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January 17, 2019

G-Spot: Priority boarding and other scams affecting jet setters

A passenger sits besides her bags as she waits for the gates to be opened so she can board the airplane
A passenger sits besides her bags as she waits for the gates to be opened so she can board the airplane

Recently as I prepared to board a flight, I found myself becoming quietly amused when I realised there were two queues for the same flight. The one line was for so-called priority passengers and the other was for the rest of us mere mortals of no importance.

Over a long life of international travel I’ve experienced life on both sides of the fence, and while I know which I like best, more often than not I am forced by economic considerations to be one of the common people.

The priority passengers get preferential treatment from the get go. They have separate check-in desks, which enable them to avoid the long queues that the rest of us have to put up with, and where the whole process is speeded up. 

Then, depending on the airline and a few other factors, they might have a special lounge, where they can sit in comfort with a free buffet and drinks as they wait for their flight to be called. 

Meanwhile, the hoi polloi roam around the airport’s duty-free shops, admiring expensive goodies, mainly booze and perfumes, that in theory should be less costly than you might find in your local supermarket but often in practice seem to be more expensive.

As I headed to the boarding gate, I realised it was one of the ones at Johannesburg’s OR Tambo airport where, instead of using the jet bridge to board, passengers have to take a shuttle bus to be dropped off at the stairs of the aircraft. When I got to the gate there were two queues, one for the priority passengers and the other for those of us who the airline clearly considers inferior.

At this point, the whole priority passenger thing rather lost its meaning as, despite the preferential treatment at the gate, all the passengers were herded like so many cattle onto the same airport bus, and when it stopped at the aircraft, the distinctions between the passengers were lost and we were all equal to board.

The smug faces the priority passengers had worn when surveying the rest of us as we queued were a lot less self-satisfied. And while I got a little kick out of this because I have no time for complacent people, it made me wonder why all the fuss about priority check-in and queues if, when it came to the actual getting on the aeroplane, it was all forgotten and suddenly we were all equal?  

I don’t know if the airlines have considered this problem or what they intend to do about it, but from where I stand, this sudden equality makes a mockery of the whole priority boarding system. 

There seems to be what golfers and business people like to call follow-through. By the time the passengers disembarked, they were all on the same level. There was no priority carousel, and we are all equal when picking up our luggage.

It’s a bit like life, really. While you may have made it through life as a member of the lucky sperm club, death makes everyone equal, because it does not spare anyone, not even the wealthy, famous or talented. 

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