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Carrying On: Bad Manners, Pajama Bottoms, and the Air Travel Horror Show

In Issue:

“Now inviting those passengers in Group 4 to board.”

Finally, my group! Not that it matters much. Once first class, members of the military, people with small children, and those belonging to various rewards levels were called, a horde of impatient passengers swarmed the gate, many hauling mammoth four-wheeled suitcases that were in clear violation of the airline’s restrictions.

Instead of the one carry-on and one personal item permitted, some fliers stacked several pieces of luggage on top of each other, while others lugged overstuffed shoulder bags and bulging backpacks fit for an Everest expedition. They rolled over toes and banged into backs, pushed aside children, and hurried past the overwhelmed attendants.

When I eventually got inside the plane for my trip from Philadelphia to Austin, the same people who’d rushed the gate were now blocking the aisle, struggling to cram their massive bags into the limited space available. It was a full flight, and the rest of us had to stand and stew while they heaved and pushed. By then, the overhead bins were near to full, and panic was setting in among those yet to reach their seats. Sneaky passengers with seats in the rear had deposited their luggage in the front of the cabin on their way back, leaving me with no place to stash my bag. I was forced to jam my carry-on as far under the seat in front of me as it would go and hike up my knees for the four-hour flight.

Who is to blame for the soul-sucking horror show that air travel has become?

All of which got me to pondering: Just who is to blame for the soul-sucking horror show that air travel has become?

My first instinct is to point the finger at corporate greed. And it’s true that the airlines’ record profits and full-capacity flights — underpinned by the “ancillary fees” for baggage, food, and preferred seating — have transformed what was once a mini-adventure where you felt just a bit pampered and special, even in economy, into a grim experience that no amount of multimillion-dollar airport upgrades can assuage.

But rapacious airlines aren’t the main culprits here. There has been a lamentable decline in manners; common courtesy has disappeared along with the friendly skies. People are increasingly rude and selfish — there’s no longer a feeling of shared experience among passengers, no sense of a traveling community. On top of that, travelers arrive dressed to fly as if they’d just rolled out of bed. (Hey, I’m all for in-flight comfort, but pajama bottoms?) I always take a minute to look around me and wonder if these people might be the last I see in my life. And I shudder.

Nobody seems to give a flying hoot about the repercussions of their behavior. I’m not a sociologist, but it strikes me as some sort of tribalism where everyone else in line is The Other.

Okay, maybe I’m wasting my time here, waxing nostalgic for a quality of air travel that never really existed. How can I expect graciousness and patience from people who are paying more for less comfort and being reduced to two-legged ATMs? So just consider this a desperate appeal to the better angels in my fellow travelers.

I will now return my tray table to its full upright and locked position.

—Ed Dwyer

*“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
—Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

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