Expect the Worst; Remember the Best

Take a good look at this picture. Wide-body aircraft cabin, spacious seating, smiling flight attendants and so on. Remember this picture the next time you climb aboard. I doubt that it’s the picture that will stay with you after the flight. It may not be appropriate for a man to discuss childbirth, but I can’t get its analogy to long distance air travel out of my head. The conventional wisdom is that a woman’s pain during childbirth recedes and is replaced by the pleasure she receives from the child. I can’t speak to that experience personally, but I can tell you that something inexplicable and similar happens to me with respect to very long passages in an airplane.

In today’s unregulated airline industry it’s all about the bottom line and bottom lines are all about filling airplanes. I respect the profit motive but I’m old enough to remember when airlines and trains were regarded as public utilities. Regulation insured that our transportation system provided service to all markets and that the carriers received a reasonable return on investment. There were public policy reasons to subsidize remote markets and the distribution of routes assured that airlines were treated fairly and equally. At least that was the rationale.

In 1977-78 Alfred Kahn, Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board and a Cornell economics professor, led the effort to deregulate the airline industry. From that point on passengers were collateral damage as airlines competed against one another in a free market setting to fill the seats. It took awhile to figure out what worked best for the bottom line but the end result was decreased capacity and higher load factors.

Today it is rare to fly anywhere in an airplane that is not packed full. Gone are the days when you might be able to stretch out across two or three seats. The current situation makes transoceanic travel nightmarish. Last week my wife and I flew from Seattle to Seoul, Korea, and on to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Seattle to Seoul was 11 hours and 40 minutes in the air. Seoul to HCMC was another 4 hours and 45 minutes.

I work for an NGO (non-governmental organization). We do not have the money or inclination to provide Business Class travel for our staff. Our money goes to projects and programs that benefit needy populations. I’m almost six feet tall, physically fit and not overweight. Still, I’m miserable when I have to twist like a pretzel into a transoceanic aircraft seat and then squeeze even more to wedge myself into a seat in the Asian configuration. You see, in Asia people are smaller so more people can be crammed into the already overcrowded aircraft cabin. I cannot sit upright in the Asian configuration even when the seat in front of me is in the upright position – never mind when it is reclined. I have to sit side-saddle for 5 hours.

The worst part however, the childbirth part, is the 11 hours and 40 minutes over the ocean. There is no way to avoid the pain, discomfort, and misery of having your ass strapped into any kind of seat for almost 12 hours. Add to that the dehydrating effect of recirculated moisture-less air and the craziness factor rises exponentially. All the travel experts recommend that you get out of your seat every hour and walk the aisle, stretch your arms and legs, and drink plenty of water. Easily said. I try, but I haven’t found it that easy to unstrap from my middle seat, wake and excuse myself to my sleeping neighbor who has to get up to let me out, and then walk the aisle avoiding food and beverage carts, duty free sales, and free ranging toddlers 11 times on the way to Seoul. I do try, but if I get up 4 or 5 times it’s a victory. The rest of the time I suffer, but like childbirth the pain and suffering recedes over time and I continue to travel across 15 time zones two or three times a year. I love it when I get there; I just hate getting there.

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