James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States, and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. More
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His two most recent books, Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009), are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book, China Airborne, was published in early May. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
>>I'm the director of "ALEX CROSS' and I'm writing to you to add my perspective to this United Airline matter should you care to know it.
The film is rated PG-13 due to the level of violence and some very intense content. By definition, it is not meant to be shown to people under thirteen unless accompanied by an adult. To me, this clearly defines a box office situation where you are voluntarily purchasing tickets to view something that has been clearly rated as not kid-friendly. It does not, however, really accurately cover the airplane experience.
An airline showing on all the cabin monitors is clearly no longer a voluntary situation but one where the content is being shown indiscriminately to those who wish to view it or those who don't. It's impossible to avoid the images, even if you are not using the headphones in such a situation.
There is something unfair and, in my opinion, unwise about such a policy. I did NOT do an airline edit although I did a TV version. My assumption was that the film would be either further edited from that by the airlines or shown only on systems where a passenger can select specific films for his or her seat.
When I read your piece this morning, I felt extremely sympathetic to the family involved and, in some ways, quite apologetic. I never made the film to cause anyone this kind of discomfort. It seems to me they (the family) were well within their rights to request some control as to what their two young children were exposed. As a father of five year old triplets, I, too, would not want them to absorb some of the images we created for my film. It's a thriller based on the work of James Patterson and accurately captures the milieu, content, and characters of his many "Alex Cross" books.
These books are not for young people, either.
I cannot comment on the Captain's decision as I don't know all the facts but I do know this: there should be another standard of judgement or set of editing guidelines for airline consumption. PG-13 should mean what it does at the box office, at the very least meaning no one under 13 should be exposed to it. If the airlines cannot accommodate a more flexible presentation giving seats the option of viewing or not, they shouldn't show the film unless it meets what we could call "general cabin" suitability.
If the film cannot be edited back to a more general audience presentation, then it shouldn't be shown on the cabin monitors. If that means the loss of air line revenue, so be it. Protecting children from things they were never meant to see should take priority.
Rob Cohen <<
>>I just read your article about the family being kicked off the United Airlines flight that was airing the Alex Cross moving throughout the cabin. It reminded me that on our last flight from SFO to Chicago (February 23rd or 24th, not sure if it was the flight going or coming back) they were playing the same film and I was very put out that they were showing it in cabin. I had a two year old with me that was thankfully too busy with her crayons to notice the screen, but if she had I would have probably raised my concerns as well. I just wanted to highlight that the Alex Cross showing was not an isolated incident, even if the removal of the family was.<<
>>[The speech] distinguished Gore, now and forever, as someone who cannot be considered a responsible aspirant to power. Politics are allowed in politics, but there are limits, and there is a pale, and Gore has now shown himself to be ignorant of those limits, and he has now placed himself beyond that pale.Gore's speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts -- bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.<<
Megan [McCarthy, United's managing director for external communications] mentioned that you reached out to us earlier this week for a statement. Here's what I can offer you on this matter. Again, apologies for missing your initial request. Response below:
United flight 638 from Denver to Baltimore diverted to Chicago O'Hare after the crew reported a disturbance involving a passenger. The flight landed without incident and the customers were removed from the flight. We reaccommodated the customers on the next flight to Baltimore and have since conducted a full review of our inflight entertainment.
Spokesman, Public Relations
>>I'm 58 years old, a 2 million mile flyer with United, at the 1K level for 10+ years. Although we live in Australia now, my wife and I are both Chicagoans originally and we still have a condo there.That really is it for a while, unless I do hear from United.
I've stuck with United thru the bankruptcies, merger with Continental (which actually helped us as CO and now United fly into [the city in Australia] where we live). What you've described is employee malfeasance - a problem that all the airlines struggle to address.
And it should be noted that most frequent flyers have, since 9/11, severely moderated their personalities WHEN ONBOARD THE FLIGHT. I had routinely seen passengers chastising flight attendants and even arguing with them prior to 9/11. After? Pilots and flight attendants have clearly formed a "pact" where the pilots are used (willingly and unwillingly) to "get square" with passengers. As a result passengers have become meek as sheep onboard. And I would anecdotally opine that the ground agents are getting more abuse than before, because of this and other capacity-related issues.
In October of 2010, I boarded a UA flight from Geneva, Switzerland to Dulles. I had been upgraded to business class (along with two other colleagues who had been at the same engineering conference). As is my custom, I changed from my business casual clothing to dark, knee-length shorts and a t-shirt. This was, for any frequent traveler, a "sleeping" flight.
Shortly after I had changed my wardrobe (in the lavatory), a pilot came up to me and said "you can't travel dressed that way". I turned to him with a stunned look and of course asked "why not?". He said it was inappropriate and walked away. A flight attendant came up shortly afterward and said "you'd better change back because the pilot isn't going to let you travel that way". I asked her why that was, and she just rolled her eyes - which told me this pilot might be trouble. There were what looked like elderly Europeans in business class, dressed for travel like it was 1960. They may have lodged the complaint, I don't know. I sat down in my seat, used my blanket to cover my legs, and waited.
The pilot returned, and was clearly agitated. During his diatribe he poked me, which I considered assault. But what does one do about this kind of incident in a foreign country? Should I stand my ground and likely be ejected from the flight at a port where United had no employees (only contract staff)? Even my colleagues witnessing this incident were cowed into silence. I was unsurprised.
I changed back into my boarding clothing.
I toyed with returning to my shorts after departure, because I thought it would be much harder for the pilot to explain a diversion disrupting 250 passengers. And I'm a "Type-A" person, who worked on film production as a sound engineer for 20+ years, where my tactlessness was honed to a knife edge. I'm usually not loathe to speak-out, even on behalf of others.
When we arrived at Dulles I used my express card to race thru immigration, and found a police officer. I explained briefly what had happened onboard the plane, and said I wanted the pilot identified and perhaps a report filed for assault. As the pilot came out of immigration, three police officers stopped him and ID'd him for me. (His name is XX). He saw me standing with another officer 20 feet away and shouted "you'll never fly on United again".
I of course notified United Airlines via the "1K Voice" email address, and as I would be staying in Chicago for a week or so I drove out to their headquarters building in Schaumburg. I eventually told the story to both the customer service rep that I had been in contact with previously, as well as the chief pilot. United also interviewed my colleagues, so they were clearly satisfied that the story I told was accurate and even more importantly, I DIDN'T CAUSE A RUCKUS. And subsequently I was provided with upgrade and discount certificates. But of course I never was told what happened, if anything, to this pilot or why he had acted so irrationally.
So why are these things happening?
Let's use as an example Singapore Airlines, who's onboard staff are among the best in the world. These flight attendants are given one five year contract, and then except for a handful who move up to management, they're out. They are paid much less than US legacy carrier flight attendants, can be fired easily, and more importantly aren't there to make a career.
The US legacy carriers in particular are saddled with many long-serving flight attendants. These (mostly) women were sold on the idea that this job was a career, and a "glamorous" one at that, with long layovers in exotic places, traveling with intelligent, wealthy people. But this idea flies in the face of what the job actually is. A job that requires no education, not even any computer skillls, and has little pathway for advancement. And a job that is protected by still powerful unions. I've spoken to hundreds of flight attendants over the years, and have a good understanding of their thinking. A great many are angry - angry at themselves for thinking this was going to be a career, angry at the airline for going bankrupt and stripping them of wages and benefits. This anger manifests itself exactly as you've described - telling white lies to avoid any further work, reporting passengers as "disruptive" to the pilot, and even more egregious behavior. Many flight attendants refer to vacation-destination flights as "the flying Clampetts". If they hate their job and their passengers, they should go. But they can't, or don't.
If you look at what was Continental Micronesia, a separate company owned by Continental prior to the merger, and their labor situation it's like night and day. This company was based in Guam, which while ostensibly the USA is more akin to the Philippines. The Continental (and now United) flight attendants based in Guam are largely Chamorro or Filipino, and look at these jobs as a tremendous opportunity given their low educational level. I've never heard a cross word or seen a scowl from these flight attendants. They weren't sold a "dream" to be a "flight attendant" and see the world! They were offered a great job, provided with the skills to do it, and pay that is much above what their fellow Guamians would receive under similar circumstances.
The legacy carriers; United and American especially, have a difficult situation. They have a large number of angry flight attendants - the worst of which, because of seniority rules, get the longest, most profitable international routes where UA has to compete with happy flight attendants. For the first time after the merger however I am sensing that UA management is now working to weed out the real troublemakers, something I can't recall them doing at all the last ten years.
This photo, UA 483 on October 23, 2012 from LAX/SFO had a purser who sat in this position the entire 80 minute flight, leaving only one of his colleagues to serve the full business class section. I reported this incident (with photo) to UA, who for the first time in many years seemed generally concerned about fixing this problem.
As for the inappropriate programming on the video. I was successful in getting the "survival in the wild" show with Bear Grylls removed from the entertainment system - the bug eating during meal time was I thought a bit over the top. However I know who to lodge a complaint with. I'm quite convinced that a complaint to the general email complaint line gets barely a look, and usually a "pat on the ass" response. This more than anything is something that United should consider fixing. Jeff Smisek would discover a lot about his employees if they actually read and processed the complaints properly.<<
[Widespread Chinese ignorance of the "June 4 1989 episode"] reminded me of something another teacher told me. She had asked her students from China if they had heard about the death by starvation of 30 to 40 million people during the so-called "three years of natural disasters" in the early 1960s. Her students responded with stunned silence, as if she, a teacher in Hong Kong, was brazenly fabricating history to attack their mother country.
In the U.S., for every 10,000 live births, there are 7.5 infants with neural tube defects. In Shanxi province, that number is 18 times higher: 140 infants....
Over a 10-year period, the researchers gathered placentas from 80 stillborn or newborn infants in Shanxi with the disorder. Based on their analysis, they confirmed that those infants had been exposed in utero to significant levels of pesticides, industrial solvents, and especially polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are released into the air when fossil fuels are burned.
>>Garrison Keillor said recently, "Nothing bad ever happens to writers; it's all material." So, at least for a time, this Alzheimer's disease will become material for my website and for a blog. I want to write about what Alzheimer's is like from the inside. What is the experience of losing one's mind? Do I still experience myself as the same "self"? Obviously, I don't know how long I can do this, although my good friend Carol Marsh has volunteered to keep it going with interviews when I can no longer write. We'll have to see.<<Hilfiker deserves great respect and careful attention for the memento mori he is creating.
>>I am an economics graduate student, and my partner has family working for Delta. She is thus able to fly standby for free, and me for a discount (and the economist part perhaps induces a certain line of thinking..). I'm in Los Angeles; our families are in Colorado and the Chicago suburbs. To get between LA and Denver, we have to fly via the Delta hubs of Salt Lake City or Minneapolis. To get to Chicago from LA, we have to fly from LA to Salt Lake or Minneapolis and then onward... On a bad day, it might involve Atlanta, Memphis, or Detroit--Delta's other hubs.Now, this is partially just due to having family in Delta-inconvenient places, but look at the list of major United hubs: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Houston, Dulles, and Newark. [JF note: And don't forget its international connections through Seattle.] Newark is probably the least-awesome of these, but United has hubs in the 4 largest American cities, two of the richest metropolitan areas that are also hubs of technology and government, and the largest city in the middle of the Mississippi and the Pacific. It's hard to beat, and the odds of United having the most (and most direct) options for a wide range of long-distance flights seems quite high for a quite large fraction of Americans, and especially for Americans in wealthy and travel-heavy metropolitan regions.As to the customer service angle: if your business has a particular advantage that induces a great number of customers to default to it, then skimping on customer service won't cost you much, and investing in it won't gain you as much. I'm not sure how plausible this is as the fully story, but it seems plausibly part of it.<<
>>I must have been unclear in my note to you. My wife and I had booked our seats in January, and we were seated together. We checked in two hours before the flight and got our boarding passes, for our seats - together. They split us up as we were walking on the plane. I guess the comments show how far we have come in ceding control of our travel experience that the readers felt that *I* was the one being unreasonable.For compare-and-contrast purposes, a reader in Juneau describes another airline's approach. His account matches my own, more limited expertience with Alaska Airlines:
On our return flight to Houston, the service on the plane reflects the "don't bother me" attitude that I usually see on United.
As you know, they pass out small bottles of water in business class, and the seats even had a little indentation to hold them. Both my wife and I were sleeping when these were passed out. After we woke up, my wife asked if the water had been distributed. Yes, she was told, but they "ran out" so we wouldn't get any. Another FA overheard, and said that wasn't the case, walked away and brought us our water.
Later in the flight, my wife asked for some sparkling water from the first FA. She said they "ran out" of sparkling water as well.
You will not be surprised when we did not believe her.<<
>>Just read your blog about lousy treatment by airline staff and I have to stand up for Alaska Airlines outstanding flight attendants and staff.A stroll down memory lane. Another reader reminds us of the conditions that may have produced today's workforce attitude at UAL:
Having flown on many other airlines, no one else I have flown with has such courteous, customer-oriented staff, (with the possible exception of my experience on Air France). Even when there was tension over contract negotiations, attendants never let their frustrations affect their service to passengers. I can grouse about management of Alaska Air, and hate getting stuck on Delta when making connections now that they are partners, but pilots and employees of Alaska Air are The Best and merit not getting lumped together with United or Delta.<<
>>I'd been a lifelong United fan. Not just a flyer, but a proud shareholder back to the days of three shares bought with teenage summer job earnings (actual paper shares! was ever there such a thing?). For me, a Chicagoan, they were the home team, always buying and flying Boeing's latest and greatest. Delta may have been the grand old dame, but United was the courteous valet.
Then came the bankruptcy. Not ever a good thing, but there are ways to go about it that are less bad. To those of us who were paying attention, it had become the most likely outcome a few years prior when the board capitulated to the pilots union.
I was in the Red Carpet Room at DIA the day of the filing. Went up to the desk for help with changing plans. There was weather (when isn't there?) making for system-wide complications, so figuring things out took some time. And talent, which I was lucky enough to have found with the 23-year-service employee I had helping me. As he keyed, we talked, and I learned about his wife, cabin crew with 28-years under her belt. 51 years of service between the two of them. The filing came up (how could it not?), and the tears in his eyes told me everything I needed to know: any modern corporation willing to shred that kind of loyalty on the inside wasn't likely to bat an eye when it got around to "rationalizing" customer relations.
Not long after, made the switch to American. Not always a good thing, but certainly less bad.<<
>>We trust you will find the following narrative interesting and relevant to your frequent essays on air travel in general, and United in particular.More to come. Update I have asked United's press operation about this episode and will report back if I hear from them.On February 2, 2013 we travelled with our two young boys (4 and 8 years old) aboard United 638 from Denver to Baltimore's BWI airport. The inflight entertainment was the movie Alex Cross, which United's own inflight magazine rated as 'T', or, "Adult Themes". It includes extreme, graphic violence and sexually explicit content. On our plane, an A320, the movie was projected on drop-down screens above the seats, such that we could not shield our young children from this inappropriate content. Alarmed by the opening scenes, we asked two flight attendants if they could turn off the monitor; both claimed it was not possible.
The first flight attendant also claimed that the screen could not be folded up independently (which it clearly could) and that even if it could, she would still not authorize closing it because of the passengers sitting behind us. At this point, the passengers behind us spoke up and agreed the content was inappropriate for children and announced it would not bother them at all to switch it off. Both flight attendants, and later the purser, claimed that they have no authority or ability to change or turn off the movie. The purser did, however, agree with us, as did many more of the passengers around us, that it is patently inappropriate to expose children to such content.
We asked if the captain has the authority to address this issue, but received no response. A few minutes later we asked for the captain's name (I failed to make note when he welcomed us on the PA system), and was told, by the purser, that we will have to ask him ourselves when we disembark.Throughout these interactions the atmosphere was collegial, no voices were raised and no threats, implicit or explicit, of any kind were made. The flight continued without incident, while my wife and I engaged our children to divert their attention from the horrific scenes on the movie screens.More than an hour later the captain, [name withheld for now], announced that due to "security concerns", our flight was being diverted to Chicago's ORD. Although this sounded ominous, all passengers, us included, were calm. After landing a Chicago police officer boarded the plane and, to our disbelief, approached us and asked that we collect our belongings, and follow her to disembark. The captain, apparently, felt that our complaint constituted grave danger to the aircraft, crew and the other passengers, and that this danger justified inconveniencing his crew, a few of whom "timed out" during the diversion, and a full plane of your customers, causing dozens of them to miss their connections, wasting time, precious jet fuel, and adding to United's carbon footprint. Not to mention unnecessarily involving several of Chicago's finest, two Border Protection officers and several United and ORD managers, and an FBI agent, who all met us at the gate. After we were interviewed (for less than 5 minutes), our identities and backgrounds checked, we were booked on the next flight to BWI, and had to linger in the terminal for hours with our exhausted and terrified little boys.Everyone involved: The FBI agent, the police officers, United employees, the passengers around us and (we were told) some of the crew, were incredulous, and explicit in their condemnation of Captain [XX]'s actions. However, even United's Area Supervisor, although cordial and helpful, was powerless to override the Captain's decision that we be removed from the plane.To us, this incident raises two grave issues. First, the abuse of power by Captain [XX]. We understand that airline captains can and should have complete authority. However, when this authority is used for senseless, vindictive acts, it must be addressed.Second, and of even greater concern is United's decision to inflict upon minors grossly inappropriate cinematic content, without parents or guardians having the ability to opt out. Had this been in a cinema or a restaurant, we would have simply left if the content were too violent, or too sexual, for a preschooler and a 2nd grader. Cruising at 30,000 feet, leaving was not an option.To this date, our appeals to United to address these issues remain unanswered. We wrote to their Customer Service, and directly to their CEO, but received no responses.<<
>>Take a close look at the North Korea war room photos. The maps showing the ballistic missile trajectories use a flat earth projection- straight in over the Pacific Ocean. I haven't seen comment on this.<<Indeed! Here is what the actual path for a missile going from Pyongyang (or thereabouts) to Austin would look like, courtesy of the wonderful Great Circle Mapper site. "FNJ" is the code for the airport in Pyongyang -- there is one.
>> I think confusion about who is speaking in your blog entries [may]... result from continuing formatting imperfections. There may also be some difference in the clarity of formatting between the version that arrives via RSS feed and the version one sees when one gets to it by clicking on the link.And on the other hand, another reader writes:
In any event, despite some improvements, it is still not always possible to tell with immediate certainty whose words one is reading. Most often, in my case, it is the boundary between your words and those you are quoting that sometime seems unclear. <<
>>I too thought the "Bartleby" story was about you and your wife. Looking at it again, you clearly introduced it as sent in by a reader, and it was offset in grey as well (I of course trust implicitly that you haven't subsequently edited in those elements).The other effect of the new-look presentation may be to make individual paragraphs seem more approachable -- but to make medium-length-or-longer posts seem less so, since it now takes many more screen-scrolls to get through them. I'll try to use this as discipline to make things shorter, more often -- and also to provide a link and reminder on longer posts to "Try reading this one in 'Classic' view."
I can't begin to comprehend why I and so many other people misread it that way; it's a fascinating little accidental psych experiment you happened to conduct there.<<
>>You must have been distracted by so many people mistaking you for your original correspondent, but the responses suggest a staggering inability to read.And, from another reader:
The original report was clear. Your correspondent arrived early to the airport and had book the two seats, "but we checked in about two hours before the flight, and received our tickets. Two seats in the middle of the plane (I like that because in business the configuration is 2-2-2, and either of us can get up without disturbing the other) as we had booked."
I am more mystified by the responses,
1) "I get your desire to be together, but why should that trump the desire of someone else to sit where he selected? Would it have been nice? Sure. But it was still his choice. Not one that you are entitled to make for him." [JF note: these quoted passages are from a previous reader.] The alleged air marshall didn't reserve that seat, they did. A reservation is an entitlement.
2) "I like to get there early to get the seat I want, not only on an airplane, but a tour bus, or sightseeing excursion, or a table or stool at a bar. You'd be surprised at how often I am asked to inconvenience myself and move to a less desirable seat in order to accommodate some guy who wants to sit by his wife or vice versa. Sometimes I don't mind. But a lot of times it is a great inconvenience to have to hoist up all the bags et cetera just to accommodate some guy or his wife who may have come in late and feels entitled to preempt any lower person who is traveling alone." Agreed. The couple had a reservation and had arrived early. They in exactly the position of this female traveller. They are being asked to sit somewhere else for his convenience.
3) "But I always do so understanding that I'm asking a favor, and if they "prefer not to" -- for whatever reason, or for no reason at all -- then to me, that's that. In my view, no one has any social obligation to trade seats." Exactly. The air marshall was not asking, but demanding a favor from them.
I could go on, but I think that those responding to the original article either are not reading the details correctly, or they are just being too obsequious to the air marshall and the airlines some-people-we-just-can't-move security theater.<<
>>I think the emails you posted yesterday miss the mark in a couple of ways.And why not, one more. Another reader writes:
1)The man and his wife purchased seats together, confirmed they were sitting together, and only didn't know the wouldn't be sitting together until they boarded the plan. It's only at that point did they try to shuffle the seating in the cabin. It's not like the had separate seats and started badgering other passengers so they could sit together.
2) While I certainly empathize with the woman who feels the pressure from the tyranny of couples, her shrill response misses a key point. People (mates, friends, spouses, business companions) who travel together do so mostly because they want to be TOGETHER.These folks are trying to have a shared experience, and I think it's fair to ask a single traveler to move if there are other single seats available.. Single travelers certainly have the right to sit where they want, but understanding and empathy go a long way.<<
>>First on air marshals:More to come.
[My wife] and I heading to Seattle from PHL. Big Birthday trip. Booked months in advance. Paid up for first class. Selected good seats. She hates to fly. Sitting together helps with her fears. They are real to her.
We are boarding the plane, and we are pulled aside. "we are sorry but your seats have been reassigned and we have selected other seats for you". They weren't together. I raised quite a fuss. USair. They 'found' seats together.
The marshals slept the whole way back. WTF. They were off duty. No follow up questioning was replied to.
I travel for work: (GA 250 hrs+; 700 mile legs and less) and USairways 50k miles per year (long haul). Almost every trip is for 'work' Why is it that when I am going to work I have to make way (while in the TSA line) for those who work at the airport/airlines? Frustrates the shit out of me (and most everyone around me). We are all going to work. As my kids emote: "just sayin".
P.S. TSA Pre-check is wonderful, but when they randomly force you through the regular lines it costs 30 mins. So much for 'planned' time saving.<<
In response to this and a slew of other similar messages: I was not reporting my own experience. I was quoting someone else. Here's the line that would have been the giveaway, for those familiar with the realities of modern journalism: "We both had business class seats. Mine, because I paid for them (well, the company did) ..." Just for the record.Interesting that both you and your wife seem to feel entitled to make someone else move to accommodate your needs.I get your desire to be together, but why should that trump the desire of someone else to sit where he selected? Would it have been nice? Sure. But it was still his choice. Not one that you are entitled to make for him.There are all sorts of reasons why people select the seats they do.
May I give you another perspective on the travel seat merry-go-round, having nothing to do with *those* passengers that they just. can't. move.I am a single traveler. Like you [JF tip: see note #1], I like to get there early to get the seat I want, not only on an airplane, but a tour bus, or sightseeing excursion, or a table or stool at a bar. You'd be surprised at how often I am asked to inconvenience myself and move to a less desirable seat in order to accommodate some guy who wants to sit by his wife or vice versa. Sometimes I don't mind. But a lot of times it is a great inconvenience to have to hoist up all the bags et cetera just to accommodate some guy or his wife who may have come in late and feels entitled to preempt any lower person who is traveling alone.Yes, I really got the evil eye that time I got early to the Hell's Canyon Jet Boat tour and scored the front window seat right behind the driver. Some older guy plopped himself down on the aisle seat next to me and asked me to relocate so his wife could sit with him. No, I politely declined. He went and got the tour operator to ask me to move. No, I prefer not to. Evil eye and a lot of harrumphing ensued. He could have, of course, chosen a seat farther back which had an open row if he just HAD to sit by his wife. But he thought he was entitled to claim his seat and then my seat and make me move.Or, how many times have I been shuffled off to the little tiny table right by the kitchen as a woman eating alone. Or be asked to move myself and my drink down to the end of the bar to accommodate some lady who was late meeting the husband when the bar, where I might have been sitting for several drinks, was now full. No. I prefer not to.What? Are these people joined at the hip that they have to sit right next to the wife everywhere they go? They can't separate themselves for two or three hours sitting on a plane? If so, some advance planning might be in order.Like I said, a lot of times I don't mind moving to accommodate someone when asked. But yes, sometimes it is an imposition and an inconvenience. Please think about that. What makes me less willing to accommodate people like that is getting called asshole with a lot of evil eye and harrumphing. Which happens a lot, not only by the aggrieved party, but by the staff, who invariably take the aggrieved couple's side.Please know that you are inconveniencing someone when you ask them to move. Maybe it doesn't happen as much to you as a man when you travel, but women put up with this kind of crap everywhere they go, as though we are lesser human beings.
The air marshal issue -- which was an interesting twist, I admit it didn't occur to me until revealed -- aside, I'm wondering if any other of your readers were as appalled by your correspondent's behavior as I was. I have certainly asked people to change seats before, and usually they are happy to. But I always do so understanding that I'm asking a favor, and if they "prefer not to" -- for whatever reason, or for no reason at all -- then to me, that's that. In my view, no one has any social obligation to trade seats. It would certainly never remotely occur to me to even ask a second time, much less call them an asshole! Maybe your correspondent has spent so much time in the upper-class sections that he has become just a bit entitled.
Interesting air marshal anecdote. I am not too thrilled though of the self-entitlement attitude and action (name calling) exemplified by the reader who submitted the story. We all like to sit together with our spouse, friends or loved ones when we travel, but we must respect the wishes of others if an inconvenience, big or small, is to be put on them. At least that's the way I was taught growing up. I have a friend who has a fear of flying and only does so when it is his last resort; once his travel arrangements are made, i.e. flights are booked, seats are assigned, his wife said he would become notably nervous and antsy if any part of his itinerary is changed. In the context of your anecdote, I can also think of a person not wanting to be moved because he/she has a friend sitting on the other side of the aisle and they couldn't get to sit together either. I usually travel in cattle class and would certainly prefer not to move to the front cabin if my carry-on luggage is in the back.5) On the other hand. A reader says:
Somewhat disappointed to read that a person in business class could go from Mr. Polite to Name Calling in no time because he didn't get his way.
I'm with you on this one [Ahem! See note #1] . I just don't get it. What's so magical about that seat that the air marshal (assuming you got it right) couldn't move. I could understand that he needs to be in an aisle seat. With a little more stretch I can imagine he even needs to be in the center section of the 2-2-2. With an even greater stretch, I can see that he has to be on the right side aisle because that's his shooting hand or some such fantasy. But he couldn't be one row forward or back? Give me a break.And as to United - they knew you were a couple traveling together. Why didn't they move the two of you to the row with the empty seat and move the passenger who was originally next to the empty seat next to the air marshal? The answer is pretty obvious - in spite of your very frequent flyer status, they just didn't give a shit. It's that simple.
I understand that it inconveniences people, sure, but the other day I was on a plane and I politely asked if anyone could move so I could sit by my 8-months pregnant wife. No one would. I get that it's an inconvenience, and I certainly have no right to it, but geez - is that really who we are? Courtesy is by definition an inconvenience.6) Non-aviation security theater. From another reader:
The story about the passenger who could not be moved, who turned out to be an air marshal, reminds me of my first visit to Catoctin Mountain Park soon after i moved to Maryland. I was going for a day hike, and had done my homework and picked out the trail I wanted to take. I drove to the visitor center and asked for directions to the trail head. The staff very nicely told me that I couldn't do that hike, as that trail was closed that day.
This surprised me. I have had trails closed due to rock slides and forest fires and the like, but none of these seemed to apply here. So I asked why it was closed. They very nicely declined to answer the question, but repeated that it was closed. We went around in circles a bit, until it dawned on me that this is where Camp David is, and the President or some other important person was there that day. I asked if this was the case, and they very nicely refused to answer this while nodding. So I hiked a different trail.
I had always known that Camp David was in Maryland, but never thought about exactly where. The silly thing is that I also had a topographical map of the area. Once I knew what to look for, it was immediately obvious that the oddly shaped blank area was Camp David. Once I got home I checked it out on Google Maps satellite view, and there it was, perfectly obvious.The moral I take away from this is that there is a lot of theatrical faux secrecy out there. Like the air marshal, the idea that this is an actual secret is BS. There are ample clues for anyone to figure it out, and once they suss out the secret it is easily confirmed. I imagine that the government agencies involved are happier imagining it is a genuine secret, while the low-level employees enjoy the thrill of being in on it, but they also enjoy showing random passersby that they are in on it, which rather removes any actual secrecy. But everyone has a good time.
Apropos of your coming blog series of the woes of the United traveller:I'm in the American camp. After 9/11, it became imperative to have elite status on some US airline if only to save hours of waiting in line. At that moment, I happened to have some status on American, and I've been in their orbit since. (I'm not a huge traveller, alas, but do manage to edge over the lowest elite-status bar each year. If I don't stick to one network, though, I'd lose my status.)Now, all the US carrier have fairly poor service reputations, travel is inherently frustrating, and there's not very much an airline can do to make a trip memorably good while all sorts of things can make it memorably terrible. This makes customer-facing jobs in airlines especially tricky. Actually doing special services for passengers disrupts your work ands risks annoying everyone, yet the essence of service is that special, unexpected thing the passenger wants or needs.To make it worse: the TSA ensures that most flights start with barrage of tedious annoyances. The airline can't do much about that. (If I were them, I'd be tempted to experiment with strolling entertainers or standup comics -- anything to make it less horrible. But that might not square with security theater.)You would think that American -- with financial trouble, labor trouble, and trouble digesting the remains of TWA -- would suffer from especially serious service problems in recent years. If you're a customer-facing veteran and you're not sure that the airline will be there next year, or that you'll be there, or that your boss will be your boss, it's tempting to stop caring and to cut corners. And yes, you see this sometimes.But I've also seen indications that people care -- that they sometimes care more than they should. A couple of years ago, my wife and I and boarded in coach and were happy enough. Then -- good news! -- there were seats in business class for us! So we moved. But then the no-show couple arrived. We prepared to pack up and return to our old seats, but were told to hold on. The flight attendant and the gate agent discussed, and discussed some more, and eventually got into a real rhubarb over the question of who should get these seats. It was spectacular. And it was odd, too, because neither had a stake here. Someone would sit in each pair of seats; it wasn't going to make a difference in anyone's work load. We hadn't made any fuss at all, nor had the other couple, so there was no fear of a disgruntled, angry customer. The plane would be out of the gate agent's hair in seconds, the flight would be over in a couple of hours. It was a pure debate on user experience; is it better to disappoint someone whose expectations you raised, or to deprive someone of an upgrade because they arrived late?On the whole, I've been impressed with the operation. There's lots that people can do better, but it's not half bad.
The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history -- totaling somewhere between $4 to $6 trillion.
One of the most significant challenges to future US national security policy will not originate from any external threat. Rather it is simply coping with the legacy of the conflicts we have already fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.As the paper lays out, a surprisingly large fraction of the long-term costs comes from the disability payments and medical obligations to people who served. People who were 18 or 20 years old when the war began, and who were injured or disabled (but survived), may need public help until very late in this century. The argument is too detailed to convey fully here, but here is an example:
The majority of these costly measures - including supplementary pay increases, expansion of TRICARE [military health program] subsidies, upgrades to the VA system and increases in eligibility for veterans benefits - were adopted, at least in part, because the US was facing the first big test of the all-volunteer force (AVF). The AVF depends on pipeline of recruits, and research has shown that the recruiting pool to the AVF is sensitive to economic inducements, including veterans' benefits.Read it, and reflect on the people who have never been called to account for these and other misjudgments of what launching the invasion would mean.
But from a budgetary standpoint, these have been hidden costs of the war, in which cumulatively hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on expanding military health care, pay, recruitment, and service and retirement benefits, without any discussion about how to pay for them. Most of these costs were not covered by war appropriations. And when the topic of pensions is examined in the coming years, it is likely that any reforms that benefit the current generation of veterans will require additional long-term expenditures for the Defense department.
My wife and I recently had an interesting experience on a flight from Houston to London on United flight 4.I am storing up for my Unified Field Theory -- maybe I should say United Field Theory -- on why United Airlines, on which I too now have attained the super-enviable "Global Services" standing, is so consistently unpleasant. That's not really the point of this account, in which the United staff appears to have been trying its best, but I mention it as a segue.(Bartleby illustration from here.)The plane was a 777, (though when I bought the tickets back in January, it was supposed to be a 787) and we both had business class seats. Mine, because I paid for them (well, the company did) and my wife's because we used the SystemWide Upgrades that United provides. (I am a 1K flyer this year, was Global Services last year)I am always like to get to the airport early, a characteristic that drives my wife a little crazy. But we checked in about two hours before the flight, and received our tickets. Two seats in the middle of the plane (I like that because in business the configuration is 2-2-2, and either of us can get up without disturbing the other) as we had booked. We went up to check e-mail one last time before heading to the gate.At the designated boarding time, we walked to the gate and waited just a little. (yes, I confess to being sort of a "gate louse") We were in the first group to load, and when we got to the attendant, my wife's ticket beeped three times and they told her that her seat had been reassigned. Still in business class, but now we were not sitting together.I asked the gate person what was going on, and she said, "Oh, there are some passengers we can't move". I said I would just ask him to swap, and she said OK.We got to our seats, (row 5, I think) and the fellow was sitting in the seat and had gotten spread out as you do for a long flight.I asked him politely if he would move, so my wife and I could sit together.He said, "I would prefer not to"Like Bartleby the Scrivener!I asked again, politely, and he replied again: "I would prefer not to"I got a little hot. I asked him if he was really going to be such an asshole (I am embarrassed by this comment. In all honesty I usually don't talk like that) and he said nothing at all.I went to the flight attendants, and they were all in a state of confusion. They took our tickets, (not his) and went out of the plane, and said they would take care of it.I walked back to where my wife had been moved, so I could try and do a "domino move" with her seatmate. My wife stayed in our original row, glaring at this fellow.A friend happened to be on the same flight, one row in front of us on the starboard side of the plane. He agreed to move, and then I was able to get HIS seat partner (nobody he knew) to move as well.So we were sitting together again.My wife, bless her soul, would not give up. She asked the flight attendant again, how could they give up our seat in a 1 ½ hour time period? She replied, "some passengers, we just can't move"That made no sense, so we asked again, perhaps a little more forcefully. Now she replied (in a very nice tone of voice, by the way) "Listen to me very carefully. Some. Passengers. We. Just. Can't. Move."Then it hit me.Air marshal!I asked and she nodded.You can imagine that I felt like an idiot.I kept my eye on this guy, though. Just to make sure he never fell asleep.Of course, I can't prove that he didn't sleep at all, but at least he was never asleep when I was watching him.Other than that, it was a peaceful flight.
I don't want to "harsh your mellow", as Charles Pierce is fond of saying, but having driven that stretch on and off (mostly on) for 15 years commuting to Santa Ana I've seen my share of people darting across the road, almost hitting one. I also saw a man stretched out in the middle of the highway one night coming home from work who appeared dead when I passed by (he was already being attended to). So yes, I laugh at the sign too but it was put there for a serious reason.Offered for the record.
Actually, once they built the fence down the middle median most of the pedestrian crossing attempts stopped. I think the major reason for the crossings was when drivers, seeing the Border Patrol checkpoint open ahead, stopped to kick out their passengers. ...
That wasn't the only dangerous behavior I witnessed over the years. Once getting off the Amtrak in Santa Ana, I saw two men standing on the outside ladder rungs between two cars. This was during a period when the Border Patrol would board in Oceanside and check passengers as we headed north.
I agree with your correspondent [above]. I did my grad work at Irvine in the late 80s and then lived in San Diego for a couple of years in the early 90s. I had a good friend in SD so I drove I-5 with some frequency. At this point, I can't say how many deaths there were in that period, but certainly more than a few, and between he possibility for setting off a chain of accidents in reaction to people dashing out into traffic (which I certainly did see more than once) and the trauma of running someone over, even if it's not your fault, the warning was reasonable.The image, on the other hand, is something I'd like to see explained.
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