minimum spend right now). I didn’t sign up with BCKSTGR for 1,000 free United miles because I really didn’t want the hassle of changing all my accounts just to avoid getting spammed through three different services.

You whine when you don’t get an upgrade.

I whine when United makes it difficult for elites to understand the upgrade hierarchy, or when they force you to split itineraries in order to upgrade your companion. I whine when rules like SPG’s availability-based suite upgrades for Platinum members aren’t honored. But that’s different. That’s a sign the program is not operating well. But if United can sell an upgrade and make enough money to stay in business, good for them. Getting an upgrade is a privilege, not a right, and we should all realize that if everyone got upgrades for free, no one would pay for it anymore. I paid for economy class, and I always make sure I have a decent seat waiting for me in economy class just in case my upgrade doesn’t clear.

You refer to passengers in economy class as “the little people.”

The more common term is “kettles,” as in Ma and Pa Kettle from the eponymous television series, referring to people who are ignorant about travel. And I’ll admit to using that term on occasion. But there is a difference between kettles and everyone in economy class. After all, I still fly in economy class on a fair number of trips. The few times I use the term, I’m often referring to the annoying people who overpack, exceed the carryon limit, and bring along a full-size pillow for a three-hour flight. Those people are just annoying, and they’re probably annoying in other aspects of life besides travel. It happens. There are annoying people in the world. I’ve learned to deal with it. But some people just don’t know that communities like FlyerTalk exist, or they know and don’t care because they only travel twice a year. That’s completely understandable. Not everyone is going to be an expert, and we can’t hold them all to the same standard. Making broad accusations that everyone in economy class is beneath you is just rude. I think most of us can agree on that.

Loyalty programs are your religion.

I’m really not sure where Elliott came up with this one, so he might be going too far. It sounds more defensive than anything because people have criticized him in the past for criticizing loyalty programs. But he is right that we shouldn’t obsess about the loyalty programs. They exist to make money. If they aren’t making money off your loyalty, they will change the rules. That’s why we’ve seen significant devaluation of the lowest elite tiers in recent years, and why some people shouldn’t pursue elite status if that’s all they can realistically obtain. Co-branded credit cards offer a much better alternative in most cases.

I’ll probably get some hate mail for agreeing with Elliott on these points. But how much of what I’ve said is really off-base? It’s very possible to be an elite traveler without being an entitled one.

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  • Eric

    Yeah, I spent a majority of my time in the back and choose my seats accordingly, board when I’m supposed to and generally try to be a good citizen, but I agree that posts on good/bad behavior and elite/general passengers tend to conflate the two.

    I’ve certainly seen a few DYKWIA moments (particularly on elites traveling on partners where benefits don’t necessarily carry over or on paid domestic F tickets where benefits like lounge access or food on short flights may not apply) but I’ve also seen a lot of bad behavior of general passengers increase in the past few years, with more people treating gate check like it’s life or death, pretending to misread their boarding group number, or blaming flight attendants or other passengers for their choice of seat assignment.

    The reality is that flying is what you make of it. Some see that 3 hour flight as an experience worse than torture even they’re in First Class, while you or I see may see it as a quick bearable hop, even on an airline where we don’t have status and we’re sitting in the last row of Economy.

    There are entitled, ignorant people out there, and some of them happen to get /seek status, but I’d be interested — even surprised if the two were actually that correlated. My guess is that it’s much more market specific. Heather Poole mentions some particular routes in her book like EWR-MCO or TPA that are just horrendous almost solely due to poorly behaved passengers, even though they tend to run well operationally. Anecdotally, I’ve seen similar issues with flights to LAS and HNL where weather and ATC issues are similarly uncommon.

    Chris is clearly writing to his audience, many of whom are looking for someone to blame, but his accusation that elites are disproportionately bad or entitled passengers doesn’t seem to hold much water. At least they’re more likely to know what to expect on a “normal” flight, if one could ever call one that.

    In the end, this is just a hobby. I’m sure you’d see the same sort of irrational enthusiasm/pedanticism/criticism among people into stamp collecting or model train building. But at least we don’t have furry costumes :)

    • Scottrick

      Yes, no furry costumes!

      Travelers in general have gotten worse. There are a lot of parties to blame. And Elliott could do a better job of separating the DYKWIA from the rest of the elites at times.

      I would say that perhaps the annoying people, elite or not, tend to be the most vocal, so perhaps that’s why we hear a lot of whining. The terms of many loyalty programs have also gotten more complicated, especially when it comes to alliance partners. Many people think that they get E+ on United, for example, when they are Star Gold on another carrier. But no. I was on a nonstop SEA-IAD flight earlier this year as a 1K and got upgraded to first on a K fare. The Lufthansa Senator in line next to me at the podium was astonished to find there was no way, even using miles, to get an upgrade. She sat in a middle seat in E-.

  • Eric

    To be fair, he does exonerate the frequent travelers that behave well, but perhaps should focus some wrath on entitled “kettles” too

  • Christopher Elliott

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. I like it.

  • Robert

    I couldn’t agree more. Send me your pesky points and I’ll take those troublesome things right off your hands….


    I fight for every upgrade and mile I can get, but I remain with in the bounds of decency and stay polite. I always act the diplomat, having worked customer service in Beverly Hills, I know how it feels to have an out of control DYKIA in my face. Bad behavior is never excused. As for the Kettles, I couldn’t fly business class international if they didn’t pay back in steerage.

  • George

    I am commenting/joking heavily about this in my blog tomorrow. Dear Chris, feel free to comment there too. You must know something in advance, nothing I write in my blog should be taken seriously or personally…just a friendly warning!

  • Live From A Lounge

    then why does he want to talk so much about something that only affects a ‘few’ elites. i am sure there are other pressing issues to target his energies on.

    • Scottrick

      IMO, it’s the same reason the New York Times likes to bash evil fat cat bankers. People want someone to hate. Travel isn’t as glamorous as it used to be, and entitled elites are one reason. Never mind that they’re a small fraction of overall elites or that there are entitled infrequent travelers, too.