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It Never Fails

December 11th, 2009

No matter how few people on an airplane lean their seats back, especially way back, it’s always the guy directly in front of me. Particularly galling this time is that the ass has an exit row, so he has all the space in the world to stretch out–but he just has to lean back too, and steal what tiny increment of space I have left.

I wrote the above as I was on the plane, and was feeling fairly frustrated. It really is true, however: on every flight I have taken over the past several years, the person in front of me (always a man, by chance) never fails to lean all the way back right after the initial in-flight meal. I always check around, and see that no more than 20-30% of the people in the area have their seat backs down, so in theory it should happen to me only once every four or five flights. But no, it’s 100% of the time on my Pacific flights–I’ve been keeping track.

You know those “Economy Plus” seats they now charge extra for? Guess where they got the space from? I swear, every time I fly, it seems like the seats are closer and closer together. And while the annual incremental crawl may be imagined, the overall crunch is definitely not. I remember, for example, that it was once possible for the passenger in the window seat to leave without the other passengers getting up; this act is now physically impossible. (Thought: is there any regulation determining the minimum distance airlines can squeeze people into for flights over three or four hours in length? If not, there should be.)

And that wasn’t the only problem I had. The only aisle seat I could get was right next to the galley door–I thought it would be next to the lavatories, but in fact it was farthest from those. Instead, I had flight attendants shoving the food carts against my seat for half the flight, the other half filled with their loud chatting and the bright lights from the galley area–and no matter how often I tried to close the curtain, an attendant would come along moments later and brush the curtain aside.

At least the guy sitting next to me was not a large, sweaty, or talkative guy, nor was he an armrest hog, but he apparently had bladder problems. To get seated again, it took some gymnastics to get everything back in place: discover where your seat belts snaked off to, reach down with your hands to retrieve stuff from your bag on the floor (again, you used to be able to bend down forward), put the seat tray up, set up the laptop or whatever else you were doing–a real study in what the human body can accomplish while crammed into a very confined space (a study in resentment when your already tiny space is cut in half by the ass in front of you with all the space in the world).

Once, I got some water to take Ibuprofen to help with the back pain the seat was causing. Then, of course, because of the confined space, right after I popped the pills in my mouth, my hand caught on something and the cup full of cold water spilled all over. It was then that I discovered that airplane seats are anti-absorbent, and gravity caused a good deal of that water to run straight for my crotch.

So, while freezing cold water was slowly gathering in my nether region, I had to do five things at once in that tiny space: yell to the attendants for towels, try not to elbow or spray the guy next to me, try to levitate in my seat–and nothing was really possible until I got my laptop put away and the tray table up, but I couldn’t do that until I got towels from the attendants to dry off the keyboard–all of this while I held on to a cup which still had enough water to make things worse, and my mouth had unswallowed Ibuprofen.

After I finally got up and had to apply towels to my crotch in front of a hundred or so people, the flight attendant helpfully (a) offered to change my seat cushion, which, having directed all of the moisture to my pants was not the least bit wet, and (b) stepped on my stocking foot with her heel.

While that was the highlight of the flight, the rest was not really all that much better.

It takes a lot to make a three-week trip back home not worth it. Flying economy comes pretty damned close.

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  1. matthew
    December 11th, 2009 at 11:12 | #1

    Sounds rough. I gave up flying economy to the states a few years ago. Business class or not at all. Just not worth the headaches. If you shop around you can get some great BC fares. Might want to spring for an upgrade on the return.

    have a great vacation. i am off the the states on the 19th.

  2. Tim Kane
    December 11th, 2009 at 11:17 | #2

    Well I’m a big proponent of “Economy Plus” on United Airlines, but with some strict provisions.

    I stumbled upon this by accident. I’m left handed, so I always angle to sit at the left end of an row of seats so I can eat without hitting a right handed persons arm while they are eating. While boarding a flight from San Francisco, I asked for this, and they moved me into economy plus. The flight was one of the best in my life. 100% more comfortable than strict economy. I did some i-net research and found that it really doesn’t matter unless you are on a long international flight. Domestic flights on United might get you more leg room but that doesn’t matter.

    Then last summer my flights were on 747, an ancient one at that. Maybe the leg room was longer, maybe not, but the seat was hip-bone rubbing narrow and the seat reclining still didn’t happen. But, I had to change planes in Japan for Korea and I had, uncharacteristically, book economy plus for that last leg – I guess I thought I’d be tired.

    Here is where the real awakening occurred. The plane from Japan to Korea was a 777 (not a 747). The economy plus seats were WIDER and they reclined further back. I’m telling you there was no comparison. It was like going from Hell to Heaven.

    If you can fly United on a 777 go with the Economy Plus.

    United is usually the cheapest, or one of the cheapest airlines. My ticket last summer was $771. The upgrade was roughly $100 each way. That was still cheap.

    I’m telling you, if you do that the flight will be pleasant. Like the way you remember flights from childhood.

    Try it. But it has to be United and a 777.

    By the way if you are flying Domestic U.S. you can get the same effect flying Jet Blue which uses wider chairs, with greater reclining angle and direct disk tv on the tv screen in front of you too boot.

    For 12 hour flights, comfort is worth $100. Especially for me, because I have to move on to Phoenix on the U.S. and Korea on the Asian end. That means I have several hours in airports and airplanes to go. So the comfort is even more important.

    My personal experience is that if I have a comfortable flight, I sleep more, and if I sleep more, my jet lag last only about a week to ten days, instead of three or four weeks. That’s worth $100.

  3. Tim Kane
    December 12th, 2009 at 10:02 | #3

    One other thing, that has helped me: noise cancellation headset. I used to never be able to sleep on airplanes until I got a set of these. I still don’t sleep real well on airplanes, but because of the head sets the amount of sleep I get has increased from under an hour to something like two or three hours (maybe more if I’m riding in economy plus).

    Again the more sleep I get on the airplane, the less jet lag problems I seem to have at the other end.

    My next investment is going to be one of those horse shoe shaped pillows – to see if that helps me.

  4. December 15th, 2009 at 22:28 | #4

    Odds are I’ve spent more time on airplanes than 99.9% of the world’s population. The only people with more than me are either airline employees or regular business travelers.

    I say this not to brag, but to give an idea of the background.

    A few things. First, the definitive source for seat layout, width, and pitch (spacing of the rows- in other words, leg room) of seats is http://www.seatguru.com. Tremendous website.

    Economy Plus on UAL comes from taking out a row or two of seats and spreading the extra space into the remaining rows. It only SEEMS like it comes from cramming the remaining economy seats in tighter. 😉 Economy Plus usually gets you 3 to 5 inches more leg room, depending on the a/c type.

    Tim’s both right and wrong. UAL’s 777s have economy seats that are an inch wider than their 747 seats, but the pitch is the same- 31 inches. They just seem better because of the different layout.

    In narrow-bodies, the Airbus (319/320/321) are usually 18 inch wide seats. Boeing 737s are 17 or 17.5 inches wide. Pitch is usually the same on both, 31 inches.

    Southwest, surprisingly, gives you an extra inch or two of pitch. They make up for this room by not having a full galley since they don’t do food.

    Exit-row seats rule. If there’s dual overwing exits, get the rear of the two; the front of the two will have the added leg room but the seats don’t lean back. (Sorry, Luis, I’m a seat-leaner-backer.)

    Cockpit jumpseats range from awesome to horrible. Not that most folks ever have to worry about it, I’m just sayin’.

    United is, like most international airlines, converting their business class seats on international flights to be true “lie-flat” seats. I haven’t been on one of the upgraded a/c yet (they’ve done all their 767s and almost all of their 747s, the 777s are next) but look forward to it.

    Noise-cancelling headsets are huge in comfort. You wouldn’t think so, but they are, especially back in coach where you’re usually behind the engines. They help you hear whatever you’re watching/listening better, and if you just want to snooze, they’re good for that, too.

    Now, having said all that, I can say that in the past few years I’ve been really really really lucky and flown most of my really long flights (Asia-North America, etc) in either Business or First Class.

    Lemme tell you, the world is different up there. Every flight to/from Japan I’ve taken (and I’m up to… 4 round trips now? Maybe 5?) we’ve gotten First. AWESOME. The seats lie all the way flat, you can sleep as much or as little as you want, and of course there’s usually 3 flight attendants for the 12 seats up there.

  5. Dan
    December 22nd, 2009 at 05:56 | #5

    I feel for you. I’m 6’7” and usually take a sleeping pill so I don’t have to endure the journey of domestic flights. If going Aust-Japan I try use business class, even if it means travelling less often.

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