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?


What’s Wrong With Our Airlines?

Every time you turn around, it seems like you are reading some disturbing new story about a poorly handled incident on an airline.  The latest is the story of a puppy that a United Airlines flight attendant forced into an overhead bin — where the puppy died.

united-airlinesThe incident happened on Monday, on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York.  The dog was in an approved pet carrier device when a flight attendant required the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier into an overhead bin.  The flight attendant now says she didn’t realize the dog was in the pet carrier.  Another passenger on the plane, however, says the dog’s owner resisted and told the flight attendant that there was a live dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant insisted and the dog’s owner eventually complied.  When the pet carrier was retrieved at the end of the flight, the dog was dead — perhaps from lack of oxygen.

United Airlines has apologized, and a statement from a spokesperson said:  “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

In this instance, perhaps the flight attendant was at the end of a long shift and at the end of her rope, or perhaps she was confused about whether there was a live animal in the pet carrier.  (Of course, why else would somebody take a pet carrier on a plane as a carry-on item?)  Whatever the cause, the story is extremely troubling, because it’s another example of airlines treating passengers like cattle.  We’ve seen incidents where ticketed passengers have been forcibly removed from planes, including one instance that raised such a ruckus that United’s CEO sent an email out to me and other United passengers that spoke of passengers being “treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect” and that the airline intended to try to live up to “higher expectations.”  I guess that effort still has a ways to go.


Air Unfair

Yesterday Kish and I had one of those star-crossed travel days that make you want to grind your teeth into powder and curse the airlines with your dying breath.

The day began with a 90-minute delay of our flight from Bangor to Philadelphia.  OK, no problem — we’d wisely factored in some weather delays, given the fact that we’re in February and it is winter, and we still had plenty of time to make our connection.  We got to our gate in Philadelphia, checked the sign and saw that boarding was supposed to start in something like “42 minutes,” and found a seat and camped out.  When a plane arrived, everything was looking up.

02xp-pilots-master768Then the delay notices and announcements started.  First the flight out was delayed by 90 minutes, then another hour.  We groaned and went to get something to eat, and when we returned they’d changed the sign above our gate to show that the flight for the new time would be boarding in a new, reassuringly specific time, like in “58 minutes.”  They also made an announcement that, due to some kind of special fuel need regulation, they would have to load the plane with additional fuel and, as a result, the flight was oversold due to weight restrictions and some people would need to volunteer to take a later flight.  And, still later, a gate agent was actually giving us a kind of play-by-play about the incoming flight, to be arriving from Richmond.  First she announced that the incoming flight was at the gate in Richmond, then it had pushed back, and finally it was taxiing down the tarmac, ready to take off.

And then, only moments later and after our hours of waiting in the Philadelphia airport, American abruptly cancelled the flight.  Fortunately, we were seated near the gate, so we were able to get in line immediately, where we learned that there were no other flights out and the airline had helpfully booked us for a flight leaving Philly at 1:09 p.m. today.  (Hey, thanks, but I actually work for a living and Monday is, regrettably, a work day.)  No offer of a hotel room or a voucher, either, apparently because the cancellation was deemed to be “weather related,” even though the weather in Philadelphia was just fine.  When we left the gate agent, the line stretched back onto the concourse and was about 40 people long.  I was glad we were able to get the bad news quickly, at least.

So we bagged the flight, rented a car and drove from Philadelphia to Columbus.  Seven hours, a hefty rental car fee, and an outrageous, state-sanctioned-monopoly-gouging “toll” of more than $33.00 to drive from Philadelphia to New Stanton on the Pennsylvania Turnpike later, we rolled into Columbus shortly past midnight, bitching all the while that if the airline had just cancelled the flight right away or at least been honest with us that a cancellation was likely or even possible, rather than providing absurdly hopeful and totally misleading announcements and impending “boarding times,” we might have gotten home at a more reasonable hour.

I understand weather-related delays in winter, and that with such delays crew schedules can become bollixed and combinations of crew service regulations, maintenance issues, and other considerations can cause a legitimate cancellation.  What really galls me, though, is the lying and the misstatements.  Why can’t airlines just be honest with us?

Advances In In-Flight Breakfast Snack Technology

Meet the “Stroopwaffel.” It was handed to me by a flight attendant as the snack item accompanying my cup of airline coffee with cream on my United flight this morning.

What, exactly, is a Stroopwaffel? The package describes it as a “soft, toasted waffle filled with caramel, cinnamon and real bourbon vanilla.” It even comes with instructions: you’re supposed to put it on the top of your coffee cup so the steam emanating from the cup warms the Stroopwaffel. This presumes that airline coffee is piping hot, which is a questionable assumption indeed. I tried this technique this morning, and thereby warmed the Stroopwaffel to about one degree above room temperature. Because the size of the Stroopwaffel is almost precisely the same as the size of the top of the airline coffee cup, I also strongly recommend that you not try to warm the Stroopwaffel if your flight encounters even mild turbulence, or you will either lose the Stroopwaffel entirely as it slides off the cup into airline oblivion or have a mess on your hands.

It’s kind of sad that the introduction of a new airline breakfast snack is worth noting, but such things are the stuff that fill the lives of seasoned business travelers. The Stroopwaffel is just fine as a snack, but where it really excels is its name. Who can resist the sound of “Stroopwaffel”? It blows “biscotti” out of the water in my book.

Back Of The Plane

I seem to always get seated at the back of the plane.  I’m not quite sure why, but the rear lavatory and I are consistently on intimate terms.  On this flight, I was seated next to the window in the last row and was the last person off the plane.  It’s one reason I like flying Southwest, where I can pick a middle seat up front.

Although sitting at the back of the plane stinks — sometimes literally — it does give you time for people watching, and inner heckling.  “Hey Grampa, have some consideration for those of us trying to make a connection and put your freaking sweater on after you leave the plane!”  “Lady, do us all a favor and use baggage check for that oversized bag next time!”  “And Mountain Man, please remember when you turn around that that overstuffed backpack is knocking into the people behind you!”

Airport Stalking

On yesterday’s flights back from San Antonio, there was an odd and somewhat troubling coincidence — on every flight, and in every gate area where I was waiting for a flight, there was a kid crying one of those shrill, keep your nerves on edge cries.

crying babby in airplaneOne crying toddler, I can understand.  Sometimes, your child is just exhausted and is crying for reasons you can’t even fathom.  I get that.

But a crying kid on every flight?  That seems pretty suspicious to me.  It made me wonder whether the crying kid was stalking me.

Now that I think about it, there were some other pretty suspicious coincidences at the airports, too.  Like the hefty guy manspreading to try to discourage people sitting next to him.  Or the woman loudly talking into her cell phone and carrying on an unending conversation apparently heedless of the fact that she was sitting in the midst of a bunch of weary travelers.  Or the young people sitting cross-legged on the floor, even though there are actual seats available, so you can’t simply walk past but have to carefully navigate through the clutter of hunched-over people, backpacks, and cell phone cords.  Or the old people who decide that it’s perfectly okay to stop dead in the middle of concourse traffic so grandma can find her sunglasses.

I mean, what are the odds that would find these same people on every flight and in every concourse?

Prodigious Purses On Planes

The other day I was waiting at a gate area for my flight when the gate agent made the familiar announcement about how passengers would only be permitted to board with one piece of carry-on luggage and “a small, personal item, such as a purse.”

mary-poppins-bag-600x345And I thought:  a purse is a “small, personal item”?  Since when?

As I looked around at the women waiting to board, I saw nothing “small” about the prodigious purses they were lugging around.  The gate agent, and the airlines, clearly have missed the explosive growth of purses into storage devices of colossal proportions and have never sat next to a fellow passenger who is struggling to jam her sprawling, bulging “small, personal item” — i.e., her purse — into the available space under the seat in the row ahead.

The days of “clutches” and dainty “handbags” that could house a tube of lipstick and compact mirror and be placed on a restaurant table next to the glass of wine are gone.  Now “purses” tend to be capacious, multi-compartment sacks carried over the shoulder and used to store laptops, wallets, cell phones, pens, appointment books, food, bottled water, articles of clothing, make-up items, toys and snacks to keep young children quiet, and other assorted paraphernalia, besides.  They’re like Mary Poppins’ magic bag, capable of carrying just about anything.  And forget about expressing wonder at the notion of “purse dogs” — you could probably fit a Great Dane into some of the stupendous purses of the modern era.

I don’t begrudge modern women their enormous purses; when I go on the road, I always carry an over-the-shoulder bag because it’s handy.  But can we please stop with the reference to “small, personal items”?  The “purses” of the modern world really aren’t purses, they’re luggage.