Itook my friend Pierce to the airport the other day. He was flying coach from Boston to Los Angeles. The gentleman behind the counter said, "That will be $700."

Pierce exclaimed, "Seven hundred dollars! I'm not flying by Concorde."

The man replied, "That is our special summer rate for tourist class."

"It's outrageous," Pierce blurted. "How can you charge someone $700 for that flight?"

The man said, "You are our only paying flier. Everyone else is either a free mileage passenger or an employee of the airline heading back home."

Pierce asked, "Don't you have people who purchase their tickets anymore?"

"Hardly ever. It's refreshing to meet someone like you who isn't looking for a free lunch."

"Since I'm the only paying passenger on the flight, couldn't I be upgraded from tourist to first class?"

"I hardly think so. Most of our upgrades are people who have 60,000 miles in credit and have slept in a Hilton hotel for three nights. They naturally get priority over someone like you who is paying cash for his seat."

"How does an airline earn money when it gives away all its flights?"

"We make our profit on cheap maintenance. What we lose on our fares we save in our hangars."

I said to Pierce, "It looks as if you don't have any choice."

Pierce spoke up, "Wait a minute. How long will it take before I fly for free?"

The clerk looked in his book. "I would say two more flights should do it, providing you eat at a Red Lobster restaurant and see 'Dick Tracy' 16 times. We have tie-ins with everyone for our 'Come Fly With Me' August free-fall program."

"Okay," said Pierce. "Give me a ticket."

As the man wrote it out, he murmured, "We would prefer if you didn't mention to the other passengers that you paid for your seat."

Pierce went red. "Why not?"

"Because they'll think you're a snob. Most of our free fliers are very proud, and they won't sit next to people who bought their tickets."

"You just made me pay $700 for a trip to L.A. and now you tell me I can't talk about it."

"It's not an FAA regulation, but it has been our experience that people who have purchased their tickets at full price are considered dumb, and no one has respect for them."

Pierce said, "I don't see any humor in this. If you really cared about paying passengers you would give them the red carpet so everyone in the airport would know who we are."

"We don't want to start a precedent. If we give paying passengers the royal treatment, then our employees will demand the same thing, and we can't offend them because they take up a lot of free seats on our planes. You ought to feel lucky I sold you a ticket. I have someone who won a trip on 'Wheel of Fortune' who is waiting on standby for your seat."

"Why did you take me over him?" Pierce wanted to know.

"Because the FAA insists we keep a number of seats aside just in case some sucker wants to pay."