Airline Travel Tantrum: Sometimes First Class Means No Class

Airline Travel Tantrum

Is it just me, or do the airlines bring out the worst in people?

The other day, I was at the counter checking in. Suddenly, there was a commotion to my right. A man of middle-age and middle-girth was having a tantrum worthy of a two-year-old. Except that a two-year-old does not typically string together four-letter words or insult people based on their ethnic or racial background.

This individual, who was in the Platinum Super-Duper Elite line, was screaming at the top of his lungs and hopping around as if his shorts were on fire.

It seems the agent, a South Asian woman, had asked to see his phone — perhaps to glance at his boarding pass or proof of vaccination — and had touched it.

The man went berserk. He also began to berate the woman for her accent and lack of deference. He even went on to talk about “you people” not understanding his needs and sensibilities … and asked to see her supervisor.

By this point, I was tempted to step in and say something, despite knowing that such confrontations seldom end well. 

But, just then, the supervisor arrived. He was an imposing fellow … and South Asian. The man went quiet.

Perfect!

Airline Etiquette Is Like Golf Etiquette

I have long thought that the way people act in and around aircraft can tell you a lot about their character. Much like playing a round of golf.

Speaking of golf, back in the 90s, I was traveling from Tokyo to Detroit. I was in first class on a Northwest Airlines 747.

After exchanging pleasantries with the flight attendant, I settled into my seat, 1C, nestled up near the nose of the wide-body plane. 

Other passengers sauntered in. They included golfer Arnold Palmer, IMG Founder and CEO Mark McCormack, and golfer Raymond Floyd.

Palmer and McCormack took seats directly behind me.

Raymond Floyd did not take his seat, which was also in the second row.

Yet Another Airline Travel Tantrum

Instead, he motioned over the flight attendant and bellowed, “I always sit in 1B! That should be my seat!”

As it happened, 1B was occupied by a Japanese gentleman. Not that Floyd seemed to care.

After some back and forth and seat-shuffling, Floyd got his wish. And the Japanese gentleman ended up next to me, in 1D.

Turns out, he was the CEO of Infiniti, the luxury division of Nissan. Although his English was limited, we had a good conversation about autos, as I had worked at Ford previously. I apologized for my fellow American’s rudeness. He just smiled.

A First-Class Jerk

In contrast to Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer turned out to be one of the most gracious individuals you could ever wish to meet. He introduced me to McCormick. He told me that he had gone to Japan to play several rounds of golf with some Japanese CEOs (I later found out he and Floyd had been paid $1 million for their trouble). He also showed genuine interest in what I had been up to.

PGA Hall of Fame golfer Arnold Palmer (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images for the World Golf Hall of Fame)

Maybe Raymond Floyd was just having a bad day or had consumed some bad Suntory whisky. But from that day forward, I would tell people that Arnold Palmer was every bit as nice and approachable as they had heard. And that Raymond Floyd was a first-class jerk.

It’s too bad there isn’t a way to identify such people in advance. Maybe we could borrow from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Put an “A” on their forehead — not for adultery, but for another word beginning with an “A.”

That way, when they approach, you instantly know what you’ll be dealing with. And the lady at the check-in line could quickly go on break.

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About The Author
Robert Waite
Robert Waite
Robert is Managing Director at Waite + Co., a communications firm with offices in Boston, Ottawa and Toronto. He also teaches at Seneca College. He has more than 35 years experience leading communications, marketing and government relations functions for some of North America’s largest firms, including Ford, IBM, CAE, CIBC and Canada Post. He served as Press Secretary to Senator Edward W. Brooke (R-MA) and Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) and in the Reagan Administration. He is a three-time winner of the New England Press Association’s Best Column Award. He can be reached at [email protected].
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