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Travels, Travails, and Truths

As a frequent flier and someone who craves autonomy, I prefer an aisle seat. It’s the only way to preserve some slight distance between overly assertive or careless neighbors and me. It also lets me arrange an elbow, shoulder, or foot for a bit of extra space, and rifle freely through my underseat carry-on. Plus, I can angle my laptop to avoid the crunch that occurs when the person in front of me suddenly reclines. Even more important, an aisle seat means I don’t feel like I have to ask permission to go to the restroom, or to get up to stretch my legs, which I do often on long flights.

When I fly JetBlue, I exercise the option of paying extra for a larger aisle seat, and it’s worth it. It’s the equivalent of improved working conditions. When I have to fly in another airline’s coach cabin, my assistant often goes through contortions (including begging and wheedling, bless her!) to get an aisle seat for me. Most often she succeeds, as she did, spectacularly, for my recent Delta Airlines trip to Seattle (for other trip adventures, see Nearly Sleepless in Seattle). I traveled with Daughter in two (count ’em, two) aisle seats across from each other.

Although the Seattle trip was not for business, I brought hefty piles of work. The outbound flight was uneventful, so I got a bunch done. The return flight, unfortunately, was not so smooth. Not only was it delayed, but it included changing to a plane with a distinctly different seat configuration and a noticeably smaller coach cabin. Because we were traveling on frequent flier miles, Daughter and I were among the last people to receive our new seat assignments.

There were several family parties on the flight and the crew worked hard to seat family members together. But they didn’t take seating preferences into account, so we ended up with a window/center combo. I wasn’t happy, but at least the person in the aisle seat was both petite and pleasant.

There’s one other form of control I exercise on flights, and that’s deciding whether to check a bag (easier to pack and get through security and less to shlep if there are delays, transfers, etc.; and I can bring more paperwork and books onboard) or restrict myself to a carry-on bag (no risk of bag loss, no waiting at the end). For this trip, Daughter and I opted to carry on. Our flights were scheduled to arrive very late and we wanted to waste as little time as possible, even though our wardrobe flexibility was deeply constrained and both packing and shlepping took longer.

The flight home was full, and after the hour-long delay and equipment change, the crew wanted to keep in-cabin luggage to a minimum. To speed up the boarding process, a gate agent started checking the bags of people who happened to be in the jetway — including ours. That seemed like a reasonable thing to do until we got to our seats and discovered plenty of empty overhead space in the bins ahead of, behind, and over our seats. Then I was infuriated.

It’s one thing to check every single bag that doesn’t fit — first come, first served — even if that’s according to an airline’s cockamamie boarding process based on clout, ticket price, and seat. But it’s another thing to do it without even confirming with the cabin staff whether there’s room inside.

I wish air travel was more pleasant, but it’s not. Even after taking every possible step to maximize comfort and minimize disruption (aside from paying for first-class tickets), the combination of unyielding systems and structures and imperfect human knowledge and judgment thwarted my best-laid (and best-packed) plans. So my challenge shifted from maintaining autonomy to maintaining a positive attitude.

I wanted to be a good role model for Daughter — with a balance between resignation and acceptance. Okay, we couldn’t have comfort and control, but we could have cuddling and conversation. Yes, we had to wait for our bags once we landed, but the extra 25 minutes wasn’t so terrible in the scheme of things.

And why make a big fuss and disrupt a working person who’s doing her best? Any rancor or arguments really should be directed at the systems and structures that foster customer disruption and disappointment.

Onward and upward,


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