David Cogswell | October 03, 2016 12:00 PM ET
My Silent War with The Airlines
On this trip to China I literally circumnavigated the globe. My flight there, United Flight 86, flew east over Asia to Shanghai. But untypically the return flight, United 87, did not fly the same route in reverse. Instead, it also flew eastward.
It traveled northeast out of Shanghai along the Pacific Asian coastline and over the Bering Strait into Alaska and Northern Canada. It traced a path parallel to the route said to have been taken by the ancient Asiatic migrants who became the Native Americans.
China is halfway around the world from New York, so it’s about the same distance in either direction. But since the prevailing winds move eastward, it is quicker to fly east than west. So we flew around the world, and actually saved fuel and time doing it.
Obviously, someone in the airline industry figured out this principle and put it into practice. It provides one micro glimpse into the enormous body of knowledge that is behind the day-to-day operation of the international airline industry. Complain as we may, we are talking about an industry that is, for all practical purposes, a modern miracle.
Can you imagine the scale upon which these people are thinking? Airline people are dealing with the curvature of the earth, the prevailing winds, gravitational pull, aerodynamics, distances of thousands of miles, weights of hundreds of tons, operating thousands of flights daily between hundreds of cities. To even begin to take a reckoning of what the airlines accomplish boggles the mind.
They rule the skies and master the very elements. It’s absolutely brilliant. They are masters of the universe. Those airline folks sure know how to fly airplanes!
As to moving people… mmmm … not so much.
My knees are battered pulps, complexes of repetitive stress injuries from being pushed up against the seat in front of me for a 16-hour flight. It was a particularly turbulent flight, and every bump, shake or rattle was telegraphed from the body of the airplane through the aluminum frame of the of the seat in front of me directly into my knees.
And whenever the person ahead of me shifted his weight his seat moved and crunched my knees.
By the time the aircraft had bumped onto the ground and people started jumping up to grab their bags out of the overhead bins and get the hell out of there, I wasn’t sure if my knees would even work anymore. It took some practice walking to get my legs aligned again.
It’s not often these days that you have the choice of sticking your legs into the next seating area and stealing yourself another inch or two. That area is occupied by another person, who is feeling the same discomfort at your presence as you are of his. The airlines have become particularly adept at filling their planes these days, and empty seats are a rarity.
You and your close neighbor are silently vying over the use of the two-inch metal armrest you are sharing. That negotiation is carried on silently, covertly. It begins with accidentally bumping elbows and then realizing that the armrest where your arm landed naturally is already occupied by another elbow.
You’ve never spoken to this stranger, and now you are bumping elbows with him on that slab of aluminum that delineates where his space ends and yours begins. The problem is that you both spill into each other’s spaces without even moving. You are just larger than your space. It’s a little rectangle, and you just don’t fit.
Perhaps it is unfair to bring up the image of a coffin in this context, but if you are sitting for hours in a small box shape that you can barely fit a human body into, it’s hard to keep the idea of a coffin from popping into your mind. If that’s not claustrophobic enough for you, the box you are enclosed in is packed in with hundreds of other boxes in a beehive configuration.
You are in a position of proximity and intimacy with total strangers that you would never normally assume in a public place. On elevators for example, when someone gets out, the remaining passengers usually spread out to give each other more space.
The spacing conventions we observe in public places are natural, animal behaviors, and violating them introduces a little low-grade tension into the situation. Multiply that low-grade tension by 500 passengers on a 747 for many hours and you have some potential for problems.
TravelPulse writer Donald Wood recently examined the question, “What’s Behind the Rise in Rage Incidents?” Any guesses at what he’s getting at?
It ought to be as plain as the nose on a 747. These are overcrowding situations. But we have been gradually conditioned to accept these conditions.
If the first airlines had tried to stuff people so close to each other, they may not have succeeded in getting people to fly. But once people got used to flying, the corporate suits kept working on ways to build up the numbers, employing their genius toward developing new ways to fit more and more people into a given space.
Experiments in Overcrowding
In experiments in the 1950s through the '80s by John B. Calhoun, comfortable environments were created for rats or mice, and then the population numbers were increased until there was a social breakdown in the community of rodents.
The rats became violent and aggressive, often going berserk and attacking each other, engaging in many forms of deviant behavior. Mothers killed their young. Animals became hypersexual, then asexual.
Even now airline corporations are working on ways to get still more people on planes. They are devising ways to stack people. The drive to cram more people on the plane is creating situations that emulate those rodent crowding experiments. It appears they’ll just keep adding more seats until at some point it blows up in their faces.
On this trip, I had a middle seat in economy class on the flight to Shanghai, and a window seat on the return flight to Newark. Either one presents its own particular challenges.
In the middle seat, you are completely hemmed in. You have people on both sides, armrest territory battles with two different strangers. When the guy in front of you throws his seat into recline, his head is practically in your lap.
If you happen to be leaning forward to pick something up from your bag when he throws back his seat, it might hit you in the face. If you drop something, it's best to just give it up. It has probably bounced and rolled under someone else’s seat, and to launch a search for it, you would have to clear the plane and get down on your knees with your head next to the ground.
On the return trip, I had a window seat so I was shoulder to shoulder with only one person. But in the window seat, if you want to get up to stretch or use the lavatory, you have two people to uproot, not just one.
I literally had to climb back into my seat when I returned from the bathroom, carefully groping for spaces where I could fit my feet.
Every quarter the corporate number crunchers are gathering together trying to figure out new ways they can squeeze more of us together, knock another inch or two off your legroom so maybe they can squeeze another row of seats onto each plane.
I feel like I am engaged in a silent war with the airlines over having enough space to sit, and I am losing. The airlines have mastered so many fields with such brilliance. It’s just the people aspect of it that they don’t get.
My war with the airlines is a defensive war. It’s a territorial war. They can have control of the skies. I don’t mind. They can be human gods who master the very elements themselves, and turn record profits. I just want a little legroom.
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