People. Who. Prefer. Not. To. Be. Moved. (Cont.)

Readers debate who is really to blame for yet another minor "air-rage" episode.
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Thumbnail image for I would prefer not to.jpgYesterday I relayed the story of an airline passenger who asked a fellow business-class traveler to switch seats, so that the first passenger could be next to his wife (as he'd originally been booked) on a long international flight. The person he asked declined to move and turned out to be an air marshal. Reactions:

1) Please read these items more carefully! A reader writes, addressing me:
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.
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.

2) Why one might "prefer" not to move.  A female reader -- as you'll see, there is a reason I mention her gender -- writes:
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.  
3) One more in this vein. Another representative note:
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. 
4) Similarly:
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.

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.
5)  On the other hand. A reader says:
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.
5A) Also on the other hand. Update message:
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.
7) Segueing to United. I am going to think carefully about how to explain my evolving theory of United Airlines -- on which I have millions upon millions of accumulated miles, and super-elite status that makes it foolish not to go on United when I have a choice, but on which I still am regularly amazed by the "not my job / not my problem / I don't really like working here so leave me alone as I try to get through this shift" culture that radiates from employees to customers. I'll ease into it by a contrasting account about another airline. A reader in the tech industry writes:
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.
We all recognize that in modern airline culture, not half bad is fairly high praise. More to come.

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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 is China Airborne. 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 U.S. 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 recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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