Cutting in front of someone who’s been waiting patiently in line used to be unethical, bad manners, taboo. Now, businesses are letting people pay for the privilege of skipping the line.
Across everything from ski lifts to dating apps, and fueled by relatively new technology, there’s been an explosion of options and services that let wealthier people pay to go first.
At the airport, travelers with a Clear membership — about $189 a year — are escorted to the front of TSA security lines by company “ambassadors” (as the people behind them in line grumble). Clear has rapidly grown to around 19 million members, and it plans to expand further into the hospitality, health care, financial services and online shopping industries.
Dating app Tinder offers a new $499-a-month membership with a “skip the line” feature that prioritizes a dater’s profile. Snowbird and other ski resorts, in a controversial change, allow visitors who pay extra to access expedited ski lifts. In December, Killington introduced a “Four-Day Fast Track” for $199 on top of its daily regular fee of about $165, and it sometimes sells out. Universal Studios theme park offers an unlimited “Express Pass” starting at $109.99 per person – on top of the admission price – which allows holders to skip the line right on the spot.
And, most troubling of all, during the pandemic, wealthy patients paid top dollar to jump to the front of the Covid-19 vaccine queue.
This trend is accelerating because businesses recognize that lines — and how much people will pay to avoid them — are a way to make money. And they now have the technology to do so.
Smartphones, mobile payments and other technology that let people pay in advance, reserve spots and scan tickets have made it easier for businesses to automate and de-personalize cutting the line. The pandemic sped up consumer adoption of mobile payments and pickup orders.
Of course, businesses have long segmented customers based on loyalty or how much they spend, and some customers have always found hidden and informal ways to jump a line — slipping the restaurant host some cash, for example. But it’s institutionalized now.
“What used to be done on an ad-hoc basis with a local manager is now done on a national basis,” said Edward Tenner, a distinguished scholar in the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation and the author of “The Efficiency Paradox.”
There’s a big difference between an airline rewarding frequent travelers, which is a way for businesses to reward their most profitable customers, and offering faster ski lift access for a price, Tenner said.
“They are no longer rewards for patronage, but a pure auction,” he said.
Paying to skip the line is part of a booming industry of advantages — if you can afford them.
There have always been VIPs and perks for wealthier customers: orchestra seats at theaters, boxes at stadiums and first class seats on airlines. But, other than perhaps some food and drink and a better sight line, attendees were having similar experiences. Not so now.
The skier who pays to take the pricier ski-lift line at Snowbird may fit in many more runs in a day. The wealthier kids whose parents pay for the “Lightning Line” at the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster at Disney World can pop on and move on. Regular guests are waiting an average of 88 minutes in line — that’s longer than the “Toy Story” movie that inspired the ride.
Don Munsil, the president of travel website MouseSavers.com, said Disney faced backlash from frequent visitors when it first rolled out an expanded, pricier program to cut ride lines.
But it’s targeted at first-time visitors, who are most eager to get on the most desirable rides and willing to pay an extra fee, he said.
There are downsides to this business model. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots has widened in recent decades, and dividing consumers based on means and how much they can pay to skip a line may create more hostility and resentment.
Many skiers, for example, protested the ski resorts’ move, for example, calling it “sanctioned cutting for rich people,” and 13,000 people signed a petition calling on them to abandon the expedited lanes (they didn’t). Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon complained about Mt. Bachelor’s pass, saying it would “exacerbate equity issues” and create a “two-tiered system of access to public lands based on financial ability.”
And skipping the line raises concerns about fairness and service quality for people who don’t want or have the means to pay extra fees.
“We hate waiting. Standing in line and seeing people pass by you makes you even more frustrated,” said Gad Allon, a professor of operations, information and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
In the best-case scenario, businesses can use the funds from line jumpers to improve service for everybody else, Allon said. But that’s rarely the case. By removing the wealthiest or highest-paying customers from a line, there’s little incentive to advocate for better service for the rest.
“Wealthiest customers are also those that would have most leverage to improve service for everyone,” Edward Tenner said. “You’re taking them out and, therefore, and depriving the masses.”
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