A Violation of One’s Personal Space

You really are trapped when you fly on a plane, so if you’re going anywhere by air, you must realistically accept this possibility and prepare for it before you buy your tickets. And you must also come to terms with the fact that, especially these days, the airlines continue to cut back on everything that used to make flying something to look forward to, something fun. They have cut back or cut out every single amenity – pillows, blankets, beverages, food, newspapers, and magazines – unless you’re willing to pay extra for each and every one. Even your personal space, commonly thought to belong to you, is less and less yours each time you fly. Disclaimer: on overseas flights you will still get a free meal, and no charge for the pillow, blanket, or beverages (except the alcoholic ones).

But what can one do – stay home all the time? Of course not, so you turn your mind away from the possibilities and go.

Flying domestically in economy class, known in the private sector as slave or cattle class, has been severely condensed. While the discomfort varies somewhat on different airlines, coach class (its prior alias) is always cramped. Seats are smaller than ever, the space between aisles likewise, and the space between you and the person in front of you continues to erode. If you have long legs, only heaven knows where you can put them. No one talks about these mounting discomforts much anymore, and really, what can one say that will change anything.

We recently traveled with friends to the Netherlands and Belgium, and the first thing I noticed were those new seats they’ve installed in first class – the ones you can actually sleep in that you see in magazines and on commercials. We were told they cost approximately $5000 more than ours – and that’s why we don’t fly in comfort. What we noticed is how young almost all the first-class passengers were. I’d say in their low thirties on average. Business travelers with a company credit card. Either that or Mark Zuckerberg, or maybe Bill Gates, was on the plane. I didn’t see either of them – but they would have their own planes, wouldn’t they.


As our plane pushed back from the gate, a safety recording was piped into the cabin on our individual screens embedded in the seatbacks in front of us demonstrating what to do in the event of an emergency. The problem was, we couldn’t clearly hear the recording. The enclosed ventilation system combined with the engine noise makes hearing even what the captain says impossible most of the time. So what happens? No one listens. Even I just scout out the emergency exits so I’ll know which way to attempt an escape if need be – but there are so many people literally crammed together (think sardines) that it’s obvious to me, if no one else, that nothing had better happen or no one gets out of this tin can alive. If it’s my time, end of story.

I bury myself in a book, not wanting to think about the nine grueling hours ahead of me. The longest flight I’ve ever had was to Sao Paolo, Brazil – 11+ hours from Chicago, but that was a relatively comfortable flight at a time when they gave a little more than a nod to passenger comfort. Some sixteen years ago.

Those days are gone.

Bill and I are in the middle three seats of the plane and Bill strikes up a conversation with the woman on his other side. After a while I find Bill bending down trying to reach something that remains out of his grasp. But he’s bumping into the seat in front of him as well as the one in front of me, and I’m concerned he’ll annoy the people in those seats, so I pull him back, ask what he’s looking for, and tell him I’ll get it.

But really, it’s impossible. You can’t bend, fold, or contort yourself into any shape that will allow you to get anything once it’s dropped to the floor – there is simply no room whatsoever in which to maneuver. Bill said the woman he was conversing with had knocked over her cup of water and he became obsessed with finding that clear, plastic cup. Why? Even he couldn’t explain. He gave it up, for a while, but after we’d eaten, he started obsessing again and at last finding it was still unable to pick it up, so I unbuckled my seatbelt, stooped down in the aisle, and retrieved it myself just to get him to stop this. When I asked why he was so obsessed with it, he couldn’t tell me, at which point we both started laughing at how ridiculous this scene was.

Anything to break the monotony.

I thought I’d watch a movie – which shouldn’t have been a problem. But the guy in front of me wanted to sleep, and what’s the first thing we do so we can sleep? Right. Put the seat back. He pushed his back so hard I thought it was going to break, and he still wasn’t satisfied. When his seat wouldn’t recline any further, he pushed harder. I thought it would break and I’d find him staring up into my baby blues for the next 4000 miles. Seriously.

This is what the airlines do now. Take away as much of your personal space as possible by allowing the seatbacks to go farther back than before, and with the reduced space between you and the seat in front of you, his/her seat comes within inches of your face as it angles downward. Guess what else angles downward. Right. The viewing screen.


On the way back from Amsterdam, Bill’s reading light didn’t work and he was unable to read for entire trip back to Chicago. In addition, the arm rest on his aisle seat would not raise, requiring both of us to bend ourselves into “S” shapes getting into or out of the seat due to the minimal space available in all directions. When Bill asked about the light, the steward said someone had complained about the light for this same seat on the incoming flight to Amsterdam, too. He steward advised that on the Boeing 777 there are circuit breakers that can be adjusted but the 767, in which we were flying, doesn’t have them available to the cabin staff. He told Bill he would put it in his report and that he was sorry but they couldn’t move us because there were no unused seats. As for the armrest, only some seats can be raised because “the airline won’t pay for all of the armrests to have that capability. They don’t want to pay the extra money for all of them to work.”

These kinds of things make people testy. Particularly on long flights.

In some ways planes are safer, but in others they’re more dangerous than ever.





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