Richard Quest: When things go wrong, it's every flyer for himself


Last week my plan to make a quick day trip from Atlanta (where I am at the moment) to New York was rudely interrupted by the arrival of Superstorm Sandy. The closure of New York's three airports also broke the air bridge between London and New York (there are usually up to 25 daily flights between the two cities) and destroyed thousands of travel arrangements.

I realise that my problems pale into utter insignificance alongside the $20bn of damage the storm is said to have caused across the eastern seaboard, its destructive path ending lives and ruining livelihoods in the process. In my case it was simply a case of abandoning the journey and rescheduling for the future. But it set me thinking.

Is it any different when you have paid thousands of pounds to fly in premium cabins? Does the precious business class code J on your ticket help you when things go wrong? The short answer is, not really. When things go wrong it hits everyone and the ability to get ahead of the rest depends not on what you have paid but on the status you hold. BA or Virgin are not going to be able to magic up a seat to New York if planes are not flying. Nor will they necessarily put you at the front of the queue for when the planes take off again, just because you are in business class.

Of course, business class passengers will have a more comfortable time in airport lounges while backpackers squat in the airport terminal. But it is only the very frequent flyers – the gold cards and above – that get extra-special attention. Simply sidling up to a gate agent and saying "I am in business class" will get you a quick reply: "So are all these other people." The golds and above are those that get that individual attention.

Even when it comes to changing your own travel plans, business class does not mean an automatic "yes". I often buy discounted business class tickets which come with all the restrictions of an economy seat (except when it comes to legroom). So when things go wrong, I too am stuck, waiting along with everyone else.

What I have discovered is that when things go wrong you are on your own. It is the person who calls to rebook first, who gets to the service counter ahead of everyone else and who has a good idea of what their options are who ultimately gets to their destination. I was once flying from Chicago to Hong Kong when the plane "went tech". I quickly got on my mobile phone, called the airline and rebooked myself while waiting in line for the service desk. I took care of myself.

The moment I get wind of a delay, I don't repair to the bar. I start thinking about alternatives and options: finding out about other flights, overnight stays, different routings. If it is my journey home then I immediately think about extending my hotel, car hire – everything that will eventually have to be sorted out.

The point is: none of this is because I was in business class. When it comes to getting where you need to be, every other passenger is your enemy fighting for seats.

Richard Quest is CNN's international business correspondent and presents 'Quest Means Business'. Follow him on Twitter @richardquest