By David Feela
Things happen on an airplane for reasons, though not all of them are obvious, or discernible, or even reasonable.
Take, for example, the curtain between first class and economy, which is intended to fool first-class passengers into believing the back half of the airplane isn’t tagging along. Then there’s the tiny scratched-but-certified- shatterproof plastic windows at opposite ends of each seat row, as if a view rationally explains how traveling at 550 miles per hour, 39,000 feet above the surface of the earth, is normal. And while I’m chronicling the crazy, convince any sane passenger that by slipping a little inflatable life vest over the head and blowing into a red tube, a person might stay afloat, much less alive, in a sea of disaster.
A modern mythology must be embraced by passengers climbing aboard any airplane, but even more disturbing is that airlines manipulatively promote the notion they can not only sell these myths, but that services ought to be dispensed by the pound or by the inch.
Anyone who has flown today’s less-than-friendly skies can’t help noticing the “handy hints” provided by the airline to keep passengers feeling fit while en-route to their destinations, like rotating one’s foot in one direction, then the other 15 times, raising the leg and tensing the muscles of the thigh 30 times. A bit idiotic really, because it’s the same airline that eliminated the space to safely perform even these minimalist exercises they’re so happy to recommend. Try doing the “back and arms” stretcher 15 times by bending forward and moving your hands down to your legs as the passenger in front of you slams his seat backward against your skull.
On a recent trip to Italy, I confess, I purchased an upgrade – economy PLUS. I’d inquired about the upgrade at the check-in desk. Business class? Sure, why not. I am, after all, a writer. The cost? An additional $1,360! That’s more than the total price of my ticket! Oh, economy PLUS is only $100 more. Sure, I’ll take that.
By paying an additional $100 for legroom near the front of the cabin, the airline assured me I’d be able to “see what other travelers are talking about” and to “savor more space to work and relax.” It may have been the word “savor” that tipped the scale for me. I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. All I know is that I’d never paid for anything so extravagant before in my touristing life. I figured the splurge cost me about $20 an inch.
I kept my standard economy class on the return flight, but I’d lucked out and been assigned an aisle seat. From that vantage I noticed an attendant stopping on her way toward the front of the cabin and glancing down at a passenger. She crouched very low, like a kindergarten teacher talking meaningfully to a toddler, and made gestures toward her own eyes. Another cabin attendant approached from the other direction and some sort of conference transpired until one attendant walked away, returning shortly with a plastic glass filled with a cloudy liquid. The passenger drank it, both attendants watched, talked a bit more, then the miraculous event occurred.
The passenger was invited to join others in the first-class section, and the entire delegation disappeared behind the gold curtain.
As I glanced down toward my feet, thinking about the futility of touching them for the next three hours, I noticed a tiny paper bag in the pouch beside the glossy airline product marketing magazine. I pulled it free and read the label: Sickness bag.
So this is what it takes, I thought – barfing into a paper bag – to prompt an airline to measure out an ounce of compassion. I opened the bag and stared into it. The woman next to me seemed to be vigorously trying to rotate her shoulders in a circular motion – at least 5 times. Good for her.
The whole idea of packing people like cattle into an airplane, and then charging them additional exorbitant fees to be treated like human beings sickened me, but it was not enough to produce anything...well, let’s just say, meaningful. I folded the bag and placed it back into its pouch.
After all, the beverage service was about to begin. The wheeled cart had just appeared from behind the curtain. Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I’d seen enough to realize the entire performance was a sham, but my mouth tasted like dust and a drink was the only upgrade I could afford.
David Feela is an award-winning poet and essayist in Montezuma County, Colo.