'Some. Passengers. We. Just. Can't. Move.'

What Bartleby the Scrivener foresaw about modern air travel
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I would prefer not to.jpgOne more chronicle of the Way We Live Now. There is no enormous policy point in this reader's account, but it is an interesting look at several interlacing aspects of modern public life. A reader writes:
My wife and I recently had an interesting experience on a flight from Houston to London on United flight 4.
 
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 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.)
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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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