Upgrade, what upgrade?

One of the benefits of being a frequent flyer is that occasionally, just out the of the goodness of their heart, an airline may decide to upgrade you from the cheap seat in the back of the plane to a much larger, much more comfortable and far better fed seat at the front of the plane.

On journeys that cross an ocean this truly is a treat, and the only danger is that you get so used to the superior service that the prospect of travelling in the back fills you with fear and dread.

On intra-continental journeys the upgrade is frequently less impressive; in Europe the expensive ‘business class’ seats are actually the same width as the cheap seats at the back. Also, the extra legroom for business class is typically available through the first 7 or 8 rows rather than just those defined as premium. On the other hand, the food is normally good and the service is far, far improved from that typically received by the cattle in the back.

A few weeks ago I was given an upgrade on my regular, early morning flight to the Netherlands. Though, upon reflection, before embarking on this particular rant, I should perhaps explain my routine on this particular flight that takes of at 6am:

  1. Drive into the airport car park between 5:05 and 5:15am (depending on how enthusiastic I have been about getting out of bed- let’s face it, I can hardly blame traffic congestion at that time of the morning)
  2. Walk to the terminal and pick up the ‘Priority’ sticker on my Boarding Pass (there are privileges to being a frequent flyer- and one of them is swooshing through the security checkpoint and incurring the wrath and looks of daggers of the waiting tourists as they line up for hours on end)
  3. Grab a muffin and OJ from the business lounge and wander along to the aeroplane so that I am boarded by 5:50
  4. Install my butt in a none-too-comfortable seat and stretch my legs out under the seat in front of me; place Bose QC2 Noise Cancelling headphones over my ears, pull a sleep mask over my eyes and, if the plan has worked, fall asleep right around the time the Flight Attendant is showing us the way to exit the aeroplane should there be an emergency
  5. Ideally, I will then wake up as we pull up to the gate in Amsterdam, approximately 100 minutes and 1 somewhat fitful but thoroughly needed nap later.

This system seems to work fairly well for all concerned, so why would there be an issue if I was given an upgrade? Well, the upgrade consisted of

a)No food
b)A ‘bulkhead’ seat

Given my previously stated plan to sleep through the entire flight, the lack of food would not be a problem (it would be on a long haul flight, but the increase in seat size would probably make up for that). No, my issue is with the whole concept of the fact that a bulkhead seat is somehow better than a non-bulkhead seat. The reason I choose to sit where I do is so that I can extend my legs under the seat in front. Now I am not the tallest guy on the planet, far from it, but years of various sporting abuses has left me with a knee that doesn’t take kindly to being cramped and bent for too long. Having a seat in front means I can extend my legs out fully, the result of which is that I am able to walk off the plane at the other end rather than limp. Obviously, the person at the check in desk was unaware of why I choose to sit where I do, but when I looked at my ‘upgrade’ and rejected the change of seat I threw the whole system into chaos.

According to the airline, not having any food and not having any leg room must be better than my previous seat because now I was in ‘Business Class’. I tried to politely explain that I didn’t want the seat that they had assigned me, I wanted the seat that I had chosen for myself, but this was not possible, instead, I had to take it up with the cabin crew.

Fortunately, as is often the way, the people actually in the firing line (the cabin crew) quickly resolved the issue and I was able to sit in seat that would not cause me pain. But it still begs the question: Why have airlines invested in all the technology to allow on-line check-ins and self selection of exactly the seat you want only to then totally override your choice? Then if you do decide not to accept the change why is it such a major hassle? And finally, and most crucially, why do they think that a service that too most casual observers would appear inferior is an ‘upgrade’ simply because you are sitting in a different section of the plane?

I guess I shouldn’t complain too much- after all, at least I am assigned a seat and may be offered food (even if I choose to sleep right through it all)