Sunday night we took a Southwest flight from Naples to Columbus. The flight left and arrived on time, and the flight attendants were friendly and professional. Nevertheless, the flight was unpleasant. Why? Our fellow passengers.
The first irksome occurrence happened during boarding. We were in the “C” group, so we accepted that we wouldn’t be able to sit together. We found overhead bin space for our bags, and Kish grabbed a seat. I then encountered an increasing problem on Southwest flights: “saved” seats. A hat or a handbag is placed on a middle seat in the front of the plane, you ask if the seat is available, and occupants of the other seats explain that they are “saving” the seat for a friend who has a lower boarding number. It’s as if you’re back on a school bus during a field trip. There were four or five “saved” seats in the front half of the plane before I finally found an open seat. (The flight also featured a variant of the “saved” seat–a seat occupied by an overweight guy sitting in the aisle seat who was sprawled out into the middle seat area, sending an unmistakable message that he would intrude into your personal space without a second thought and causing any rational person to pass the seat by without an inquiry.)
The “saved seat” phenomenon is such a common problem on Southwest flights that it’s a topic for discussion on the Southwest on-line discussion forum. One writer suggests simply picking up the item on the seat and sitting there anyway, or calling a flight attendant over to intervene. I wouldn’t do that, because you’re just causing discord with a fellow passenger who is going to be sitting next to you for the next three hours. I’d like to think that people realize that “seat saving” is unmannerly behavior on an open-boarding plane flight, and at minimum will just head to the back of the plane to try to save a seat, rather than trying to save one at the front of the plane. Obviously, I’m wrong on that.
When I finally found a seat that wasn’t “saved” and sat down, more unpleasantness lay ahead. First, the guy sitting next to me, who was well into middle age, took his shoes and socks off and then crossed his legs so that his bare foot was positioned inches from my left hand. Can there really be people out there who think it is okay to go barefoot on a plane? Later in the flight I dozed off, and when I awoke I saw that Shoeless Joe had put his drink on the left corner of my tray table to allow himself more space to work on his computer. When he saw I was awake he explained why he had done it, and I said “no problem,” thinking it would be a decent gesture on my part and he would polish off his drink quickly. Instead, he took tiny sips of his diet Coke and left the drink on the left corner of my tray table for virtually the entire flight, including when we encountered some turbulence and I began wondering if he realized he was putting me at risk if a spill occurred. And the kicker–literally–was that a child was seated behind me and periodically kicked at the back of my chair, without her parent doing anything to stop it.
I didn’t say anything or do anything about any of these issues. It seems pointless and risky to get into disputes with total strangers in an enclosed space 30,000 feet in the air or to try to correct the behavior of someone who is apparently heedless of the concept of personal space or the intrinsic rudeness of a bare foot on an airline flight. But our flight also made us wonder about the whole concept of travel as a fun leisure activity. When you’re packed like sardines into a plane, part of the social compact is that your fellow passengers will behave politely and reasonably. When they don’t, the whole travel experience turns sour.