Encouraging Airplane Creepiness

Airplanes are, by definition, strange places.  You’re placed in a metal tube, sitting cheek by jowl with a bunch of unknown people, and the only thing you’ve got in common with them is that, at that particular time on that particular day, you’re taking that flight to get from point A to point B.  Your fellow passengers, for the most part, are probably reasonably decent, up-standing, law-abiding folks, but you never know — they could cover the spectrum from kindly, doddering grandparents to budding serial killers.

delta-coke-napkins-915Most air travelers, me included, are just grateful when the flight ends without incident and they can get out and get on with their life without further ado.  And here’s how you know that that is the prevailing sentiment of virtually everyone — at the end of your next flight, watch how many people dawdle to continue their conversations with the person in the next seat over, and how many grab their carry-ons at the maximum possible speed and hightail it out of there.  You can also reflect upon how many deep friendships you’ve made with random people you’ve met on an airline flight.

So how in the world did Delta and Diet Coke think that it would be a good idea to distribute drink napkins with messages that encouraged passengers to try to connect with other passengers?  The napkins carried weird messages like “Be a little old school. Write down your number and give it to your plane crush. You never know…” and had places for passengers to write down their names and telephone numbers to give to their “plane crush.”  Another napkin’s message was:  “Because you’re on a plane full of interesting people and hey… you never know.”

Gee, what could go wrong with encouraging passengers to even think about another passenger as a “plane crush”?  And what could be creepier than getting a napkin with somebody’s name and phone number on it, knowing that, after the flight is ended and you’re deposited in a strange city, the total stranger who had it handed to you might want to interact and see if you’re interested in something more?  And, possibly, be upset if you aren’t and ready to stalk you to the end of your days?

After passengers commented on the obvious creepiness, Delta and Coke apologized and have withdrawn the napkins.  But it really makes you wonder:  what process is used in vetting airplane napkins, and who in the world was responsible for coming up with the napkin text and approving it?  Doesn’t Delta have any idea that 99.9% of its passengers don’t view airplane flights as a great opportunity for flirting?


Big People On Planes

Modern air travel just isn’t made for big people — or for the people seated next to big people.

On one of the legs of my recent trip I was seated next to a guy who probably weighed about 350 pounds. He had the window seat, and I had the aisle seat. He wedged himself into his seat the best he could, but there was a clear spillover effect; he took up the entirety of our shared armrest and a chunk of my airspace, too. The only way I could accommodate his bulk was to sit twisted sideways. I was very glad I had the aisle space to one side and wondered about how cramped and uncomfortable it would have been if I’d had the window seat. Fortunately, it was a relatively short flight — but even so I was nursing a backache by the time the flight ended.

I’m not dissing big people here, but I think this is an increasing problem with modern air travel in America. Seat space on planes keeps shrinking, and Americans keep expanding. Obviously, that’s a problem, and it’s just going to get worse. Airlines want to pack as many passengers as possible into their planes — as the picture I took on the flight shows — and they aren’t going to reverse course on seat width and leg room, and Americans are, on average, heavier than ever.

What’s the solution? Make passengers disclose their size and, if they are above a certain point, make them buy two seats? Have a special heavyweight section with larger seats? I’m not sure, but something needs to be done. If you draw the short straw and are seated next to a big person on a flight, you just aren’t getting the same experience as passengers seated next to normal-sized folks. Why should somebody who has to endure an uncomfortable sitting position and has their personal space invaded by a stranger for the entire flight be charged the same as somebody who doesn’t? It really isn’t fair.

Tipping, Up In The Air

Next week I’ll be taking my first flight ever on Frontier Airlines.  It’s branded as a low-cost airline that differs from other carriers in that it charges you separate fees for things like your carry-on bag and basic in-flight drink and snack options.  Frontier presents its approach as allowing it to keep base fares low and giving travelers “options that allow you to customize your flight to match both your wants and your wallet.”

flight-crewNow I’ve learned that Frontier differs from other airlines in another, more interesting way:  it’s the only airline that encourages travelers to tip its flight attendants.  Beginning January 1, 2019, individual Frontier flight attendants can accept tips, and if a traveler purchases in-flight food or beverages, they get a prompt from the Frontier payment system notifying them that they have the option to leave a tip — just like you get in many restaurants.  In the article linked above, Frontier explains:  “We appreciate the great work of our flight attendants and know that our customers do as well, so [the payment system] gives passengers the option to tip.”

The union that represents Frontier flight attendants, the Association of Flight Attendants International, isn’t happy about Frontier’s tipping policy and says that the airline should be paying flight attendants more instead.  The union and Frontier have been trying to negotiate a new contract, and one union official has said that “[m]anagement moved forward with a tipping option for passengers in hopes it would dissuade flight attendants from standing together for a fair contract — and in an effort to shift additional costs to passengers.”

I’m not quite sure how I come out on the issue of tipping flight attendants.  Obviously, their job involves a lot more than donning a little apron and serving drinks and snacks, so there’s a bit of a disconnect between the tipping option — apparently presented only when food or drink is ordered — and the actual contours of the flight attendant’s job.  At the same time, many airlines are nickel-and-diming passengers with fees, so perhaps tip income for flight attendants is the wave of the future.  And I’m all for airlines adopting different models — like Frontier’s low-cost approach — as they compete for passengers, and letting the passengers themselves decide which approach they like best.

I’m thinking my flight on Frontier next week is going to be a bit of an adventure.

Standby Status

For the last leg of yesterday’s three-hop trip from Boise to Columbus, I was on “standby status.”  My flight from Salt Lake City was to get in to Detroit at about 7:20 p.m., and there was a flight from Detroit to Columbus at 7:55 that was sold out.  I was put on the standby list for that flight, and the ticket agent told me that I would be number two on the list.  If I didn’t get on the standby flight, I was confirmed for a seat on a flight two hours later.

metro_airport_inside_mcnamara_terminal_20130916171656_640_480Standby status is weird.  It’s by definition contingent, of course, but it immediately spurs analysis of the key factors that will affect whether you will make it on the standby flight, as well as lots of wishful thinking.  I knew the Detroit airport is huge, and the 35-minute time period between landing and taking off was ludicrously tight, requiring the incoming flight to be on time and the standby gate to be within reasonable sprinting distance of the arrival gate.  (Reasonable sprinting distance, that is, for a 61-year-old guy who doesn’t jog for exercise.)  If I was going to make it, all of those factors, none of which were under my control, had to go my way.

But even if those dominoes fell, I still needed some confirmed passengers to not show up for their flight.  Well, sure, that could happen, right?  After all, I was only number two on the list.  Maybe some incoming flight would be delayed by weather or mechanical issues, or a few of the confirmed passengers on the standby flight just wouldn’t show up.  I found myself hoping that some of the faceless passengers on the confirmed flight would just miss their flight so I could get a seat.  I was a bit ashamed of hoping that fellow travelers would experience such misfortune, but the urge to get home two hours earlier overwhelmed all basic instincts of human kindness and brotherhood.

When the pilot on the flight from Salt Lake City announced that we would arrive in Detroit early, it looked like the dominoes might just fall my way.  But when I emerged at my gate, ready to run, I learned that the standby flight was itself delayed and wouldn’t be leaving until after my confirmed flight.  Alas!  I therefore immediately shucked off my standby status and strode forward into the Detroit airport as a confirmed passenger, wishing nothing but good for the world.

Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.

Boarding Pass Breakdown

Anyone who travels much spends a good part of their travel day clutching their boarding pass.  We get it when we check in on-line, we make sure we’ve got it as we head to the airport, we present it to the TSA agent who peers intently at it for a nanosecond, then scribbles on it as we go through the security line, and then we give it to the gate agent.

american_airlines_boarding_pass_aa_198But how much attention do we really give this document that is, briefly, very important to the successful completion of our travel plans?  Other than glancing at it to remember our seat assignment or boarding group, does any traveler actually read their boarding pass?  For most people, at least, it’s as casually ignored as the tags on mattresses or the detailed agate-type agreements you immediately click yes to when you log on to the internet in a hotel.

The New York Post has an interesting article about some of the information on boarding passes — and specifically, how flight numbers are determined.  It turns out that, typically, airlines assign the lowest numbers to their most prestigious, long-distance routes.  Flights heading east or north usually get even numbers, and flights heading west or south get odd numbers.  Flight numbers with four digits starting with the numbers 3 and higher indicate flights operated by airline partners. And some airlines assign special numbers to reflect the destination, like American Airlines assigning the number 1776 to its flight from Boston to Philadelphia.

But I think the most interesting fact is that airlines at least give a nod to superstitions in assigning flight numbers.  If you’re flying to Asia, you’re likely to see an 8 in the flight number, because that number is considered lucky in many Asian cultures.  The numbers 13 and 666 are avoided, and when a flight crashes, the flight number gets quietly retired and replaced with another number.  The airlines might be superstitious, or maybe not, but they at least recognize that some of their passengers are.

Just something to think about the next time you’re twiddling you thumbs at the gate, waiting for your flight to board.

Avoiding An “Airplane Cold”

If you travel much, you’ve probably encountered the scenario where you’re seated next to somebody who is obviously sick.  They’re sneezing like crazy, constantly blowing their noses, or coughing like they’re about to eject lung tissue, or you’re sitting there, acutely conscious that you are in an airborne metal tube where the air is recirculated and every tiny droplet ejected by Typhoid Mary is ultimately coming your way.  And you wonder:  will I leave this flight with an “airplane cold”?

1-101A recent study conducted by Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to scientifically analyze the chances of catching an “airplane cold.”  The researchers on the study took transcontinental flights, tested the air and surfaces in the cabin for strains of cold and flu viruses, and carefully tracked the movements of passengers and flight attendants during the flights.  Although the data compiled during the study is limited, and the researchers did not find as many coughing or sneezing people aboard as they had expected — lucky them! — they reached two key conclusions.

First, there is a clear risk of catching a cold from a sick fellow passenger, but the zone of contagion is effectively limited to the people sitting next to the sick passenger or in the adjacent rows to the front and rear.  Those unlucky folks have an 80 percent, or greater, chance of becoming infected, whereas the probability of infection for the rest of the cabin is less than three percent.  And second, if you want to improve your chances of avoiding infection — understanding that you can’t control the identity or wellness of the random stranger who might be seated in your zone of contagion — book a window seat and don’t move during the flight.  By sitting in a window seat, you’re eliminating one of the seats next to you, and by staying put you’re reducing your movement through other contagion zones in the aircraft cabin.

I’m a bit skeptical of strategies to reduce the chance of an “airplane cold,” because so much of airplane travel is pure random chance and you’ve just got to grin and bear it.  I do think the study’s conclusions about the movement patterns of passengers, however, are quite interesting.  The study found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice.  Really?  Eleven percent of passengers left their seats more than twice?  Don’t pea-sized bladder people know you should go to the bathroom before you board the plane?

And by the way:  why do those 11 percenters always seem to be in my row when I’ve got an aisle seat?