WASHINGTON — As if bankrupt American Airlines didn't have enough problems, along comes consumer advocate Ralph Nader — who's really steamed that for a flight Saturday to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the only way for a non-frequent flyer to get an aisle seat was to pay full-fare $2,680 instead of the $700 price he'd already paid.
Price of American Airlines ticket: $700.
Cost of aisle seat: $2,680.
Potential price for alienating Ralph Nader: priceless
It was Nader who forced the creation of the "bumped passenger" rules — request for volunteers to give up their seats — when, yup, he got bumped years ago in a case that went to the Supreme Court.
And it was Nader who beat back a lawsuit from MasterCard after parodying their "priceless" campaign during his 2000 presidential bid.
This time, the persistent Nader got his aisle seat — at no extra cost — as a goodwill gesture from American. But he says, "They're not going to make me go away."
In an interview, Nader, 77, said that his very first airline flight was with American in the early 1950s, but he invariably flies Southwest Airlines — the official airline of his presidential campaigns — because that airline is "proletariat."
Nader's upcoming trip this weekend from Hartford, Conn., to Dallas-Fort Worth to Washington would have been unremarkable except for his standing request to his travel booker to get him on the aisle. "I'm tall," said Nader.
And on this flight there was no option to pay a small fee — usually ranging from $20 to $60 — to secure an aisle. The only availability: a middle seat.
But with a large number of seats blocked for seat selection for Elite members, the only choice Nader, not an American frequent flyer, had, according to numerous calls he and his booker made to the carrier, was to pay a full-fare ticket — the same price as first class.
American, for its part, does not see a problem.
"We don't charge $2,000 for an aisle seat," said American spokesman Tim Smith. Although the aisle was not available "at that time," the airline releases seats not taken by Elite members the day of the flight, he said.
Of course, there is no guarantee that would happen, and Nader — who is giving speeches to the Muslim League in Richardson, Texas, and Dallas this weekend — wanted to be sure.
Smith said, "This was a lower cost fare that was highly restricted." Asked whether customers with cheap tickets could still get an aisle, Smith said, "It is possible to get aisle seats with discounted tickets."
Nader, however, discovered that it is not easy to do because carriers usually block preferred seats on the aisle and at the front of the plane.
"This practice is common on all U.S. carriers that reserve seats," Smith said.
Nader's take: "They can release it if there are no suckers."
"They're behaving like a monopoly extortionist," Nader said. "This is a bankrupt company in more ways than one."
Even though Nader, by virtue of his high profile and consumer track record, scored a victory, he said that he told the customer service official who gave him the aisle, "You've fixed my problem, but you haven't fixed the overall problem."
And Nader can be persistent. It took him four years to defeat MasterCard's $5 million suit against him for an ad mocking the major parties:
"Finding out the truth: priceless. There are some things money can't buy. Without Ralph Nader in the presidential debates, the truth will come in last."
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