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Exit Row War

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul takes on Continental Airline over a matter of fairness.

An issue of fairness raised itself on our recent trip to Mexico.  It had nothing to do with gay marriage—Mexico City allows it, most of the US does not.  And it didn’t come courtesy of Mexican Customs’ seemingly inefficient requirement that everyone entering the country push a stop-light button before proceeding: Green means go, Red means a thorough luggage search.  It’s laughable the number of times I’ve been held up with a small wheelie bag while others fly by with carts suspiciously piled high with luggage, TVs, microwaves, and other assorted taxable imports.

This new situation came courtesy of Continental Airline’s “Guaranteed Extra Legroom Policy” a.k.a. airlines’ efforts to squeeze more pennies out of travelers.  On the way down, I happily paid the $85 offer to upgrade to business class—I considered that an amazing bargain, especially since the extra bag I was going to check would be free instead of the $50 for a coach passenger.  Hoping to score the same deal on the return, I logged on 24 hours in advance to check-in but was presented with a different offer—$75 to get “Guaranteed Extra Legroom” a.ka. sit in the Exit Row.  In comparison to a comfy seat and warm cookies in the front of the plane, that seemed like less of a deal.

But I get it.  Many airlines are charging these fees.  Since I don’t hold elite status on Continental—always flying a few thousand yearly miles under the radar point screen—I figured paying for the Exit Row would give me a little more comfort on the 4 ½ hour journey.  Especially on one of my least favorite aircrafts: a cramped 737.

Turns out, I was the only sucker who took Continental up on its “offer.”  When the boarding doors closed, only one seat out of 12 in the two exit rows was taken—by me.  Lucky me—I paid for the privilege and now had even more room.

But as soon as the cabin doors were “cross checked,” a steady stream of passengers filled every seat.  Now wait a minute.  Why should I have to pay when everyone else gets the privilege for being bold and aggressive?  If Continental is going to sell those seats, then shouldn’t it be incumbent on them to monitor their usage as well?  They don’t just let folks take any open First Class seat because it would undervalue them.  To me, the same holds true for the Exit Row fees.  I seethed all the way to Newark unable to enjoy the in-flight “entertainment” Valentine’s Day.  Well, I’m not sure I can blame that on the airline.

On the ground, I did some research and discovered that other airlines have figured out this issue.  JetBlue told me

“Customers can move into unsold Even More Legroom seats onboard the aircraft, and our inflight crewmembers collect payment using our “cashless cabin” device.”

Don’t you love all the specially created marketing jargon that allows everyone to talk around an issue?  But JetBlue’s policy seemed right on target to me.  And I wanted my money back from Continental.

As I hit send on the online customer “feedback” form, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear back anytime soon.  So I made some outreach to the media relations team at Continental playing up my credentials as a “respected” blogger and freelance travel journalist just to see what their policy was on this issue.  Frankly, I wanted to know if they had even thought through this problem.  It took a few days of back and forth with the PR team, but I did get a response,

“Customers have embraced our new premium seat program and clearly value the ability to reserve premium seats up to 24 hours prior to departure. Based on your comments, though, we may need to reevaluate certain aspects of the program to ensure we are meeting our customers’ expectations and providing optimal service.”

A day or so later, I got a call from someone on the Customer Service team.

“They told me to call you and tell you that we are refunding your $75 but that this is not our policy and a one time only event.”

I particularly loved the genuine customer service attitude of “they told me to call.” But alas, Continental did respond.  Although it sounds like if you didn’t flash around some blogger credentials, you’d be out of luck.

And I’ve now figured out that I’ve expended way more time and energy and valuable blog space on this issue than the original investment of $75.  So here’s my tip: unless Continental changes the policy soon, book yourself a seat in the row immediately in front or behind the exit row.  And as soon as you hear the cabin door close, make a run for the border.

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