Dear prissy couple from my flight (and a desperate plea to airlines for offset seating)

Posted on August 28th, 2010 in Commentary,Engineerboy by EngineerBoy

Typical US Airline Flight

I loathe and despise coach business air travel.  When I travel personally, it’s usually with Marie, and we usually plan to make sure we can travel in comfort, and more often than not, prefer a private jet from Jettly. You see, I’m 6’5″ and not svelte, and coach seating is not designed for me to fit in comfortably, and when we travel for pleasure we either wait until we can splurge on first class, buy a third seat so we have room, or make the best of sitting side-by-side.

However, when one’s company is footing the bill and you don’t have the flexibility that you do with personal travel, you get the seat you get and you have to make the best of it.  You can try for exit row or bulkhead, but those seats are in demand and sometimes hard to get.

Lucky for me, on my most recent business flight I was able to get the exit row aisle seat both outbound and inbound.  The flight out progressed without incident (thankfully), but as I boarded my flight home and approached my row, I noticed that the two inside seats were occupied by a couple, with the man by the window and the woman in the middle seat, meaning that my aisle seat would place me next to the wife.

Now, although I am a big guy, I can sit in such a way that I stay completely in my own air/leg/shoulder/butt space, particularly in an exit row where I can fully extend my legs.  So, I resolved myself to spend 3.5 hours in my polite, curled up, as-motionless-as-possible seating pose, so that the lady next to me would not feel infringed upon.

As I sat down I could sense the woman was not happy about the situation…I mean, who would be?  Even three normal-sized humans sitting side-by-side-by-side in a coach cabin is oppressively claustrophobic, and when one of the three is a big guy like me it just makes it worse.  So, I understood her pained look at her husband as I sat down, and also understood his reassuring patting of her leg as if to say, “It’s okay, honey, I won’t let the traveling ogre squash you!”

So, I sat down, belted up, stuck my legs up under the seat in front of me, crossed at the ankles to keep my knees clearly in my own airspace and not in any way crossing over into her leg space.  I folded my arms tightly, with the arm closest to the woman specifically tucked up as far as possible, so that I was clearly not infringing on her shoulder room, either.

I had also brought a couple of magazines to read, and when I pulled them out I held them with my arms almost fully extended in my lap, and when I turned the pages I did it with my arms fully extended so that my elbows didn’t bend and momentarily reduce her personal airspace.  I also fully ceded the armrest to the wife so that she wasn’t too squeezed-feeling.  Note that this is what I always do when I travel seated next to anybody but Marie, as I know that my large-tallness could be a burden to other fliers.

So, there I am, a big guy squeezed into a seat that isn’t designed for me, but contorted in such a way that I did not in any way cross over into the seating space of the woman next to me.  On most flights similar to this, that would be the story – me contorted and uncomfortable, but otherwise flying without incident.

Well, not this flight.  At first, everything was fine, or as fine as it can be in a coach sardine can.  However, I then noticed that the woman, who was 5’5″ at best (and slender), had not only taken to sitting with her legs crossed, but crossed in such a way that they were crossed *towards* me, and not only that, crossed at an angle so that her foot was clearly extending over into *my* airspace.  Really?!

I mean, she could have either a) easily not crossed her legs in such a manner that they floated into the legroom of the person next to her, or b) if she had to cross her legs in such a manner, at least do it in the direction of her husband.  He, presumably, would mind a lot less than me, and he was maybe 5’8″ himself, so had plenty of leg room.

So her border aggression was pretty irritating, but I again took the stance that although she was being rude, I was still partially to blame for the uncomfortableness of the situation, given my height/size.  In fact, I realized there might be a chance that she didn’t even realize what she was doing, and might have been subconsciously making sure to command her space, or something.  So, I tried to let go of the irritation.

Then she picked up her book to read.  And with almost every page flip, she elbowed me in the ribs.  Only a little but clearly enough that she knew she was doing it.  I’ll again state that I was very clearly completely on my side of the seat divider, and had ceded the armrest.  But, this wasn’t enough for her, so she had to come past the armrest with each page turn and elbow me, even though she could easily have turned the page in a much less elbowic manner.

So, that’s how the flight progressed.  Me sitting in such a way that I was contorted and remaining 100% on my side of the leg/air space of the seats, and her dangling her foot into my space and elbowing me when she turned her book pages.


I resolved to just accept that I was flying next to a selfish, thoughtless human being, and although I found her behavior to be quite rude I still realized that me being a big guy contributed to the situation.  I’m already stressed out enough when I travel for business, so I didn’t need to also marinate in a stew of bilious resentment towards the high-riding b*tch sitting next to me.

So, to the extent possible, I let it go and tried to relax…relax…relax…(rib poke)……relax…let it go…deep breaths…(leg kick)……………relax, dammit!!

And I did, I kept my cool and tried to get along as part of a society.  Eventually I fell asleep.  Note that this was done by fully extending my legs under the set in front of me, tightly crossing my arms in front of me, and lolling my head to the side away from Ms. Prissy Pants.  And so I dozed off a couple of times like that, as comfortably as possible, but I’d nod off for a few minutes, wake back up (still fully balled up and not infringing her in any way), read some more, then go back to sleep.

During one of my bouts of sleeping, I was startled awake by the husband, let’s call him Mr. Prissy Pants, full-on kicking me in the legs as he tripped over me trying to climb over me to get out and go to the restroom.  He not only kicked me, he kicked his wife, and half-fell into the aisle, clumsily grabbing the back of somebody else’s seat across the aisle and startling them awake, too.  Now, through this flight I hadn’t slept for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, so it’s not like he had been blocked in by my long sleep cycle or anything.  I’m also not deaf so they could have easily asked me to move, and the wife obviously had no social compunctions about elbowing me already, so she could have elbowed me awake and asked me to move.

But no, he decided to try to climb over me, a sleeping, 6’5″ guy wedged into his seat as tightly as possible, and then clumsily tripping and kicking me, and waking me up and also waking up the guy across the aisle.

His polite response to this?  “Goddam it…fucking…shit…”

That’s it.  Then he stomped off down the aisle to the restroom.  No apology for a) kicking me and waking me up, b) waking up the guy across the aisle, or c) being stupid/rude enough to try to climb over me in the first place.  I assume there was no apology for kicking the wife because she was already used to his rudeness, or something.

At this point I did get sort of a pained smile from the wife, which I took to be contrite, but nothing more than that.  Also, she then immediately started shifting and squirming in her seat, like a 2 year old that has to go potty but doesn’t say so.  I finally asked her, very politely, “Would you also like to get out?”.  She said no, but she *clearly* needed to get up and go to the bathroom, too.  So I said, “Well, I was going to stretch my legs anyway, so feel free…”, and with that I got up and moved forward in the aisle to clear a path.  She immediately shot out of there and down the aisle.

I stood stretching my legs until they were both back in their seats.  I got nothing from the husband, no ‘thank you’, no ‘sorry’, not even eye contact.  Punk.

When the wife came back, she at least said a quiet little “thanks” with a pained smile.  But that was it, and sullen silence the rest of the flight.  The only good news was no more rib poking or leg kicking occurred.

I also noticed that, other than a logistical conversation as we were leaving (something like “where are the headphones?”, or something), the couple barely spoke a word to each other, although both were awake the whole flight, as far as I could tell.

So, maybe this couple was having some other problems, unrelated to air travel, that exacerbated the situation and/or their behaviors.  Maybe.  However, my gut feeling is that they were just a couple of rude, self-centered assholes who saw me as nothing more than an inconvenient lump that was further harshing their stonily silent travel.

At this point, I’d also like to make sure that the airlines get their fair share of the blame here.  You see, they already know what size seats are comfortable for the cross-section of normal travelers – just look at the chairs in the gate area.  The seats at the gate are by no means over-sized, but they are pretty much normal-sized, meaning that all of us waiting around for our flights can do so in relative comfort.

Now, I understand that I’m way over on the right-hand side of the bell curve when it comes to human sizing, and I don’t expect that airlines are going to make every seat large enough for me to be comfortable in.  But, what I would like, and what they could do with minimal effort in my opinion, is to offer slightly larger seats for slightly more money.  I, and I assume many, many, many other travelers, would happily pay an extra 25% for a seat that was 25% larger.

However, today the only option is to pay anywhere from 4 to 10 times the ticket price to get a First Class seat, which by my reckoning is about 25% larger than Coach.  That’s ludicrous.  The airlines have scrunched and scrunched coach seating until it’s finally at the point where even normal-sized humans can barely travel without extraordinary discomfort.

Another option is to retrofit airplanes with offset seating.  Today, seats are configured side by side in a line, so that the part of most humans that is widest (shoulders) are lined up, creating the least amount of room between passengers.  However, it’s possible to slightly change the arrangement of seats so that each seat is slightly offset from the other, meaning that each passengers shoulder goes behind (or in front of) the shoulder of the person sitting next to them.

More seats, more room, more comfort, more privacy. Come on, airlines!

Although it would be hard to prove, and I doubt there is such a thing as a retroactive patent, I have conjured this seating arrangement up on my own in my head over the years as I have spent countless hours contemplating the horror of US coach air travel (whilst traveling, of course).  When I started writing this rant, I did some web research and found that this type of seating arrangement is already commercially available.  The picture to the left is from the website of Thompson Solutions, for example.

First, I have to say that I love Thompson Solutions for creating these seat prototypes.  Second, why the hell isn’t this type of seating being immediately adopted?!?  Yes, I know there is an expense to retrofitting planes, but how about on new planes that are added to the fleets?  How about starting to add offset seating to those?

The truth is that I really don’t need more room.  I can be happy in a cramped space, as long as it’s not inhumane and doesn’t involve ongoing incidental contact with strangers.  Offset seating provides exactly that.  In fact, I’d rather slide into a human-sized tube, get it sealed up, and be stacked like logs when I take a flight, rather than have to deal with the current cattle-car arrangement.

One might respond that, in a free market, the customers decide what happens, and that if airplane travel were so horrible the airlines would be out of business.  Or, a competing airline would spring up and use smart new ideas to steal market share.  The problem is that, even though the airline industry has been ‘deregulated’, it’s not really a bunch of independent companies vying for market share on a level playing field.

Have you ever priced airline tickets?  Isn’t it an amazing coincidence how so many independent airline companies manage to offer the exact same fares on the same routes?  I mean, down to the penny – exactly the same.  This means, of course, that the airlines communicate in some way on fare structure.  Some might call that collusion, but I don’t want to get sued so I won’t.

Also, the major airlines have enormous control of gates at major airports.  Just ask Southwest Airlines.  They are probably the only real maverick airline, and they have been locked out of many major airports for a long time, because it’s impossible (or prohibitively expensive) to break the stranglehold that the larger airlines have on gates and flight times.  However, slowly but surely Southwest expands their routes over time.

They are actually my one hope for the return of sanity to air travel.  They’ve always gone their own way, and I could see them stepping up and doing something (like offset seating) to differentiate themselves further from the cattle-car airlines.

And to the prissy couple from above, and to all other fellow travelers, let’s please try to get along.  Air travel is a necessary evil in today’s world, and we are all just trying to get from Point A to Point B with our luggage and sanity intact.  I know there are rude people of all sizes, but let’s let them remain the minority.  Let’s all keep our wits about us and remember that we’re all human beings, and that if we could afford First Class we would, and if we could avoid cramped coach travel, we would do that, too.

But the reality is that most of us end up traveling from time to time.  As a requirement of our professions.  To visit family.  To seek medical help.  To unwind on a vacation.  To attend a funeral.  And, as hard as it is to believe, very few people travel for the sole purpose of annoying their fellow passengers.  We’re all on board for a reason, and if we have any anger or ire let’s direct it at the airlines for not offering us any realistic options, rather than sniping at each other.

3 Responses to 'Dear prissy couple from my flight (and a desperate plea to airlines for offset seating)'

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  1. Darla said,

    on August 28th, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    I just recently traveled as well, and since it was for pleasure I was indulgent enough to buy myself a first-class seat. Generally if the flight is over two hours I simply will not sit in coach. (And I am a yoga teacher!) I must say as I was reading this I felt your pain, and was amazed again and again at your kindness and willingness to make way. I do have to wonder however why you didn’t get back at them in the most effective subversive way possible… pretending to be asleep and FARTING! LOL! that’s what she deserved! (Not that I would ever do such a thing, but my darling husband certainly enjoys this quiet passive method of protest… often much to my chagrin!)

  2. EngineerBoy said,

    on August 28th, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    Heheh, well, I certainly spent some time considering some very satisfying revenge scenarios, I can tell you that. However, I chose to be the bigger man (so to speak) in this case.

    However, the experience did result in a new yoga pose!

    Inward-Folded Geek: Sit down and make yourself as small and narrow as possible, then maintain the position for 3.5 hours while humanity tries your patience.

  3. Darla said,

    on August 28th, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    oh, and BTW…. post all those blogs on FB as you write them please. i love reading your well written witty blog. but sometimes i forget!

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