Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A knee-jerk reaction to air travel

Back in the year I was born, 1967, a year in which everything was supposed to be cool and groovy, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed their Social Readjustment Rating Scale to measure life's most stressful events.

As a result, they compiled the Top Ten causes of stress, which were:
  1. Death of a spouse 
  2. Divorce 
  3. Marriage separation 
  4. Jail term 
  5. Death of a close relative 
  6. Injury or illness 
  7. Marriage 
  8. Fired from job 
  9. Marriage reconciliation 
  10. Retirement
This being 1967, mass air travel as we know it today hadn't been invented. Those who did fly around the world wore suits and ties and smoked pipes. It was possible to carry luggage on to planes without first having to take off your trouser belt and risk dropping your trousers in the process. You didn't have to decant your personal toiletries into a clear plastic bag so that your fellow travellers could see you were travelling with hemorrhoid cream. And you certainly didn't have to worry about radicalised lunatics with high explosives lining their underpants.

I'd imagine, then, that if Holmes and Rahe were to recompile the list today, the number one Most Stressful Thing Of All would be travel and, specifically, air travel. 47 years ago it was civilised. Essentially, the only people who flew anywhere then were film stars and Princess Margaret. The food was served on bone china and the flight attendants (or "stewardesses" - remember that name?) offered you a selection of cigarettes from various brands, which you would then smoke until the plane landed in New York or Nassau, which were the only places any airline flew to.

But today, thanks to airlines making air travel ridiculously cheap, commercial aircraft are now crammed to bursting point. And because of rising fuel costs, they have to go beyond bursting point to cram even more people in to make their so-called budget fares more economical. Planes are now so tightly packed that strangers enjoy more intimate thigh-to-thigh action than most married couples.

In America things are even worse. Ever since 9/11, when domestic air travel stopped being as free-and-easy as hopping on a Greyhound bus, and started being an increasingly fraught affair, airlines have downsized their planes, swapping old gas-guzzlers for smaller, more fuel-efficient planes, and at the same time, cut the costs of managing them. 

Thus, some carriers now charge for all baggage, forcing more people to take more carry-on luggage, causing more delays in planes taking off as long lines form while these idiots try and stuff bags that should sustain a year's worth of travel into overhead lockers. Then there is the smell of brought-onboard pizza because airlines have stopped in-flight catering. Soon we will have to put up with dickhead salesmen spending the entire flight yahing on their mobile phones because airlines figure they can make a buck or two out of that.

All in all, then, joining the jet-set these days is more hell than heaven. Which is why it is perfectly understandable that people will resort to gadgets like the Knee Defender, the $21.95 doobry that caused a United Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Denver, Colorado, to be diverted to Chicago the other day. 

The device - a small plastic brace, the size of a door key - clips on to an economy class seat-back tray table to prevent the seat in front from reclining. Allegedly it had been installed by a gentleman in Row 12 to prevent the passenger in Row 11 from encroaching on him, his tray table and his laptop. When he refused to remove the clips (after, apparently, requests from cabin crew) the enraged Row 11 passenger chucked a glass of water over him. First world problems, eh?

There will be, no doubt, sympathies on both sides: on a four-hour flight to Denver, some will want to kick back and sleep their way through the journey. Others will want to make use of the relative peace and quiet to get on with work. A compromise must be found. 

Although the two passengers in question were both in 'premium economy' seats - a slight trade-up for cash for a little more legroom - they were still vying for the dwindling amount of economy class space on board planes caused by airlines trying pack more people in. 

Picture: United Airlines
According to TIME magazine senior editor Bill Saporito, domestic airlines in the US - and in other regions, too - are adding more rows to their economy class sections to increase turnover.

This means, he says, the seat "pitch" (i.e. the space between your knees and the seat in front) on United Airlines' fleet of Boeing 737s is 31 inches in Economy and 34 inches in the premium economy section, Economy Plus. The 34-inch seat pitch used to be the Economy section.

Such cramped conditions might be OK for hour-long commuter flights, but planes like the 737 and Airbus A320/321/319/318 family are being used on longer, cross-country routes, as was the case in the United flight to Denver.

Something has to give - and the reclining seat is the likely candidate. Last year the flight price comparison website Skyscanner found that nine out of ten passengers would gladly do away with reclining seats if it meant they could enjoy a meal or watch a video on the tablet without being forced into having their tray table cut them in two. Cabin crew like the idea as well, as they invariably are the ones having to extinguish arguments between niggling passengers. The major US domestic airlines have banned the Knee Defender, but this incident has reopened the debate on flying etiquette - as well as highlighted the fact we're putting up with increasingly inconsiderate fellow passengers. 

Squabbles, or at least passive-aggressive behaviour over reclining seats, middle seat arm-rest ownership and window blind opening (or closing) have long been ever-present barriers to "sitting back, relax and enjoy the flight", as pilots always patronisingly emplore us to do.

With more of us travelling, and most of us flying in economy, with more of a few pounds, 'seat spillage' has become another source of altitude attitude. Southwest Airlines in the US has tried to address this with its "Customers of Size Policy", the hilarious, politically correct attempt to deal with wide-bodied customers "...who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s)" encouraging them to "...proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available". Helpfully Southwest explains that the acknowledged border that should not be crossed is the armrest - "considered to be the definitive boundary between seats". Most importantly, Southwest says, the policy "ensures that all Customers onboard have access to safe and comfortable seating". Hmmm...

As someone who is, ahem, somewhat less than compact, I am more conscious than most not to encroach. I go to considerable expense, sometimes, to ensure I have a window seat, from which I have some space to lean into and out of the shoulder width of my neighbour. This does, though, render me with back pain and the row itself looking like Picasso's Guernica.

Daily Mirror/East News
But at least it's not life threatening. Earlier this month we read about four-year-old Fae Platten who went into anaphylactic shock on a Ryanair flight from Tenerife to the UK after a passenger opened a bag of peanuts. This was despite the entire cabin being informed before takeoff that nuts would not be available on the flight, and the crew asking passengers not to consume any nut-based food throughout the journey due to Fae having a severe and potentially life-threatening nut allergy.

Still, that didn't stop one passenger a few rows away - who was either stupid or selfish, or both - from opening a bag of nuts, releasing nut dust into the cabin environment and into Fae's direction. After passing out, she had to be revived with an adrenaline injector before being taken to hospital.

All these examples merely demonstrate what I've long felt, that travel brings out the worst in people, and air travel in particular. How often do passengers feign ignorance at being told a plane will board by row number, only to charge the gate like the Pamplona bull run? How often do travellers knowingly take-up all the overhead locker space simply to avoid the relative inconvenience of waiting a few minutes at the other end for their bag to appear on the carousel? And don't get me going about the gentleman last Saturday morning in the row in front of me who spent the entire flight from Paris to London loudly clearing his nasal passages rather than requesting a Kleenex from the cabin steward.

Unless you have the privilege of flying in the posh seats (and for that you must be either minted, have a very generous boss, or have somehow wangled an upgrade), going anywhere by plane has become torture. It is no longer a symbol of glamour, something frequent flyers react to every time someone makes those "aren't you lucky to be flying all over the place!" remarks.

We're not. Trust me on this. It really isn't better to travel than to arrive. The sole objective any air passenger sets for themselves these days is getting it over as soon as possible.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. Air travel has become torture in the economy section, and the reclining-seat turf wars will only escalate. I doubt that we'll ever get our leg-space back but airlines should do the sensible thing and lock the seats in place before someone is seriously hurt (possibly the guy in front of me).