Columns 2017

The miseries of flying

The last time I traveled by plane was just a day after the incident on a United Airlines flight where a customer was dragged off the plane with a bloodied face, missing teeth and a concussion. As I deplaned from my Alaska Airlines flight in Anchorage, I turned to the attendants and pilots waiting at the front of the plane to say goodbye and thanked them for not beating up their customers. This was met by a moment of confused (stunned?) silence. As I continued out the door, I heard a delayed whoop of laughter.

I fly Alaska Airlines almost exclusively. I find their service is usually pretty wonderful and their approach to their customers actually indicates they believe we are humans deserving of respect. But that does not negate the fact the Alaska Airlines, like every other American airline, has shrunk its seats to Lilliputian size while Americans have grown to Brobdingnagian proportions. If you are over five foot tall, you have less legroom than you had in your mother’s womb. Flights are always completely packed and it seems as though the largest passengers are always in the middle seats. Walking down the obscenely narrow aisle is a humiliating exercise in apologies to everyone whose arms you bump. And when those carts come down those same aisles, all your limbs are in acute danger of getting whacked.

Flying has become something to endure, something we need to get from here to there in a reasonable amount of time. But no one dresses for flying anymore because no one feels very special when flying. It’s hard to feel special when you are getting more intimate with your seatmate than you do with your spouse. It’s hard to feel special when you are squeezed into the smallest space legally allowed and then asked to stow your carryon under the seat in front of you when that seat is practically in your face. It’s hard to feel special when reclining your seat even the slightest brings you into direct eye contact with the person sitting behind you. It’s hard to feel special when the bathroom is so small you have to practically climb on the seat to turn around. Most especially, it’s hard to feel special when you have a seat in the last row of the plane so that you get to experience the special air that flows out of those bathrooms every time the door opens. To top it all off, those last seats don’t even give you the possibility of reclining enough to maybe nap through the noxious experience.

The sad thing is that if you fly foreign airlines, except for the occasional British Airways flight, you find that service and legroom do still exist. You find much happier flight attendants because they are dealing with much happier flyers. When you read stories about United Airlines staff beating up a customer or American Airlines staff smacking a mother holding a baby, you wonder why people who are like that would work in the airline industry, specifically in a position where customer service is supposedly part of the job description.

The answer is that those people probably started off liking their job and the passengers they worked with. But then they too started to grasp just how uncomfortable and miserable plane flights are and how the passengers were apt to hold them responsible for every discomfort because they are the face of the airlines on that plane. That’s when their attitude starts turning sour and leads to unfortunate incidents that include smacking a mother and breaking a doctor’s teeth.

I am old enough to remember when flying was special. You were treated as royalty once you entered the plane, whether you were in first class or lumped in the back with the proletariat. You were served meals by smiling attendants while reclining in seats actually meant to accommodate the human body. I grew up in a lower middle class home above a grocery store. The first time I flew, I felt like I’d entered the world of Jackie Kennedy. I’d never been treated as though I was so special.

Now I enter a plane and feel as though I’m entering a penal institution from which there is no release until landing. I squeeze myself into my minimally allotted space, buckle up and pray for no delays so that I can escape as soon as possible. And I pay good money for the privilege.

Yep, I understand why fights are breaking out on planes. I’m just amazed they didn’t break out a lot sooner.