The Priority Line

David Macpherson

A while back, I found myself at the airport in the priority line at my gate. Let me confess from the beginning, I did not hold a first class ticket, nor was I a platinum, gold, ruby, diamond, or chartreuse cardholder. I’m not an active member of the military, the only group, in my opinion, which deserves priority treatment. (I’ve not seen many soldiers use this line—I’m guessing many military men and woman don’t feel they deserve special treatment—that’s their nature.) My credit card color defines me as an, at most, moderately active, middle-class traveler. I was in the wrong line by honest mistake.

I’m pretty sure most readers who have traveled by air recently can picture the side-by-side lines at the gate labeled “Priority” or “General” or some other equivalent words. I’d just stepped into the wrong line probably having been pushed by the herd of passengers, like me, rushing forward when boarding begins to be sure they can find a space for their bag in the overheads. Beyond missing the flight altogether (I prefer to arrive at the airport a few days before my flight), you don’t want to be “that guy” who can’t fit his bag in the overhead and has to schlep it to the front of the plane to be “gate checked.” It looks incredibly awkward, the glances from those with safely stowed luggage running from pity to derision.

I found myself boxed in by priority passengers in front and behind me. My briefcase was an old backpack, my roller bag dated by its handle, and my shoes scuffed penny loafers. I was conspicuously out of place among the silk scarves and designer shoes—I clearly didn’t belong. A “limbo” move to the other line I was sure would result in a call for medical assistance. My only other option was to push my frayed roller bag through the well dressed to exit the line. I decided to fake it.

As I waited, I silently practiced witty phrases that might assuage the hostile counseling I was likely to receive from the gate agent when I presented my inferior boarding pass followed by an angry message on the overhead speaker reminding passengers to board only with their assigned group, similar to the call for a price check at the pharmacy counter, “Need a price on rainbow ribbed condoms.” I couldn’t think of anything even vaguely humorous. During times of stress, I often revert to magical thinking—maybe the gate agent wouldn’t notice. My armpits were moist as I waited for my near certain public flogging.

I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating about the priority line at airport gates. Most airlines (other than Southwest) use such a system. I’ve wondered about the line’s purpose. Perhaps the traveler’s experience in the priority line is better—scented air, soft music only the traveler can hear, thicker carpet. As I stood for the first time in the better line, the experience seemed exactly like the general line, most people looking inpatient or scrolling in their phone with one guy talking aloud presumably on a business call (but perhaps having an auditory hallucination about moving products quickly to San Diego—you just can’t tell sometimes).

So, if the priority line experience is no different than general boarding, what’s the purpose? Might different lines separate the herds creating more space for the priority folks? To do that, the lines should be far apart, and I’ve never seen them configured other than immediately adjacent. Despite separate lines, the herds are still mixing at the gate as best as I can tell.

Perhaps the airlines believe that priority passengers enjoy strutting their status. It’s not clear why. From the behaviors I’ve seen, most air travelers avoid person-to-person interaction. While standing in line, you’re not likely to make that key contact that sets your career soaring. And if the reason for the priority line is to allow the well to do to advertise their wealth, is the audience receptive? I may be in the minority here, but I don’t think so. I’ve never overheard a general passenger comment to his partner, “Doesn’t the priority line make her look great!” I don’t look upon the people in this line with envy or approval—they just seem to be waiting in a line that offers an identical queuing experience. In some sense, our waiting experience in the line at the gate unifies us.

Unfortunately for you, the reader, I’m not quite done. The final reason for the separate line might be to simply advertise to those without priority credentials that they too might achieve this superior status. The fact that priority passengers board first is not enough. They must believe no one is paying attention to who boards first—a separate line is a necessary visual cue. This, of course, is ridiculous—every passenger waiting to board is singularly focused on staying as far to the front of their assigned line as they can, short of physical assault, to gain position. Not paying attention might lead to the dreaded gate check or even missing the flight altogether.

My line began boarding signaled by the periodic “ding, ding” of the scanner. My judgment—public humiliation versus successful deception—was at hand. When my time came, the gate agent looked at me in line and held up her hand like a traffic cop. She knows! She walked toward me. I had the urge to run. My heart was pounding.

She reached up, and, in one simple motion, switched the signs on the two lines—I was back home in “General.”

I handed her my slightly moist boarding pass. “Ding, ding.”


About the Author

David Macpherson is a retired internal medicine physician living on a small farm in western Pennsylvania. He retired in 2016 as a Professor of Medicine from the University of Pittsburgh and as a Chief Medical Officer for the Veterans Health Administration serving as the lead physician in a mid-Atlantic region. He is proud to have focused his medical efforts on US veterans. He is married and has two adult children who serve as part of his network of reviewers who critique and help to improve his writing. Most of the time, his family’s thoughts on his writing are correct—but not always. Dr. Macpherson’s interest in writing fiction dates to the mid 1970’s. During his medical career, he accumulated near thousands of excuses why not to sit and write fiction. Since retirement, almost all of these excuses have vanished and he has written numerous short stories along with memoir and opinion pieces. His fiction has appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review, Adelaide Literary Journal, Front Porch Review, and Rind Literary Magazine. Opinion and memoir pieces have appeared in the Pittsburgh Quarterly.