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My flight this morning was bumped from a large aircraft to a smaller one; as a result, many people including myself were moved from our chosen seats to others. This annoyance (the flight is 5 1/2 hours, which is not insignificant for some but minor for others) means that I am seated at the window.

I look forward to taking a slo-mo of the takeoff and landing, but I do prefer the aisle, as I am tall and wide1, and steerage does not quite provide sufficient space for me to be fully comfortable. Again, for 5 1/2 hours, ok, no worries – as I said to the Israeli gentlemen ahead of me in line, at least it’s not a flight to Singapore.

But I’m always interested more in other people’s reactions to this sort of unexpected disruption while flying. Flying is not a stressful thing for me, but it is for many, and people clearly have to spend a lot of psychic energy to get themselves up for it, and these changes in routine seem to cause completely asymmetric reactions. There were people shouting at the gate agent (who was, to be fair, a bit glib); a litany of grumbling followed us down the gangway; people are being peevish. None of that is going to get us back our big Airbus; all of it is understandable.

Part of this is clearly people’s discomfort with flight at all (it is unnatural, after all, to be in a giant tube flying at 300mph through the sky), but I always wonder about how the structures that the airlines impose can exacerbate or alleviate the inherent stress. A glib flight agent isn’t helpful; but a lack of queuing discipline isn’t great, either.

The manner in which aircraft are boarded, which is a shitty and aggravating process, is unlikely to ever change because the costs involved in a more sane process (many of these aircraft have rear doors) are prohibitive in a world where airline profit margins are so narrow.

As I understand it, airlines are really in the jet fuel hedging business, and I wonder if more fruitful innovation comes at that end, rather than at the pointy, shitty end where the cost cutting meets people’s natural anxieties. That’s cold comfort when people are getting separated from their families on board, or bumped from a flight altogether, or, worse of all, subjected to interminable LET’S ALL GO TO ALBERTA in our JAGUAR/RANGE ROVER ads before their crappy inflight movie (today’s turkey: The Equalizer – late edit: I switched to Frank, which was superlative, and Claire Denis' Bastards, which … damn), but we as a society seem to have been adjusted to the poor customer service from our domestic airlines.

A lot of ink has been spilled in e.g. The Economist about open-skies and the glory of competition, but does anybody think that a Saturday afternoon Etihad flight from Newark to San Antonio would be any less shitty than a Delta one? I mean for us mortals, not those glorious incandescent beings up in the reclining shower bed massage seats. I get that new entrants might not be hobbled by existing labor and gate arrangements, but the same forces that are undoing even good domestics like Southwest or Jet Blue (unpredictable energy prices, opaque pricing pressure downwards) would seem to hold.

All things considered, then, it’s not too bad; wonder of wonders, I can get into this tube in Toronto at 10:55am and get off of it at 2pm in San Francisco. That’s pretty damn great. And at least I’m not on United.

  1. 6'3", 240lbs ↩︎