On walkabout in life and technology

US Aircraft Embarkation Etiquette Failures

I just returned from a European vacation which involved flying in several aircraft from a wide variety of airports. Over the past few years, I have flown throughout the USA on local carriers and there are many things about the local embarcation experience that leaves a lot to be desired. Here are some of my annoyances, with proposed solutions as usual.

Learn to drive the drag bag

I love the draggy bag. It’s a great invention, saving spines and enabling people to move their possessions around with ease. But I wish they would learn to drive these bloody things.

Consider the tractor-trailer, those large 18 wheel articulated trucks that transport most of our goods. They are long, wide and have massive turning circles. When the tractor-trailer driver decides to cross an intersection, they take into account the length of the vehicle so they do not “block the box” or leave their trailer in front of oncoming traffic. When the tractor-trailer driver wishes to negotiate a bend, they take into account the articulation of the vehicle and the fact that the pulled trailer will follow a shorter path round the bend. So they either delay the turn until such time as the trailer is past the apex of the turn then make the turn, or they swing out first, dragging the trailer outwards before making the turn so that the trailer’s wheels remain on the road during the turn.

It’s the same with the draggy bag. You are longer than usual as the bag is behind you. Which means that if you pass across the path of other walking passengers, you may miss them, but the draggy bag will remain in their way, causing them to trip and stumble. You are also wider than usual as the draggy bag is usually dragged by one hand to the side of your body. Which means that if you bump shoulders with another person on the dragging side, the bag will hit them in the center of their mass. And the draggy bag is articulated by your arm and wrist, and is also several inches behind you, which means that when you take a corner, either the bag will take a shortcut if you are turning into the bag, or swing out if the turn is the other way. Either way, any people, children, toes, other bags and poles that are to the inside or outside of your turn may be missed by you, but will certainly get hit by the draggy bag.

The solution to prevent you from hitting so many people and having to mumble all those apologies is to learn to drive the draggy bag. Leave more space between you and cross traffic to account for the trailing bag, make wider turns on the inside and draw the bag in on outer turns. Or get one of those 4-wheel bags that remain upright and push it in front of you.

Cabin sized baggage

Carry on luggage is nothing new. It evolved decades ago as short term business travel was enabled by cheap and frequent flights. Airlines pandered to this traveller by allowing larger and larger overnight bags and by adding larger and larger luggage bins above the seats. But since space is limited on aircraft, there is a maximum size that can be handled. Larger aircraft can handle larger carry-on luggage, smaller ones cannot.

The Europeans have standardized at a maximum of 9" x 22" x 14" (the 45" standard) with a weight not exceeding 20lb (most report 12lb but know you’ll exceed this amount). Anything over this size or weight must be checked and they will not allow it aboard. This they enforce.

But in the US, the standard seems to be more flexible. Most airlines follow the 45" standard (the sum of the dimensions of the bag may not exceed 45") and build their internal bins accordingly. But with the advent of checked baggage fees, more and more travelers are opting to carry everything on. Which means they bring bigger and heavier luggage into the cabin.

The resulting farce would be funny on SNL if it were not so annoying and inconsiderate to others. The person drags their heavy, oversize item down the aisle, bumping everyone along the way. Once they find their row, they look up to see a small standard sized luggage bin containing other traveler’s belongings. They proceed to block the aisle while attempting to make space for their steamer trunk in the overhead bin. Once done, they squat into a weightlifter’s crouch, proceed to sweat and grunt as they clean and jerk their heavy load upwards. This sometimes takes several attempts. Once they have the deadweight lifted and balanced vertically, they lean it over towards the awaiting bin like a falling tree. Passengers below all flinch and raise their hands in case the tottering anvil of luggage falls their way. They then attempt to stuff this massive bag into a small standard sized bin.

Now two-year olds have already outgrown their Fischer-Price toys where they learned to put the square block into the same sized square hole and the round one into the round hole, and know that the larger rectangular block does not fit the smaller square hole. But these large luggage losers seem to have forgotten this lesson. A larger item will not fit into a smaller space (unless of course your luggage is the TARDIS, in which case it’s fictional luggage and it will fit). So they push and fiddle and go red in the face and no matter what they do, the luggage stubbornly refuses to shrink or get lighter and fit in the overhead bin. Then they stand and glare at it.

Meanwhile, the remaining passengers are waiting to find their seats and settle in, the crew is jammed at the front because the aisles are jammed, and the pilot has to delay the flight. What usually happens is that a member of the crew finally squeezes down the aisle, explains to the large luggage lunkhead that the bag won’t fit under the current laws of physics, and that the bag has to be checked. They then have to lug the bag upstream through the aisle back to the front of the plane to check it.

And then the next large luggage leprechaun tries the same process again in a different bin.

Now I’m not blaming people for trying to save money, but the solution to large luggage in the cabin is to enforce the standard limits as they do in Europe and to stop charging stupid baggage fees. If a passenger has a bag that’s to big to fit or too heavy to lift, it should be checked. And this process should happen before we board the plane. And as passengers, we should purchase cabin sized luggage and only pack what fits in that.

Seats don’t move around

The internal layout of aircraft may have changed to have more seats per row and fewer aisles, but the essential logic of seat addressing has not changed since I started flying as a baby. The rows are numbered from front to back, implying a higher numbered row is further back in the aircraft than a lower numbered row. It’s the same in theaters and stadiums, anywhere where numbered rows of seats are used.

They then use letters of the alphabet, you know, the characters you are reading now, to identify each seat, starting from port to starboard (or the left looking forward to right looking forward). Seat B is to the right of seat A and can be found nowhere else.

Since the row number and seat letter system has been used on every aircraft since commercial aviation started, why is it that people in 2012 can still not find their seats? The rows are clearly marked above them, the seat letters are displayed in the same place on all aircraft, and the ordering of each remains the same. The boarding card even prints the row and letter in a larger font so it’s easier to see.

Yet on almost every flight I get on, I either find someone sitting in my allocated seat, or doing so to someone around me. And then the same play takes place every time. “You’re in my seat”. “No, I’m not”. “Yes, you are, check your boarding pass and look up”. “Oh, sorry, well, since I am already here, why don’t you take my seat at the back next to the lavatories.”. “No, this is my seat”. “Oh well, if you’ll be like that, let me get my stuff”. Then you wait, blocking the aisle and all other travelers while the seat stealer slowly gets up, sighs, searches the seat pocket, then reaches up, and takes their luggage, all the while groaning and rolling their eyes.

The solution is simple. Look at your boarding pass before you board. The crew at the door will point you to the right aisle if necessary. Briskly walk down the aisle to your row, and sit in your allocated seat. If you don’t like your seat, wait until the doors close before moving to a better seat.

Move it

On most smaller aircraft, there is only a single aisle, which means that every passenger needs to traverse this narrow channel to get from the entrance door to their seats. It means that each and every one of the 110 people on the flight have to walk down the same narrow aisle, find their seats, lift their carry-on luggage into the bin, wait for the aisle sitter to stand and move aside, then squeeze in to their seat.

That’s quite a process. And any delay by any passenger delays all others. The most common delays include large luggage lemmings, chatters, undressers, full bins because people at the back leave their luggage at the front, people who went past their row and need to get back upstream, toilet visitors, people on phones telling others they are on a plane, and long lost friends catching up because they have not seen each other since boarding the plane. Each of these people blocks the aisle, slowing the boarding process.

Airlines have tried to fix this mess by creating boarding zones, trying to get the people at the back to board first so that people sitting further forward do not prevent people sitting at the rear from quickly being seated. But somehow, the delayers still seem to win. The ideal mathematical approach to seating, either by getting windows sitters in first (from back to front) or using alternate rows have all been tried but the average traveller gets confused, then stands around in the aisle holding everybody else up.

The solution to this is standard aircraft etiquette. Enter only when your zone is called, move directly to your row, quickly place your luggage in the bin above your row, and sit down. If you are a group, let the person sitting furthest from the aisle aboard first. If you have a window seat, try to be first in your zone so you do not have to bother unseating the person in the aisle (and be last if you are on the aisle). If you have to pass an aisle sitter, signal them before you load your luggage so they can get up while you place your luggage. If you need to remove a coat, do it after you are seated and out of the way.

Recline in your face

I don’t have a problem if the person in front of me wants to recline their seat to snooze on the flight. It’s why the seats do this. But on several occasions, the abrupt reclining has almost led to me being bopped in the nose. I may be leaning forward to adjust the TV or pull off my shoes, or position my bag under the seat when, boom, the top of the seat in front of me rapidly approaches.

The second issue is space. These days, some flights have packed so many tiny seats in that an ordinary width, 6ft 2" male can only fit by jamming his knees against the seat in front. This is an already uncomfortable position, which gets exacerbated when the person in front reclines. Now the knees are not only jammed horizontally by the length of the femur, but also pushed down by the reclined seat, leaving the passenger locked in with sore knees. On larger aircraft, there is more space and the knees get more room.

The solution is as the Europeans do. Prior to reclining, they look behind them to see if anyone is there. If so, they make eye contact and await a nod or head-shake to determine whether they can recline or not. And they quietly respect the decision of their fellow traveller.

Recline in your food

It gets even worse during meal times. The seats are cramped, the trays are small and the food palettes contain lots of moving and messy parts. The best ergonomic position to consume the meal is sitting upright or slightly forward so that the food does not all fall on your lap during turbulence (which of course always occurs during meal times, especially during coffee service). If your seat is reclined, you need to reach further forward to acquire the food, then float the food balanced on those lovely plastic forks over your thighs, pelvis, belly, chest, neck and finally place it in your mouth. Not a very good eating position. If the seat in front of you is upright, then you also have the vertical space above the food to place your face, reducing the float from tray to mouth to a few inches.

But if the seat in front of you is reclined, you lose that vertical space. Note that when a seat reclines, the tray behind does not move (otherwise the food or drink would spill). So, if the person in front of you is eating with a reclined seat, you are forced to sit back and eat reclined as well, so you both have the uncomfortable reach, float, float some more, eat process to follow.

The correct behavior is to raise your seat back for the meal service and keep it raised until all drinks have been cleared. It enables you to eat properly, and the person behind you to do the same. On several European flights this trip, the service personnel asked travelers to raise their seat backs while serving the food. I would love it of they did that here.

Choice of language

You ‘embark’ onto an aircraft, or ‘board’ a plane. You do not ‘emplane’. You ‘disembark’ from the aircraft when you are done, you do not ‘deplane’ or ‘deboard’. Lets stop making up new words for the fun of it.

It’s all about getting there in one piece

At the end of the day, no matter how long you wait in the aisle when you board, or how much food has stained your clothes at the end of the flight, the objective is to get there safe and sound. It’s not an effort to do your part and speed up the boarding process, respect the passenger behind you and not whack anyone with your luggage. No matter where you sit on the aircraft, we all fly together, land together and get there at the same time.