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Toward Equality for VIPs

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To the ordinary air traveler, jostled about and sweating around a crowded airline counter, there is nothing more infuriating than to see another passenger get treatment that includes special decorative tags for his luggage and the right to while away his waiting time in one of the luxurious private lounges that many airlines maintain as part of their VIP "clubs." This becomes even more annoying as the plebeian passenger thinks it all over and realizes that he has paid every penny as much for the flight as the type who is getting VIP favors.

Intending to change the situation, the Civil Aeronautics Board's Bureau of Enforcement last week filed formal complaints against nine airlines: American, Braniff, Continental, National, Northwest, Pan American, Trans Caribbean, TWA and United. The bureau asked that the carriers be forced to close their "separate and unequal" facilities at major airports. A separate complaint against American was filed with the CAB by Herbert A. Goldberger, a Providence businessman, after he was denied admission last December to the line's special waiting rooms. "I felt like I'd been sent to the back of the bus," he said.

Open Up. If the five-member CAB upholds its own enforcement unit's complaints, airlines still need not stop giving VIP treatment to a diplomat whose national dignity needs flattering or to a rock 'n' roll singer who needs protection from the mob. All the petitions ask is that the airlines be required to open the same lounge facilities to everyone.

At present, the lounges are open only to members. The "club" tradition start ed in the early days of flying as a reward for the brave, pioneer passengers. The clubs charge no membership fees and have rather vague qualifications for admission. In the lingo of the lines' public-relations people, Pan American's Clipper Club, the biggest of them all, with 175,000 members, is for travelers "who have made a contribution to international understanding"; American's 100,000-strong Admirals Club is for people who have made "a contribution to aviation"; the 100,000 members of TWA's Ambassadors Club are just people "who fly a lot."

Special & Superior. The privileges of members vary. The Ambassadors and Admirals clubs have expansive quarters on the top deck of Washington's National Airport, fitted with armchairs, thick carpets, oil paintings, and lockers for private liquor supplies. The 150,000 members of United's 100,000-Mile Club have entry to "Red Carpet Rooms" at airports, get special luggage tags and receive a newsletter. Club members don't travel any faster, but a Clipper Club member may rise rapidly to the top of a Pan Am waiting list.

The clubs, the CAB complaints pointed out, are "wholly owned and controlled and managed" by the lines and not the members. They provide "special and superior services not otherwise or generally available" and constitute "unjust discrimination" because they "confer special favor and advantage to selected passengers" who have paid no more than ordinary travelers.

The airlines have 15 days to reply.


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