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George Hobica

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Do Airlines Treat You Better If You Dress Well?

Posted: 11/16/11 08:00 AM ET

When a friend of mine checked in for a flight from San Francisco to Vancouver recently, he was surprised that the Air Canada gate agent handed him a first-class boarding pass as he was about to get on his flight. What was so unusual about this? Several things: He had bought an economy class ticket, he rarely flies on Air Canada and thus has no frequent flyer status on the airline and, even more unusually, the flight was half empty so this wasn't an oversell upgrade situation. So why the extra love?

Because he was wearing a suit. Yep, my pal asked the gate agent why he was so blessed and she answered, "Our station manager noticed how well dressed you were and told me to upgrade you."

I flew recently on a United p.s. flight from New York's JFK to Los Angeles and was sitting in the United Red Carpet lounge waiting for my flight in economy class when I heard my name paged. "George Hobica, please see the agent at the front desk." My heart literally started skipping beats because I knew what was coming: I was going to be bumped from the flight. I am the lowest of the low in United's MileagePlus frequent flyer program with just 80,000 lifetime miles and the flight was full.

Instead, I was handed a first class boarding pass. Was it because I was wearing suit? I didn't ask, but most of the other passengers waiting in the lounge were in what passes for air travel attire these days: sandals, dirty sneakers, jeans, t-shirts, gym attire. If I'm going on a business trip, I wear my suit on the plane, in part because I don't want it to take up too much room in my carry on. And because it just looks better.

My guess is that United overbooked economy and they needed to upgrade someone. And that someone was me. In a recent blog post, I asked a gate agent for another airline if he would give preference to a well-dressed passenger in such a scenario and his answer was, "Yes, the better dressed you are, the more likely you are to nab that seat. I am not going to put someone wearing flip flops up front with our best customers. It also pays to be courteous, to smile and to be patient. I would rather give the better seat to someone who makes my life easier." (He did point out, however, that if the flight isn't oversold, the computer takes over and assigns upgrades based on frequent flyer status and other factors.)

"You can't fly on Concorde! You're not wearing a tie!"

Think this is "dress up and sit up front" stuff is nonsense? Well, not really. For a couple of years in the 1980s, just before they went belly up, I worked as a consultant for Eastern Airlines -- remember them? -- and could fly anywhere for free, in first class if seats were available. One evening a ticket agent handed me a seat in economy. "Is first class full?" I meekly inquired. "The way you're dressed, you don't even deserve to fly at all," he scolded. What was my sin? I was wearing a suit and a nice pair of shoes but had taken off my tie. Into economy I went.

Another time I was booked in business class on British Airways on a pass from Heathrow to New York. Due to an air traffic controller slow down, my flight and virtually all others were canceled, but I convinced the company to put me on the one flight that was still operating, which happened to be on the Concorde. I approached the ticket counter and explained that I was authorized to fly supersonic.

"You can't fly on Concorde!" the agent barked at me. "You're not wearing a tie!" True story. Luckily, this time I had a tie in my carry on. "One sec," I replied. I ducked down behind the counter, quickly repaired my wardrobe malfunction, popped back up and said, "Can I have my boarding pass now?" And off I flew.

If we have to dress up, why don't the passengers?

You see, for many years airline employees were required to dress nicely if they were flying on a pass. Women were required to wear a skirt and a blouse, and men at least donned a sport coat and tie or in some cases a suit. The rules were especially strict for first-class travel. No jeans, no sneakers, no tie, no service. Although most airlines have relaxed these rules, there are a lot of employees who remember the old days. And perhaps, they figure, if we had to dress well to fly, what's up with all the passengers who get to sit in first class dressed like Richard Simmons? (It's a bit ironic that these days when you fly first class on British Airways and many airlines, they give you a pair of pajamas to change into).

And although I don't recommend that you show up at the airport in your pj's -- didn't someone get kicked off a Southwest flight recently for doing that? -- it's entirely up to you how you dress when you fly. I do understand that flying is often uncomfortable and many folks want to make the flight as pleasant as possible. And many of you will think that this entire post is a lot of nonsense, to which I say, "Great! I don't want you dressing up and competing for my next discretionary upgrade!"

But, I'm just saying. Everything else being equal (same frequent flyer status, etc.) when a flight is oversold in economy and the airline needs to upgrade someone, are they going to choose the passenger in the tank top or the one wearing the nice dress or suit? Now you know the answer.

How do you dress when you fly? Have you ever been upgraded because you were well-dressed?

 

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