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The Not-so-friendly Skies

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October 01, 2013
Nothing to do with Hotels
Michael Schubach - Michaelschubach@me.com

Attention, witches and warlocks:  there is big news from the Ministry of Magic! Starting soon – if it hasn’t started already – is the very likely change in the policy that will allow you to use your consumer electronics during all phases of your airline flights.  Someone waived a magic wand and the danger of signal confusion suddenly vanished. I note in passing that I have long suspected that it wasn’t possible for me to make a Los Angeles-bound flight and accidentally land in Des Moines just by shopping in the Kindle Store. Nonetheless, the planes-will-drop-from-the-skies cover story stood steadfast and unshakable. Were those long years of helpless frustration hex or hoax? My answer to that mystery conjures up my personal ignorance and apathy: I don’t know and I don’t care. All that matters is that our stuff can stay on and we have triumphed over the forces of evil, which is to say condescending flight attendants issuing snarky shutdown commands.

This news is just as important as it is magical. Today’s plugged-in traveler can truly suffer a sense of loss and deprivation when the plug gets pulled. In a recent interview with an NPR correspondent, one frequently flying executive described those lonely minutes of electronic alone time (while ascending and descending) as a time when “I feel like I am dead.” He lamented his fear of crucial decisions being made without him and the possibility of having a big sale slip away because his reply didn’t go out fast enough.     
There are a couple of ways of looking at these high-tech compulsives. On the one hand, it’s gratifying to feel important and immensely satisfying to catch the Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of the big game.  On the other hand, this gentleman clearly doesn’t understand the concept of death. Misery, perhaps – no one can deny the depth of misery you can feel when there’s no one to talk to or share with but those two other people who are seated almost directly on your lap.  There’s no one around to like or endorse or link in with, or even poke in the Facebook.  As much as you want to lash out and hit someone, there’s no one who can hit you back.  It’s just you, all alone with your miserable thoughts, wondering what all your friends, followers, co-workers and linkees have been up to in the few minutes that have elapsed since your last update. In that way, flying is just like solitary confinement in prison…except that you’re actually out and traveling, and there are a lot of other people with you.  The bathrooms are about the same, though.         

I don’t want to say that declaring yourself deceased because you can’t chat, tweet, text or opine on a runway is self-absorbed, but holy crap, Dead Man Flying, get a life. I’m sure you’ve missed an email or two before without us having to call an undertaker, and unless you’re completely prepared to forego sex and sleeping, you’re likely to miss a few more.  In an age that pays lipservice to employee-friendly concepts such as family first and mind-body wellness, a connectivity obsession reprioritizes family to first in line in your inbox, and perpetuates the myth that a good, healthy cardio workout consists of the rapid movement of your thumbs. 

As a shining example of a better way to live one’s life in the air, I make it a point to only feel dead when the flight attendant isn’t answering the call button.  
And speaking of what else is wrong with air transportation and the people who use it, I happened across another important news update recently.  While watching “Good Morning Wherever,” I was dual tasking by listening to the newscaster while reading the scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen.  Those who know me well can attest to the fact that by my working two different news stories from two different input modes at the same time resulted in me gleaning absolutely nothing from either of them.  But after the third time by, the full impact of the scrolling headline finally hit: there was more breaking news about air passenger satisfaction.  It seems – and I quote the television here – that when confronted with the choice, airline passengers, by a very wide margin, prefer being seated “next to a crying baby rather than a smelly person.” 

As inclined as I might be to agree with this in-depth analysis, I feel like the data – and therefore the results – lack specificity.  What we really don’t know is how loud or long the crying is, or exactly how smelly is smelly.  For some people, smelly means too much perfume or cologne.  I personally am usually okay with that kind of smelly, even when occasionally you come across someone who seems to apply their fragrance with a pressure washer.  A pint of Chanel No. 5 versus a crying baby?  Okay, now we have a contest.

But smelly could mean poor oral hygiene. Although it’s not that intuitive, there is an easy fix for proximate bad breath: headphones. Slap those bad boys into place (over your ears, not your nostrils) and ill-scented conversations come to a dead halt. Only the loony carry on conversations with people in headphones, and loony was not one of our survey options.   

In fairness, there is the final example where smelly just means smelly.  Here maybe the baby does stand a better chance as the row partner of choice. There is a story told of an exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. She said,“Sir, you are drunk!” Mr. Churchill replied, “Yes, madam, I am drunk and you are ugly.  But tomorrow morning, I shall be sober.” Just as Mr. Churchill could sober up, there is always the possibility that the baby could quiet down. (Or even more like Mr. Churchill, maybe the baby will just pass out. They never do, but at least there is that possibility.)
Unfortunately, the smelly person more closely emulates Lady Astor, in that he or she is likely to remain unpleasant throughout your entire acquaintance. In such cases, you may have to resort to huffing airline magazine ink.  Sadly, the FAA continues to take a dim view of pounding on the little overhead trapdoor in order to get your oxygen mask to drop. 
What if, these items present themselves in even more grotesque combinations?  What if a high-volume infant is toted in by a smelly person? Wouldn’t the ninth circle of Hell truly be if your entire row was “extremely loud and incredibly close” and you couldn’t tweet about it?

I think our national poet-laureate, Louis C.K., pretty much hit the nail on the head in one of his stand-up routines when he pointed out that that the minor inconveniences of flying have brought out our peevish pettiness.  Yes, the whole up-in-the-air thing can be a burden, but look at what you’re doing:  you sit in a chair (albeit a narrow one) and you travel up into the clouds.  You read your email and you speed along at hundreds of miles per hour. You eat a packet of what looks like quick-fried tinker toys and you land in a faraway place that might otherwise take days or weeks to get to. The only thing you really lack is a little cosmic gratitude and a sense of awe for the world in which we live. But if that’s still asking too much, then pray for a decent Wi-Fi connection, and pack some Baby Benadryl and a travel-size bottle of Febreze in your carry-on.      
Michael Schubach is a regular contributor to Hospitality Upgrade and can be reached at Michaelschubach@me.com.
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