Coffee, Tea or Aisle Seat?

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, May 13, 2007

We have a situation. On my computer screen, I see that the seat chosen for me on a red-eye from LAX is 16E. I suspect, with far more horror than I care to admit, that this is a middle seat. I log onto the airline Web site to confirm -- yup, they've got me lodged into one puny piece of real estate between two probable snoozing humans who will most likely claim the armrests, too.

Maybe other people wouldn't be so bothered by this, wouldn't have so much anxiety about the extra one-half inch of personal space that a window or an aisle seat can provide. Perhaps I should just relax and accept the luck of the draw. But this is a red-eye. A five-hour overnight flight. I feel my legs going into a kind of anticipation cramp, my feet swelling, and several blood clots, I believe, just getting the signal to begin formation.

I need to change this. Examining the options, I see only middle seats left, except for the very glorious 5C and 6C -- aisle seats both -- which are "Available for Preferred Members." Well, then. "Allow me to introduce myself!" I say to the computer screen. "Move aside, travelers, and make way for a Preferred Member!" Is this obnoxious? Yes, this is obnoxious -- and being obnoxious is the most basic privilege of the Preferred.

It is not my fault. I never even asked to be Preferred. One day, I got a letter from my most frequently traveled airline containing a little plastic card with my name on it below the words: "Silver Preferred." I thought what any human is trained to think: "Oh, so other people are Gold?" followed by, "Is there Platinum, too?" Yes, as it turned out, and one more level of Preferred-ness: Chairman's. This added knowledge, I have to say, put a damper on the gift of Silver, which I believed, anyway, to be a mistake. Why the heck was I Preferred over any other regular old coach traveler wearing sweat pants and sneakers and the occasional baseball cap to hide the hair I had not had time to fix? I later learned that I flew 30 "Preferred Qualifying Segments" in 2005, thus bumping me up to the status of a secondary precious metal.

Now that I was Preferred, I felt I should dress better. It took me a while to adapt. But the funny thing about being Preferred, even though you never asked for it and don't believe you deserve it, is that pretty soon you start owning it. I'd see that long check-in line and then the little sign that said "Preferred Members Only," and I'd whip out my silver card and stomp over there, entitled. Oh, as a Silver Preferred member, I got all sorts of privileges that allowed me to trod upon the less fortunate. I could board right along with those old people and babies requiring special services -- I could bust in front of them if I wanted to. I was Preferred! I could get on priority standby status, into priority security lanes. "Excuse me, I'm Preferred!"

Special. Chosen. Loved. These are all synonyms for the word, "preferred." To be preferred is the goal of every person, in some small way, and here was my validation coming to me via a major airline. This could have been pathetic, were it not for all the goodies I got.

The current goodie I'm here to get is 5C. Or 6C. I enter my Silver Preferred account number and go for the grab. It doesn't work. A glitch! This is an outrage. I am Preferred. I don't have time for this. I call the customer service line, listen to the representative clicking and clacking on her computer, and then she comes out with this ridiculous statement. "You're not Preferred." I laugh the "Ha-ha!" of the Chosen who find amusement in the mumblings of the masses. "Oh, I'm Preferred," I say. She explains that in 2006 I did not fly 30 Preferred Qualifying Segments, and so my status has been downgraded.

"You're dumping me?" I say.

"We don't like to think of it like that," she says.

"Well, you're not the one being dumped," I say.

"I'm sorry, ma'am."

"You don't have, like, a Copper Preferred level? A probationary status or something?"

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