Flying Today: Grateful Not Grumpy

IMAGE: Air Travel RageABC News Photo Illustration
Air Travel Rage

Buckle your seatbelt, sit back and enjoy the flight, because, folks, we are about to veer off course.

I've decided to write this week's column about air travel -- but not about a consumer aspect like high prices or lost luggage. Rather, I want to talk about high tensions and lost civility. I flew three times in the past week and each and every time I encountered simmering rage. Worse yet, a confession: one of those times, the rage was my own.

Two Fridays ago I was flying from Washington to Cincinnati for a family wedding. My husband and 2-year-old daughter were with me. We had brought my daughter's car seat aboard, because an FAA official I interviewed once told me that it is by far the safest way for little ones to fly. We were conscious of the fact that the car seat positioned our daughter's feet right behind the seat back in front of her. Even before the plane took off, we started coaching her not to kick the seat. I told her again several times during the flight.

Click Here to Ask Elisabeth Your Consumer Questions About This Topic or Any Other Consumer Issue

It's only an hour and 20 minute trip and I thought it went beautifully. No crying or fussing. As we descended, I excitedly pointed out the seemingly miniature cars and buildings below, and Kelsea giggled with delight. When we touched down, I said to her, "Wasn't that fun?" That's when the man in front of my daughter wheeled around and angrily exclaimed, "No, that was not fun. It was miserable and uncomfortable with her kicking the seat the entire way."

I gaped at him and then stammered that we had tried our best and that it's hard to communicate concepts like this to a 2-year-old and even harder to get her to control her naturally squirmy little self.

"Well, at least you could apologize," he said. OK. My question is, why didn't he say something during the flight to let us know, so we could take steps to help? What was the point of confronting me after the flight, other than to make me feel awful?

Air Travel: Kids Kicking Seats

I think I was particularly put off because I can recall how I myself handled a similar situation years ago when a child was kicking my seat on a plane. I waved the flight attendant over when she was passing by and quietly told her that I didn't want to make anybody feel bad, but that my back was taking quite a beating and could she mention something to the parents for me rather than my making a scene by saying something myself. Maybe I'm just hopelessly passive or ridiculously polite, but it worked for me.

Now, before you all slam me for acting holier-than-thou, here's my flip side. This past Tuesday I was getting some more frequent flyer miles on a flight to Miami for a story. Before the plane even took off, the woman in front of me reclined her seat right into my personal space. My blood boiled. After all, if I'm not mistaken, the FAA requires passengers to keep their seats upright during takeoff and landing. I'm not sure why that rule exists, but she was breaking it, man. And she was inconveniencing me.

I seriously considered shoving her seat into the upright position. But then I thought about it. She was settling in for a nice nap. I'm not a very big person. And it's not like her seat was any more in-my-face than it was going to be in five minutes when we got into the air. So I took a deep breath, a big sip of water and went back to my book. Reading novels on airplanes is one of my rare and treasured respites.

Okay, fast forward to this past Friday. Flight from New York to Washington, after an early morning appearance on "Good Morning America." I was zonked. I decided to recline my seat for a little nap. (We were already airborne.) I was sleeping peacefully, when wham, the guy behind me angrily slammed his tray table into the back of my seat. Unfortunately, I have back problems, so a pain shot up my spine and I let out a yelp. "Jeez," I said.

"Well, it makes it hard when you lean back so far," he snapped. Now, as you know, it's not like airline seats have multiple settings that allow you to adjust how far you recline. I had simply reclined the seat the way it's designed. His anger was misdirected. I didn't even know there was somebody behind me, let alone that he was uncomfortable.

Angry Passengers

Right then, the pilot came on and said we were making our final approach for landing. Once again, an enraged fellow passenger had confronted me after simmering for the entire flight when it wouldn't do him any good. By the way, it was one of those planes with just two seats on each side of the aisle and the ones next to him and next to me were empty. He could have simply slid over and stretched out with no one in front of him.

As we disembarked, (do people still say "disembarked," or is that outdated, just like my manners?) I couldn't help myself. I told him he was lucky I was not some kook who would try to sue him for invented injuries. "Go ahead," he said. "I'm a lawyer. I can defend myself." Wow. Here's a guy who makes a living using words and reason, but when he got frustrated he resorted to caveman tactics -- slamming his tray -- instead of putting those tools to good use.

I remember after 9/11 how strangers were so nice to each other. It was palpable -- and moving. We're in the midst of another national crisis now. I'm not sure if my angry fellow passengers have been directly touched by the recession. But we're all indirectly impacted and maybe we need to recapture some of that 9/11 understanding and civility.

If you are a passenger on a plane these days, that means you either have enough money to pay for it or that you have a job and that job pays for it. We frequent flyers should all be too grateful to be grumpy. And that includes me. I'll stop griping now and go unpack.