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Flight or fight?

Air travel continues to vex and exhaust passengers

Saxtons River

The first time I flew, I was 13 years old. I traveled alone to visit my sister, a college student.

The Eastern Airlines plane I was on had propellers. The stewardesses were slim, celibate, and sexy ingénues. They had their own cabin, into which I was invited. And I got to visit the cockpit, where the pilot buzzed Princeton Stadium for me. It was splendid.

Things have changed since then. The now-defunct Concorde, which I flew once — and on which I was, again, invited into the cockpit — offered supersonic travel from Washington, D.C. to London in the time it took to consume a gourmet meal. It was like dining inside a leather-seated pencil.

Now we have jumbo jets so big that they have two complete decks, carry 500 passengers and 26 crew members, and include showers in first class.

I flew one of those monsters once. It was so long you couldn’t see from one end to the other, which reminded me of actress Bea Lillie’s famous quip when she sailed on the original Queen Mary: “When does this place get to London?”

I didn’t get into the cockpit on that trip, but after visiting with crew members in the galley I was invited to see the business-class lounge.

I climbed the stairs to join the elites just as the seat belt sign came on and had two hours living like the other half do.

Not long after that, I — a well-dressed woman of a certain age — flew cross-country, exhausted because my red-eye was an hour and a half late. Still, after takeoff, the snarly woman purser would not allow me to sit in one of the empty seats in “extra leg room,” which cost $75 extra if you didn’t want your knees in your mouth for five hours.

“But I’m a Mileage Plus member, and the company won’t lose money if I sit there!” I pleaded. “You’re not charging the passengers in those rows $150 for the two extra seats they’re sprawled over!”

“Letting you sit there would devalue those seats,” Brunhilde said, as if I were a hobo.

So I wrote to the corporate offices. They, of course, concurred with Brunhilde, and sent me a $25 voucher — standard when a plane is more than 1.5 hours late.

* * *

Then came the petitions.

The first recounted the experience of a blind passenger who was ejected from a plane along with his guide dog after a long delay in which the dog became restless. A flight attendant had insisted that the dog remain under the seat in front of his owner, no matter how long, or the plane would be turned around. In solidarity, passengers demanded the blind man and his dog be allowed back on the aircraft. The captain cancelled the flight.

Another petition was posted by a man whose dog had died on a flight “after making every promise to guarantee his safety with [the airline’s pet-transport] program.” The program promised the dog would be kept in air-conditioned areas at all times.

Instead, the animal was held in 90-degree temperatures on the tarmac in an open luggage container. This happened in Texas. The dog was dead on arrival in San Francisco. The airline denied any wrongdoing, despite a vet’s report that it had died of heat stroke.

I’m not a pet owner, but I feel for the blind passenger and for the man whose dog died. What the two airlines did is unconscionable and ought to be illegal.

And it just keeps getting worse.

Now airlines are considering allowing passengers, already cramped into a flying missile, to talk on cell phones during flights. How maddening would it be to listen to multiple mutterings coast to coast?

And experimental seating that looks like it belongs on bicycles has been designed. There are even buckle-up standing-room ideas afoot. Cabin warfare has already occurred causing emergency landings because of knee devices that prohibit passengers from reclining their seats.

Two years ago, I wrote to an airline after a particularly uncomfortable transcontinental flight: “I’m wondering what further discomforts passengers will be made to suffer as you cut costs or increase profits. Could pay toilets be next?”

I continued my diatribe, describing the physical discomforts of the plane’s configuration and more importantly, its safety hazards.

“Packed in like rolled anchovies, the seats no longer recline more than a few millimeters; my up-seat neighbor’s bald pate was practically in my mouth,” I moaned.

More importantly, I noted, “Crowding so many people into such a confined high-density space increases the likelihood of respiratory infection. And there is simply no way that an aircraft that tightly packed could be evacuated in event of an emergency.”

I got a $50 voucher that time.

* * *

My most recent flights, which were international, were not particularly difficult because I had managed to maneuver bulkhead seats. (I was also flying European carriers, which tend to be more genteel.)

But I experienced a new challenge upon arriving in Boston where, in order to expedite immigration, rows of computerized equipment have been installed, as they have been in other airports. Instead of waiting in long lines, you scan your passport and then wait in a shorter line to clear immigration.

The problem is that for newbies trying to use this new technology, there needs to be someone to help when difficulties arise.

When I asked for help — three times — a young woman in uniform snarled, “Calm down! We’re very busy!” She wasn’t the only one behaving badly as older people and non-Americans tried to get the hang of things.

It occurred to me then that there’s a big gap between those of us who have grown up computer literate and others who are older and might not be on the same electronic page.

It might take a generation or two before everyone understands how to navigate new, quickly evolving technology in the absence of human contact, whether in airports or elsewhere. Offering a little support, especially when a new innovation is introduced, goes a long way toward smoother journeys, whether practical or metaphorical.

People working in transportation, travel, and tourism especially need to understand that — and to provide user-friendly support in light of the rapid pace with which communication technology is taking over our lives.

In other words, we travelers shouldn’t be “charged” for needing a bit more “space.” Nor should we be left out in the cold.

Enough with the vouchers. How about a helping hand instead, or an occasional “upgrade” while we’re waiting for one place to get us to another?

Wouldn’t that make for smoother flying and a lot more smiling “passengers?”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #334 (Wednesday, December 2, 2015). This story appeared on page D1.

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