The debate on air rage continues to rage: A recent article in the New York Times generated 451 comments before the Times cut off debate, three days after it was published.
I read them all, and the list of what people don't like about flying was endless: seat pitch (and inconsiderate reclining, which had reignited the debate), crying babies, flight delays and diversions, security hassles, inconsiderate/selfish behavior by other passengers, airline employee indifference, resentment of class distinction (focused primarily on differences in the length of lines for everything from check-in to the lav), alcohol and large people who overflow their seats.
(Regarding the last of these, after Southwest announced several years ago that it would charge large people for an extra seat if they could not fit into one, comedian Robin Williams did a short bit impersonating a gate agent breaking the news to such a customer: "I'm afraid we're going to have to charge you for two seats. And, unfortunately, they are not together.")
Revealingly, there was little unanimity in point of view, which underscores the problem: There are so many things people find annoying about flying that solutions seem out of reach. People are sharply divided about whether airlines or fellow passengers are mostly to blame.
After one reader endorsed the idea, suggested in the article by a psychologist, that flight attendants try to build a sense of community to counter the impersonal, antisocial atmosphere on a flight, a reader reacted by saying it would "unify the entire cabin's rage toward juvenile cheerleading attempts ... nothing creates community like having a common enemy to rail against, and nothing incites rage more than forced chumminess with strangers."
On the question of seat recline, buried among those 451 responses was an enlightened observation about a practice employed by some European passenger rail lines: "The seat back doesn't recline, the seat moves forward, creating the recline. But the space lost is yours, not the squeezed person behind you."
Yes! Problem solved.
Like many in the travel industry, I fly frequently and could certainly relate to many of the annoyances, but I also believe that there's something very fundamental missing in the debate: None of the 451 commenters made reference to the fact that they are, while in a state of annoyance, flying.
(Again, turning to a comedian, Louis CK observed, "You're sitting in a chair! In the sky!" Then, imitating a whiny passenger, "But it doesn't go back a lot.")
Indeed, I think that part of the problem is that airplanes have become the equivalent of tubular movie theaters or offices with tray-size desks. Perhaps because passengers expect the worst, they want nothing more than to deny the most fundamental part of a flight: The fact that they are more than 30,000 feet in the air and moving at more than 500 mph. Instead, they settle into their video screen, their work, perhaps a book. They try to focus on anything other than the incredible, astounding, miraculous show taking place just outside their window.
I certainly watch movies, do work and read on a flight, but I love having the window shade open and seeing what's out there. The name of this column, From the Window Seat, is not simply metaphorical. As my long-suffering travel agent knows, I am insistent on window seats, to the point that I turn down upgrades if they move me from a coach window to business-class aisle.
Unfortunately, my preference to want to enjoy the most unique aspect of this form of transportation seems to contribute to air rage. Although I never get tired of the view, my delight in looking down and seeing Siberia! The Grand Canyon! Mount Everest! The Kalahari! apparently puts me in conflict with others. Almost as soon as we're up in the air, flight attendants reflexively ask me to lower my window shade so the movie theater-like atmosphere can be maintained.
I could conjure up lots of arguments why I shouldn't -- airline personnel seem to be unfamiliar with the importance that light can play in adjusting to time zones, and hey, why are someone else's preferences more important than mine? My fellow passengers can see "Frozen" and other entertainment on offer from the airlines anytime they want on Netflix, but this may be my only chance to get a bird's-eye view of Norway's fjords.
I'm willing to compromise, leaving myself a couple of viewing inches, though even that is apparently too much for some people.
I'm a bit more compliant if cloud cover is complete. But even then there can be some wonderful surprises -- I used to carry a copy of "Science From Your Airplane Window" (Dover Publications, 1975), still available on Amazon for 1 cent! -- to better understand the viewable phenomena. And beyond the science, cloud formations, particularly around sunrise/sunset, are as beautiful as anything terrestrial.
And it's thought-provoking to look out the window. I recently changed planes in San Salvador, and looking down on the city, I couldn't help but think of the misery in the shanty towns that drove parents to send their children on a perilous journey to the U.S. border.
When people reminisce about the golden age of air travel, they tend to focus on what they perceive as higher levels of service. But what I think they really miss is the excitement of flying. They certainly don't miss that planes were slower, had shorter range, poorer pressurization and crashed more often.
Ancillary fees for everything from luggage to seat selection to meals were mentioned as factors leading to air rage. Perhaps air rage would diminish if people thought of a flight not only as transportation, but transportation with miracles thrown in at no extra charge.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.