- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Roughly 40,000 Feet Somewhere Over The Usa

If you're like millions of other Americans, you'll probably be on an airplane or waiting in a terminal sometime this summer — the busiest air-travel time of the year. If so, you will undoubtedly notice travel is becoming even more unpleasant than it used to be.

Flights are leaving later than ever. The food is worse, and there is a lot less of it. Now, if you get the pretzel snack and a soft drink, you're getting the royal treatment. First-class fare is the equivalent of a cold McDonald's chicken sandwich. In addition, the seats are much more crowded, and fellow passengers are often ruder (and drunker) than before. In the past two weeks, I've flown what seems like 100,000 miles and have made some observations:

First, young families now take on board more equipment than the Dallas Cowboys do on a road game. In Denver, I watched one young couple with a toddler and an infant struggle to board a padded stroller slightly larger than the average Korean car.

In addition to the parents' own carry-on bags, both children had colorful designer bags. It is possible that this family was relocating to the East Coast, but more likely they were simply on a vacation to visit grandparents and couldn't imagine leaving home without the kitchen sink.

But with more money than common sense, they carried with them more possessions than most families in the world actually own.

There is an inverse relationship between the muscle capacity of passengers and their willingness to do the heavy lifting involved in carrying and stowing their own bags. I watched one burly fellow this week with more than the usual nerve. Seated in the bulkhead, he thought he could get away with leaving his large duffel bag at his feet. When the stewardess informed him that she would have to stow it, he warned her that it was heavy, then sat comfortably as she struggled with both hands to carry the bag and lift it to an overhead bin.

Men over 6 feet and 200 pounds seem particularly eager to abandon their carry-on luggage as close to the front of the aircraft as possible, even when their seats are in the rear, leaving no space for the passengers whose assigned seats are up front. On landing, these same fellows practically stampede to the front to retrieve their bags once the seat-belt sign is off, and often while it is still on. I'm sure every one of them has a close connection or a very important meeting to get to, never mind the rest of us who have been pushed aside.

Now the Boeing 757 is the most uncomfortable aircraft designed since Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis. Having the misfortune of being seated in the row in front of the exit aisle, I discovered that while my seat would not recline, those in front of mine did. Soon after takeoff, the chain reaction started, and each row reclined until mine.

I measured the distance between the tip of my nose (which is not that long) and the seat back in front of me: 10 and 1/4 inches, exactly. If the gentleman in front of me had had any idea how unsightly his scalp was, I doubt he would have subjected me to three hours of staring at it.

Finally, if you must take your cockatoos with you, don't take them out of their cage in the terminal. And if you do, don't feed them. As anyone who's ever owned a bird knows, a bird's digestive system is, well, pretty primitive. Of course that didn't stop one particularly self-absorbed couple I encountered last week from letting their two cockatoos cavort outside their cages at La Guardia Airport, snacking on baby carrots and snow peas and relieving themselves as they saw fit on the carpet. The airlines now let passengers take their pets with them aboard the plane. I never did find out whether the birds got stuffed into the overhead bins or stuck under some unsuspecting passenger's seat.

At least it wasn't mine.

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