Saturday, November 05, 2016

Mistaken Identity

I'm not usually mistaken for anybody. Well, Scott sometimes. Not only are we about the same age, married and have two kids, we look somewhat similar. How similar? Years ago we were on a road trip, walking down a street trying to find a restaurant. We stopped a couple of women to ask for directions, and before we could say anything they blurted out "Are you guys brothers?" More recently, I've encountered clients we both worked with previously who have moved on to new situations. When I've gone up to say hello, before I can reintroduce myself they say "Scott! Been years! How are you?" Implicit in their tone is how pleased they are with themselves for remembering my name. Usually, I let it go, not wanting to burst their bubble.

Beyond that, I'm not usually confused with anyone. Occasionally someone's brother-in-law, a few times an old college acquaintance, but no one in particular. I don't look like George Clooney or Brad Pitt or my friend Andy who lives down the street. I do occasionally get that I sound like Alan Alda or Al Michaels, but I don't hear it myself. As Popeye said, "I yam whats I yam, and that's all what I yam."

So I was pleased when the special United Airlines Global Services agent spotted me and came up with a smile. I was standing at the gate in Houston waiting to catch an early flight home. Because traffic was so light at 530 in the morning I had gotten to the airport a bit earlier than planned. After grabbing a breakfast sandwich and a cup of coffee, I headed over to my assigned gate. Fearing that if I sat down I would fall asleep, I decided to stand in my assigned group lane.

If you've traveled recently, you've no doubt encountered full planes, more limited schedules and this element of efficiency. As a pilot with 22 years of experience said while waiting for our plane, the business has never made much sense. Too much capacity and too many cheap fares were great for passengers, but bad for business. More recently that has shifted. Consolidation, fewer flights carrying more people and lower fuel prices have all combined to lift profitability.

More streamlined processes have also played their part. That means that crews help clean planes, and passengers are boarded in a more orderly fashion. I was Exhibit A in that last point. My boarding pass said I was in Group 5, the last of the last, to be let on after the wheel chair patrons, families with kids, uniformed military, First Class, Business Class, upgrades and basically anyone else. But I knew the drill. So rather than rush the gate at the appointed hour, I obediently took my place in the rope and stanchioned row allotted to my lowly number in line if not life.

If I was the lowest, Global Services was the highest. United awards that distinction to its best customers, and does all it can to make them feel special, including dedicated agents and early boarding. While they won't confirm the criteria, it's generally thought to be about $50,000 a year in plane tickets. Hard to begrudge anyone a little preferential treatment when they spend that much money and time on air travel.

Because of the way the small gate area had been set up, my lowly Group 5 was actually closest to the jetway. And since I was there first and early, it looked like I was queuing up in front of everyone else and expecting to hop on as soon as the door opened. Hence the Global Services agent's confusion. My physical position had given her some indication that perhaps I was deserving of special treatment, and she didn't want to make me ask for it.

But it was not to be. I informed her I was no one special, just a regular Joe waiting to fly home. I explained to her why I was standing there, and that she had mistaken me for someone far more important. She responded as I'm sure she had been taught: "No one is lowly. You are very important to us." Yes, that may be true. And I might have been somebody. But alas, no, I was me. Or to paraphrase George Orwell, while all passengers are important, some passengers are more important than others.


Marc Wollin of Bedford rarely gets upgrades anymore. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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