My recent adventures in air travel have inspired a few thoughts I would like to pass along. Perhaps I can inspire Ray Lahood and his successor to incorporate some suggestions into the next official Passenger Bill of Rights.
1) You have the right to be cattle.
With nearly every purchase we make, we apply age-old assumptions that the customer is always right. The theory being that a hard-earned dollar spent gives a consumer leverage with a business, and the ultimate benefit-of-the-doubt in every scenario. I’ll take it a step further, I believe most of us think the dollars we spend make us “special.” In a certain economic stratosphere of air travel (somewhere Up in the Air with George Clooney), where platinum rewards clubs and first-class executive services rule, this may be true, and travelers can purchase themselves some special treatment. But the reality for those of us in coach is that the airline is hauling our butts across the country, or around the globe, at a loss. Almost every economist has a theory about why airlines perpetually lose money, but the bottom line is that if it weren’t for government subsidies, a very large percentage of the population would be going Greyhound. Go ahead and brag about that $150 flight you got to Orlando, but know you are making up the difference to the taxman. And something interesting happens to a business when the commodity in question (in this case, passengers) ceases to be profitable: You go from being something the business covets, to something they tolerate (sometimes only barely). Take heart that you are not alone, the airlines hold your fellow passengers in no greater esteem, so at least you are part of a collective. Welcome to the herd.
2) You have a right to hate other people’s kids.
Now that we have cleared up the fact that you are not special, let’s dispense with the misconception that somehow your children are. The airline isn’t letting you pre-board your brood because they value the family unit. They want you, your kids, and all your accoutrement, the hell out of the way. Turn and burn is the name of the game for the airlines, and they can’t very well open the cattle gate until all obstacles (families with children) are removed. If I’m coming off as insensitive here, I apologize. I don’t hate all kids. I love my own kids very much. I just hate yours. And not just the wee tots either. Every time I connect in Baltimore, I’m somehow booked on a flight returning a plane-load of eighth-graders from a D.C. class trip. The last time I was on this flight, I took a look around me at the mass of greasy, noisy teenagers (including the pit-faced lad sitting next to me who spent the whole flight sucking on his girlfriend’s face like he was one of The Walking Dead), and I wondered how long a Uruguayan rugby team could survive in the Andes on this group. I realize I’m making a mass generalization here, and a lot of kids are perfectly well-behaved on planes. But that look of contempt on my face when I walk down the aisle past you and your kids is simply me playing the odds, and trying to seat myself as far from you as possible.
3) You have the right to arrive at the same point at the same time as everyone else on the plane.
African elephants are herd creatures with defined social roles for each member that allows the herd to survive and flourish. Occasionally, an African elephant will “go rogue.” The social gene does not develop in their brain, and instead of accepting their role in the herd, the elephant goes off on their own, running amok, creating havoc, and corrupting other members of the herd. Typically, the remedy for the rogue elephant problem is to shoot it. Which leads me to this point… The person in the gate area with the Boarding Group 7 pass (or Group C if you fly Southwest), who feels compelled to jump in line wherever they see an opening in the groups boarding ahead of them, should be shot. The passenger who, upon arriving at the gate of destination, hears the bell for the seat-belt light being turned off, and has a Pavlovian response that propels them and their bags from the back of the plane to the front of the plane, with no regard for the passengers seated in the rows in front of them, should be shot. The passenger seated on the plane that will spend some time on the taxiway waiting for a weather system to pass over before takeoff, who thinks he can inspire a passenger revolt by loudly lobbing obscene complaints at the flight attendants, should be shot. These social misfits suffer from a delusion of specialness that allows them to think gaining inches and minutes on either end of their journey somehow constitutes victory, or that a disruption to their itinerary somehow needs to be acknowledged above and beyond the disruption to the itineraries of their fellow passengers. I have a theory that most of these types suffer from a specific narcissism that ultimately leads to destructive sociopathic behavior. Best to get to them after TSA has disarmed them.
4) You have a right to be an island.
With apologies to John Donne, and with the right tools in hand, a passenger has the right and privilege to disengage from the social dynamic of the flight – to become an island. This is not the same as going rogue. “Rogues” disrupt the social order of the flight, wreaking havoc, and they should be shot. “Islands” abide by the social code of the flight, while at the same time making every effort to diminish their participation. In fact, with the modern personal technology available to air travelers today, it’s possible for someone to cocoon themselves in so many layers of deep isolation, that given a long enough flight, they could arrive at their destination having devolved to a state of Primitive Man.
5) Weird smells.
I’ve floated these passenger bill of rights ideas around in conversation for some time now, and this is the one with the least absolutes. And technically it’s a responsibility, not a right. You have a responsibility to do your best to limit and contain weird smells on a flight. Air travel is more communal than most church services (tighter confines, and depending on your level of faith, certainly higher stakes), and nothing throws a community into disorder faster than weird smells. It’s a passenger’s responsibility to be hygienic. Everything’s relative of course, and those of us on the early morning return flight from Vegas understand that we paid our money and we take our chances. Just don’t be too funky. But really, when we are talking about weird smells, we’re talking about food – off the plane, and on the plane. Off the plane, the weird smells thing has everything to do with timing. Is that really a day that calls for a big breakfast of Huevos Rancheros and bacon? Or how about you don’t participate in that wing eating contest the day of your return flight? A little advance preparation and consideration goes a long way with your fellow travelers. On the plane, it’s about menu selection. Air travel is often inconveniently scheduled to cross into meal times, and many passengers feel entitled to board a plane with their own pantry in tow. Personally, I don’t do this. I’m just not comfortable having a picnic on a plane surrounded by a group of people I’m not sharing with. But I understand those who are fine with this, I just implore anyone who takes food on the plane to please, please, please take your fellow passengers (and their olfactory perception) into consideration. That little tupperware container of eel soup your grandma makes you that helps you with your motion sickness, increases virility, and smells like hockey gear at the end of a season? Leave that crap on the counter at home.
These are the five biggies I often think about when I’m dealing with the perils of air travel. There are other little rules and guidelines I think about like – Always Know Where You Are Standing. Of course, it should just be understood that in airports and on airplanes, people are trying to get where they need to be – to the counter, to the gate, to their seat – as quickly as possible. Because of this, there are certain places in an airport you just don’t loiter, like in front of the moving walkway, or ON the moving walkway, or especially in front of ANY ENTRANCE TO ANYTHING – ticket counters, security, food counters. If you are the lady waiting for her husband directly in front of the entrance to the men’s room nearest the gate for the flight that just arrived from a 4.5 hour route from Los Angeles where I used up all my free drink tickets – then lady you are standing in an area known as “the crease” – and there’s a good chance I’m going to throw a check into you similar to what Boychuk put on Toews in Game 5 of this year’s Stanley Cup. And trust me, no one’s calling a penalty.