Thoughts On Flying Commercial

Until last week, the last time I’d flown domestically in the U.S. was close to two decades ago (international  is a different story, of course), and man, things have changed somewhat.

Nothing much has changed with the airlines, it seems:  the same plastic smiles and training-manual treatment from customer service, the same fucked-up delivery (late flights, canceled flights, overbooked flights etc.) and the same rip-off fares for those unfortunate souls (like me) who didn’t have the luxury of time to have booked their flight six months earlier.

TSA is also the same bunch of petty gauleiters  who are at best curt and dismissive and at worst malevolent bastards (male and  female, BTW;  equality at last!).

It’s the passengers who have changed the most, but I can’t put my finger on the exact cause.  For some reason, the treatment given to people at airports seems to have rubbed off on the people traveling.  For example:  on both the outbound and return flights I managed to book an aisle seat, and because of my long relationship with American (I guess), I managed to board fairly early in the process.  This meant that on both flights, the person in the middle seat walked up to me, pointed at their seat and just said, “That’s my seat.”  No “excuse me” or “hi there” or “sorry to bother you” or anything like that — not even a fucking smile.  (On the several-times-delayed return flight, let me tell you that I was extremely short on patience, and when the twentysomething hipster chickie laid that schtick on me, I was thisclose  to saying, “So?” and not budging from my seat.)  In passing, I was discussing this very issue with a regular customer of mine — someone who flies DFW-LGA (the poor girl) every Monday morning — and she has seen the same thing, on almost every flight she catches.  Her take, however, is that it’s a generational  thing:  rude snowflakes with an attitude of entitlement.

Another thing is that old bugbear, luggage.  As the airlines are insisting on still charging for checked luggage (even though fuel prices, the reason for the original decision to charge for baggage, are the lowest in recent history), people seem to have stopped checking luggage except in exceptional circumstances.  Which means that you’re restricted to a small carry-on bag (which has to be small enough to squeeze into the microscopic space under the seat in front of yours) and a larger one which has to fit into the overhead bins — which, I should admit, seem to have got bigger on domestic flights than I remember.  Needless to say, the airlines aren’t enforcing the size restriction, which means that the bins fill up quickly, and therefore latecomers have to gate-check their bags.  The most egregious offenders in the “oversized” issue are the backpackers, who take Himalayas-expedition-sized onto the aircraft and either expect to stuff them into the bins, or else don’t care that even if they can, they’ve taken up 1.5 passengers’ space in the bins.

As someone who takes serious care to ensure that my bags aren’t oversized, I’m angered by this attitude.  It used to be that the worst offenders were business execs who tried to take their overstuffed garment bags and stuff them into the overhead bins, but now it’s the occasionally-vacationing Backpack ‘n Sandals set who are the assholes.  (Business execs are now the most conscientious travelers, it seems to me — maybe because they just don’t want to deal with the baggage hassle every time they fly.)

Here’s another thing:  the cabin crew are rapidly getting to the “you packed it, you lift it” policy when it comes to getting your bag into the overheads, and I can see why.  Mostly, of course, it’s female passengers who are the most egregious offenders — all that hair-dryer stuff and makeup and what have you makes for a case that feels like it’s filled with lead piping — and on several occasions, even the female cabin crew have had to ask male passengers for help. (This nonsense doesn’t help either.)  That said, it’s not always the passengers who are at fault.  On my return flight last week I flew in one of the new 787 Dreamliners and even I was struggling to get my bag into the bins, which are really high above the seats.  Watching the five-foot-nothing girl in front of me trying to lift her bag was an exercise in frustration (for both of us) and thank goodness that the next passenger coming down the aisle was a) tall and b) well-mannered enough to offer to help, because the flight attendant wasn’t having any of it.

New Wife and I flew last month (using miles) to get to New England for our short vacation, and for all sorts of reasons I didn’t want to write about flying commercial then.  But after what I saw last week… let’s just say that it will be a long  time before I take a domestic flight again.

What a horrorshow.


  1. Hey, Kim.
    It’s not just domestic flights. I believe it’s US based airlines in general.
    I traveled to Malaysia and Thailand a few weeks ago.
    The first and last legs of each flight were with United (Spit!!). In both cases, I concur with the “plastic smiles and training-manual treatment”.
    (Side note: In each case, as soon as I stepped onto the United plane, I could smell food in the galley. Not pleasant. Kind of a greasy tenement experience.
    The 2nd and 3rd legs of the trips were with ANA (All Nippon Airways), the Japanese carrier.
    Even though I was flying on-the-cheap (Last seat in the plane in one case. 42G!), ANAs performance was exemplary!!
    Better leg room, no hassle with baggage, and the flight attendants, quite literally, made me feel as if I was in 1st-class and their only passenger!
    …and the food was EXCELLENT!
    Where United charged cash for anything other than water and soft drinks, ANA offered a selection of juices, beers, wines, and spirits with each meal as if I were a guest at their table!
    I cannot lay enough praise on ANA and their staff!!

  2. Oddly, I’ve had the best service domestically on a budget airline, Southwest. No baggage check fees, flight attendants that were happy to accommodate my gargantuan height (6’8″) by assuring I got a bulkhead seat, great service during the flights, and free WiFi through my cell provider (T-Mobile). Granted, I’ve never taken a flight over 3 hours long with them, but all of my experiences have been very positive.

    1. Came to say the same thing. Even the passengers are better, with a sort of “we’re all in this together” feeling (even though they still dress like they are stepping off the plane onto a beach.) People don’t demand a seat on SWA because they don’t have one. They have to at least ask if the seat is taken.

      Also, no one who lunges for the cockpit on a SWA flight makes it to the ground alive. They always end up suffocating from the pile of passengers sitting on them in the aisle.

  3. I’m in the air a lot these days both Canadian domestic and international. It’s all both good and bad, driven by the inherent complexity of the business, my lust for cheap flights and the airlines lust for profit.

    I’m in the position where I could and would pay twice as much for comfortable seats and decent food, but as far as I can see my choices are dirt cheap but hideous or much better than merely comfortable and 10 times as much.

    I assume the airlines have concluded there are not enough like me to offer the comfort level I want.

  4. The inevitable consequence of US-based airlines chasing nothing but the bottom line and the ensuing race to the bottom following consolidation into the Big 3.

    I fly 2 or 3 times a year, usually once domestically on flying lawn darts and once to Yurp. I also collect credit card points like a fiend so future trips can be Up Front rather than in back with the Great Unwashed.

    All this to say I still enjoy flying. Despite the TSA, despite being nickled-and-dimed to death, despite the shrinking seats (and my not shrinking butt), I still enjoy the thrill as the throttles hit the firewall and the fuselage rotates into the heavens. My case of old-man-bladder means I now have to forsake my usual window seat for an aisle, but I still marvel at the view from FL350. Granted I’d probably enjoy it much more from seat 1A than I would from 33C, but it’s still the best way to get anywhere. I generally know all the tricks to make my flights as painless as possible (not flying AA at all is very high on that list) so once we push back from the gate I’m in my HappyPlace™.

    As for the plastic smiles from the FAs, meh. Invariably I engage with them as time allows. If I’m on United out of Newark (my home airport) I ask if they’re ex-Continental, and if they reply in the affirmative and I tell them how much I used to love CO and commiserate with their current plight of working for Munoz. I then find myself the recipient of their largesse more often than not. And failing that, at least I give them a nice smile and a kind word, always thanking them for looking after us and keeping us safe. They hear it so little and they take such abuse that a nice word from a passenger makes their day. And if it comes right down to it, if things go pearshaped I want them to remember me as the Nice Guy in 33C and make sure they squeeze my fat rump safely onto the exit slide.

    I agree about overhead bin nonsense. I pack light and can easily lift my 22 x 14 x 9″ rollaboard since it’s not stuffed to bursting, and when I need a bit more it goes down in the hold at no extra charge (those credit card perqs again) and all I bring onboard is my small soft-sided briefcase. If you’re a gentleman who’s not traveling on business and needing multiple suits, there’s no reason why you can’t pack a single bag that weighs less than 25 pounds and fits in the test rack at the gate. I can go 2 or 3 weeks with only one carry on and my briefcase.

    And finally, as for my fellow passengers, I do my best to ignore them. I hate other people just on general principle. If I have to speak to them, however, it’s always a polite “Pardon me, sir, may I please get by” or the like. A smile and a thank you then ignore their existence for the remainder of the journey.

  5. Yes Kim, modern flying is all you say it is.

    Now imagine the same thing, only with a gimp leg. That’s why I will only get on a plane to fly to Oakland, CA and nowhere else. (Amazing, the attractive power of a couple of grandsons.)

  6. Re: carry-ons. I almost always check a bag just so I don’t have to hump more weight through the airport than I absolutely have to. Doesn’t help that my wife and I both habitually over-pack. 🙂 Mileage credit card from the Continental days is the only reason I fly on United if I have to. Does get the checked bags free.

    Our preferred airline is Alaska. Always seem like pleasant people to deal with. Southwest, too, but, I despise random seating.

    I blame some of the travails on airline consolidation and rampant bottom line only attitude, but, a lot goes at the feet of the general public and the “must find the absolute lowest fare possible” attitude. That’s where extra fees come from, people. Sigh. Time to yell at *everyone* to get off my lawn, not just those darn kids. 🙂

  7. This is a sore point with me, and I’ve got around 600,000 miles.

    I firmly believe that the FAA needs to impose Standards of Service. Minimum seat width, minimum seat pitch, minimum toilet size, and one checked bag. The Dirty Little Secret is that there are three sorts of customers:

    1. Family vacationers, who will endure obscene conditions to get a low fare.
    2. Business travelers who have the ability to choose, who will pay a reasonable premium to arrive in a condition to do work (instead of recover).
    3. Corporate travel departments, who have penny-wise and pound-foolish policies that go for the cheapest fare…regardless of the damage done to the hapless fool who has to actually endure those conditions.

    And the airlines are only beginning to realize that there’s money to be made in a Less Bad Economy class.

  8. “people seem to have stopped checking luggage except in exceptional circumstances. ”

    Kim, it has MUCH less to do with baggage fees than it does with trying to ensure that your luggage will arrive, unpilfered, at your destination when YOU do.

  9. When it comes to long-distance travel, I travel business class, despite the huge cost. I’m simply too tall for economy class and can’t fit into the minuscule leg pitch of cattle class.

    Given the expense I do it rarely. You are hosting for the 2024 solar eclipse, right? 🙂

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