Ralph Nader, a perennial presidential candidate and longtime consumer advocate, ran into something of a problem recently when flying to Texas from Connecticut.
After asking for an aisle seat due to his 6 ft. plus frame, he was informed by an American Airlines representative that there were no more available for coach customers, unless he wanted to pay $2,680 for it. The airline explained that the aisle seats had been set aside for passengers who were "preferred' flyers or "elite travelers."
Appearing on MSNBC Wednesday morning, Nader called the policy "extortion," saying: "They're charging you for knee lengths."
American Airlines told MSNBC that they were simply doing what all their competitors do -- reserving aisle seats for frequent business fliers or "preferred" customers.
Nader suggested the practice is unethical, and insisted that soon enough airlines will be charging customers to use the bathroom on flights too.
"I think the only thing that's going to be left if we don't have a passenger organization with some millions of members to defend the airline passengers, what they're really heading for is to put a meter on the restroom," he said. "There's nothing else left."
As bizarre as that sounds, he's not far from the truth: a budget airline in Ireland said in 2010 it would phase in bathroom fees for flights lasting one hour or less.
"It's important to join a group like FlyersRights.org," Nader continued. "Because unless the passengers are organized with a full-time group of champions, those airlines aren't going to get the message."
He added that this type of "stratification" is spreading beyond airlines to much of corporate America. "They are automating their relations with customers," Nader said. "That's almost an oxymoron. Customer relations requires some opportunity to speak to a real human being employed by these companies, and not one who comes out of the Philippines or India who don't have a clue what the situation is in this country and make it very difficult to even understand them. I think this is only going to get worse before it gets better."
The video below was broadcast by MSNBC on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012.