This air traveler’s emotional baggage won’t fit under the seat

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 11, 2015 07:52
crying boy on airplane

Cranky future columnist?

All right, maybe I am piling on.

But I do have credentials for ripping air travel as a most disagreeable, uncomfortable and inconvenient part of 21st Century life.

That’s because I’ve been flying for nearly 70 years: I took my first airline flight in 1946, and had plenty of legroom on the Trans-Canada DC-3 that flew my mother and me from Montreal to our Chicago-area home.

That I was only 2 weeks old explains the legroom. But Mom found the flight – a  first for both of us in an era when air travel was comparatively new – exciting and interesting.

That her alternative was putting up with a squalling newborn on a day-long train trip might have had something to do with it.

A note of explanation here: Because my father was on a business trip which  overlapped my due date, Mom went from Chicago to Montreal, where her parents lived, for the supposedly blessed event. Back in those days dads were about as welcome as TB in maternity wards.

As I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, our family kept flying: We rode DC-6s, DC-7s, Constellations, Electras, Convairs, Viscounts, and when the jet era began, 707s and DC-8s.  Flight was very exciting, and it took years before the mere act of defying gravity lost its fascination.

That passengers dressed up like they were going to a fancy dinner party didn’t hurt. Nor did the uniformed, exquisitely coiffed stewardesses. Or the dashing pilots, who had often learned the ropes flying B-17s or P-51s in the war.

Legroom?  I was only a kid at the time, but I never heard a complaint from my 6-foot-2 dad.

Truth be told, even then I liked trains better. But flying from Chicago to Los Angeles on a graceful red-and-white TWA Constellation was darn near as cool.

Now flying is not cool at all: Peanuts are for lunch, flight attendants have gone casual and coed, and today’s young pilots could have trained on video games. That said, I’d be far more worried if any of those pilots looked about my age.

Yes, I do know that air travel is safer than it’s ever been and that every time I drive from Columbia to Sonora, I’m at far greater risk.

Nearly every flight I’ve taken over the past 25 years has been, as I like to say, “uneventful.”  Once, more than a decade ago, a flight attendant spilled coffee on my windbreaker. And last year, a mildly rough landing sent soda cans and tiny wine bottles rolling up the aisle. But that’s about as dramatic as it got.

Which hasn’t stopped my complaints. Being 6-foot-3 and nowhere near as limber as I once was, I find today’s airliner seats to be devices of torture.

My boarding drill is aimed at minimizing that torture:

First, I hope to get that emergency-exit-row seat, the ones with twice the normal legroom (a luxurious 10 inches, maybe).  If I ever get that seat, the attendant will surely ask me if I’m ready to handle the responsibilities of a door monitor. Then I’ll lie: I’ll tell her I’m a former Navy SEAL and capable of escorting scores of passengers out the tiny exit and onto the wing. Then, amid choppy seas, I’d be ready to inflate a life raft then row it hundreds of miles back to land. I’d swear this is all true – even if I’m flying to Phoenix.

Since I never actually get that seat, I next pray that the flight is half full and that the middle seat in my row is empty. I claim an aisle seat at the rear of the plane, which most passengers avoid, and wait for nobody to sit next to me.  This pays off maybe 10 percent of the time.

Finally, if the flight is nearly at capacity and the odds are heavily against me, I try to look taciturn and disagreeable – hoping this will dissuade would-be row mates.

What happened to me on a flight to Denver last week illustrates the success of this strategy:  A 300-pounder, out of options, wedged himself into that middle seat. The armrest between us disappeared and most of my torso was pushed into the aisle.  I thought about reclining my seat an inch or two, but of late this has become a knee-crunching, unforgivable breach of flight etiquette.

Then came the attendant’s preposterous mantra: “Enjoy your flight.”

A few more observations on 21st Century air travel:

Baggage: Southwest, which I normally fly, checks bags for free. But most passengers nevertheless lug virtually all their worldly possessions on board.  Like the Joads loading a rickety Model A for their dust-bowl trip from Oklahoma to California, these people use everything short of a crowbar to cram their stuff into the overhead bins.

You know those receptacles next to the ticket counter? If you can’t fit your suitcase in here, they say, you must check it. Well, some of the bags today’s passengers bring on board could hold that entire receptacle, a week’s worth of clothes, a cello and maybe a couple of chickens.

Then the attendant tells me to put my backpack under the seat in front of me so more of these steamer trunks can fit in the bins — thus further cramping my already scarce legroom.

TSA: A few years ago a rookie Homeland Security officer caught me attempting to carry dangerous contraband on a flight from Sacramento to Phoenix. A shoe bomb? Underwear bomb? Anthrax?

Try Crest. The sharp-eyed rookie, scanning the x-ray machine, spotted a six-ounce tube of toothpaste in my toilet kit. That’s 2.6 ounces more than the TSA allows.

Shamed in front of my fellow passengers, I surrendered the tube – which an agent then threw into a trash bin.

Also, since I have a replaced hip, I’ve also gone though innumerable pat-downs.

I’m 68 and don’t look anything like Mohammed Atta or any of his 9-11 thugs. But in a time where Atta’s murderous successors are looking for any opening, I don’t begrudge the checkpoints. And I would rather our agents be overzealous than slipshod.

That said, I have slipped six-ounce tubes of toothpaste past security dozens of times since. What’s more, I really don’t feel guilty about it. The War on Terror and the War on Tooth Decay, I believe, can coexist.

Dress: On Southwest, Business Select passengers, who have paid a premium for their seats, are the first to board. At first I half expected these folks to be captains-of-industry types, sharply dressed in Armani suits, Brooks Brothers shirts and Bruno Magli shoes.

But instead these supposed entrepreneurs turned out to be slobs like the rest of us – clad in hoodies, sweat pants, baggy shorts, ripped jeans and T-shirts touting football teams, beer and rap stars. On my connecting flight from Denver to La Guardia, I counted a grand total of one necktie on board – and that’s probably one more than average.

I’m hardly advocating a return to the buttoned-down dress code of the 1950s, as I’ve been wearing jeans or shorts on board since the mid-1960s. But maybe passengers would dress a little nicer if the airlines treated them a little better.

Cell phones: They’re the last thing put away before takeoff and the first thing taken out after landing. Moments after touchdown it happens: As if as one, virtually all the passengers on board pull out their cell phones and punch numbers.

It’s like the world, with bated breath, is awaiting word from the formerly on high: “I have arrived,” the callers all say. “You may now resume life as it was. Or at least drive my limo from the cell-phone lot to the baggage claim.”

Me? I wait until I’m out of the plane and at least in a semi-private place – in my most recent arrival, it was the men’s room – before pulling out my own phone and punching the number. Then I left that phone next to a sink and didn’t realize what I had done until I was 10 miles from the airport.

I used, believe it or not, a pay phone to call the airport lost and found – where, amazingly, my own supposedly much smarter phone had been turned in.

Babies:  This is one of my Murphys Laws of air travel:  If I get lucky enough to have a delightfully empty seat as a flight companion, the rows ahead, behind or across from me will be populated by stressed-out mothers struggling with wailing babies and quarrelsome toddlers.

Here I was ready to go into a rant about how airlines should segregate such moms and kids in a walled-off, soundproofed compartment. Or maybe sentence any screamers or bawlers to an hour or so in one of those overhead bins.

Then I remembered that DC-3 flight Mom and I took so long ago – on which I was likely all of the above. So I’ve instead concluded this might be a good time for me to stop my own screaming and bawling.









Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman March 11, 2015 07:52
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1 Comment

  1. lacey March 16, 14:50

    Oh man, you’re preaching to the choir! My “favorite” was when I was 7 months pregnant and was seated between a douchebag who drank the whole flight and this college kid who was sneezing, coughing and wiping his runny nose on his hands the whole flight. Ugh. Oh and they made me surrender my gallon size water bottle before entry into the waiting area where I had the option of paying $5 for a 12oz bottle of water. Must have been water flown from mount olympus. But they assured me the body scan didn’t have xray in it and the baby didn’t come out with three heads so maybe they were telling the truth.

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