High Drama in Coach

Ron Karpinski 2006


The flight, a nine hour jaunt from Atlanta, Georgia, to Zurich, Switzerland, began routinely enough.  One-hundred and eighty odd souls lined up as their row numbers were called and straggled into the aircraft, a long pressurized silver aluminum tube that would hurtle them across the Atlantic Ocean at nearly six-hundred miles per hour, thirty-three thousand feet in the air.

For some strange reason, coach passengers are forced to schlep their belongings through the business/first class section on their way to the rear of the aircraft.  Those elite passengers already seated and sipping Champagne cannot possibly appreciate the intrusion; and those of us holding lower-priced tickets certainly don't like being reminded of the class distinction, either.

Sure enough, by the time I finally reached the aft portion of the plane, some moron had already parked himself in my assigned seat.  It would have been easy enough to simply take the aisle seat next to him and avoid a scene; but that spot by the window had been reserved in my name a good two months earlier, so what was this guy trying to pull off here, anyway?

During a tense standoff, the other fellow first feigned an ignorance of the English language and, having failed at that, stared bewildered at his ticket stub and the seat numbers etched on the cabin wall, before slowly and grudgingly sliding over to the aisle seat.  Nice try, buddy.

*          *          *          *          *

Air travel has changed significantly in the forty years since my first flight aboard a propeller-driven Douglas DC 7 from San Francisco, California, to Medford, Oregon.  In 1966, air passengers still dressed well and shared a congenial atmosphere.  One could always count on a friendly chat with the person in the adjoining seat; but those days are long gone.

In the modern era, one has only to observe the number of cheap cotton sweat suits on board to realize that the cliental has changed.  Today, conversation in the coach section is all but extinct.  Instead, people prefer to read; or they listen to music through those cheap plastic earphones the airlines provide; or they play Solitaire on battery-operated laptop computers.

*          *          *          *          *

On this early evening flight, about a third of the seats happened to be vacant.  Several lucky passengers enjoyed entire rows to themselves, stretching out in relative comfort; but, due to the vagaries of chance, no empty seats appeared anywhere close to me.

My seat, 29G, lay on the far right side of the aircraft.  The middle-aged man in the aisle seat next to me sat stone-faced, staring straight ahead, and had not uttered a single word since our initial encounter.  His thigh collided with mine at the demarcation line between our two seat cushions; and our elbows fought for control of the central arm rest.

Seating space in coach varies from airline to airline, but the underlying business plan remains the same: the more people crammed into the aircraft, the greater the profit.  One major carrier does, however, offer an "economy plus" upgrade -- for an extra seventy-nine dollars -- that provides approximately five precious additional inches of leg room for the big and tall.

Unfortunately, the airline in question offered no such option.  The coach layout in this aircraft had been configured to accommodate a person up to a height of exactly six feet one inch tall, and not one-quarter of an inch more.  I happen to stand six feet two inches tall.

*          *          *          *          *

Safely ensconced in my window seat, I marveled at the gaggle of late arrivals struggling to cram blatantly outsized "carry-on" bags into the overhead bins.  Once upon a time, suitcases went in the cargo hold, and the overhead storage compartments held hats, coats and light parcels; but those items would get squashed up there today.  These days, the seasoned traveler guards his suede jacket in his lap and his alligator hide briefcase on the floor in front of him.

Indeed, airlines do place strict limits on the number and size of carry-on items; but as the masses stream aboard trailing their rolling suitcases, garment bags, laptop computer cases, back packs, shoulder purses, and duty free purchases, officials turn a collective blind eye.

In all fairness, many travelers are tired of spending good money on expensive luggage only to have it lost en route, damaged on the flight line, or stolen from the baggage carrousel, and they prefer to keep their personal possessions close at hand.  The problem is, with so much clutter in the cabin, life in the coach section now offers all the ambience of a municipal bus.

*          *          *          *          *

Another aspect of air travel has changed in recent years.  It used to be that a man might occasionally find himself seated next to a pretty lady; and, airplane conversations having been permissible in those days, the two might experience some exhilarating times together, especially during stretches of "bumpy air" when a lady might grab a gentleman's arm for reassurance.

Sadly, years have passed since a woman sat next to me on an airplane; so the airlines must have changed their policies somewhere along the line.  Perhaps some bright young MBA graduate in the booking department designed an electronic system of pairing males with males and females with females, thereby eliminating beforehand any potential clash of the sexes.

As if to confirm that supposition, the row immediately ahead held two women.  The one in the aisle seat looked about sixty-five, a petite and demure matron with graying hair.  The one in the window seat directly in front of me appeared to be twenty-five or so, and not petite at all, a dark-haired and unusually restless creature exhibiting a high level of nervous energy.

*          *          *          *          *

At last, everyone had stowed their belongings and found their seats, and the pilot took off.  As the plane reached cruising altitude, I glanced again at the unsmiling man next to me and pulled out a crossword puzzle.  The noise level diminished, as folks settled in for the duration.

*          *          *          *          *

Twenty minutes into the flight, suddenly and without warning, the bouncing young woman sitting in front of me slammed her seat back to the fully reclined position, hurling her entire heft into the effort.  Startled, I had no time to react, and my knees suffered a crunching blow.

Moments earlier, I had (slowly and courteously) moved my own seat as far back as possible, thereby gaining a modicum of wiggle room for my legs.  Now, that space had been invaded by the young woman's intruding seat back, and my knees remained firmly wedged in place.

The fellow sitting next to me, oblivious or indifferent to the situation, did not budge an inch.  The sweet gray-haired lady in front of him still had her seat in the fully upright position, and he could have conceded a little ground to me, but that thought apparently did not occur to him.

About fifteen minutes later, the young woman, feeling pressure from my bony knees through the fabric of her seat back, sighed loudly, as if to convey displeasure at some unseen irritant, and roughly pulled her seat fully forward.  My sigh of relief echoed throughout the cabin.  The older lady in the aisle seat up front sat rigid, staring straight ahead, saying nothing.

Seconds later, Bouncing Betty tried again, as if to catch me unawares, banging her seat all the way back with such force that the hinges creaked.  Again, my knees received the brunt of the blow, jammed fast, pressing through the seat back fabric.  Like clockwork, every fifteen minutes or so, apparently unhappy with my knees in her back, the young woman raised her seat fully upright, waited for me to reposition my legs, and then struck again without notice.

It could have been a game, or a test of wills, had the pain in my knees not been so severe.  One would expect, or at least hope, with the normal diverse collection of human beings sharing such cramped quarters for so many hours, that people might show some consideration for one another; but common courtesy seems beyond the grasp of too many modern day air travelers.

*          *          *          *          *

An hour and a half into the journey, the flight attendants served dinner, a microwaved substance vaguely resembling chicken, accompanied by a mish-mash of green beans, potatoes, bread, crackers, cheese, and a tiny square of chocolate cake.  As so often happens, the coffee urn trailed the meal by a good twenty minutes and didn't reach some folks at all.

Then came the feature movie presentation, a mindless and forgettable action adventure that had sprinted through the theater circuit some eighteen months prior.  Mercifully, as the last credits scrolled across the screen two hours later, the cabin fell into complete darkness.

Some people used this pause in the program to visit the restrooms; but Bouncing Betty, one of those rare females with a twelve-hour bladder, decided instead to catch some sleep.  Tossing her weight to and fro, she soon settled upon a sideways contortion and snuggled into her pillow.

How dare she!  How could this woman even consider sleep, with my knees pinched blue, mere inches from her empty head?  Nearly five hours remained in the flight, and the situation called for action.  As a military man trained in the art of self-defense, I considered the options.

*          *          *          *          *

After a few minutes, young Betty's breathing became rhythmic, as she slipped into pure alpha waves, a state of total relaxation, oblivious to the external world.  Gee, now might be a good time for me to peruse some of those passenger materials so thoughtfully provided by the airline and located in the expandable pocket on the seat back in front of me.  Heh, heh, heh.

Slowly pulling on the elastic cover, I opened the compartment as wide as it would go and removed my complimentary copy of Sky Magazine.  Releasing my grip, the distended rubber snapped forward, acting much like a sling shot hurling its load toward the target.  Thwack!

The seat back in front vibrated from the impact, and Bouncing Betty jumped six inches in the air.  Turning to face me, she glared.  At first, I thought she might have been searching the rear of the airplane to see if one of the restrooms were free; but as her pupils narrowed into laser darts aimed directly at the bridge of my nose, the focus of her ire became all too apparent.

To help diffuse the situation, I proffered my most impish grin, the one implying both innocence and surprise, while shrugging my shoulders as if to say, "Sorry, it could have happened to anyone."  Mollified for the moment, she rolled over and resumed her nap.

Exactly fifteen minutes later, I decided to return my complimentary copy of Sky Magazine to its proper place in the seat back compartment in front of me.  Thwack!

At this, Bouncing Betty barely suppressed her rage.  Of what she had been dreaming, one can only guess, but clearly she did not appreciate the intrusion.  The flush of her cheeks and the fire in her eyes imparted pure hatred -- accusing me of acting with malice aforethought!

Again, I grinned sheepishly and shrugged my shoulders, as if to say, "Well, some of us are simply not accustomed to the complexities of transatlantic flying, and perhaps not very well coordinated, either . . . and I promise that this will definitely not happen again, so help me."

Betty gave me a long slow once-over and apparently decided to let me live for the moment.  Then she rolled back into the softness of her pillow, like a surly bear returning to hibernation.

A short time later, as the minute hand on my Tag Heuer struck the quarter hour, a sudden urge rose from within, compelling me to review the emergency evacuation procedures printed on a handy card located in that pull-out compartment on the seat back in front of me.  Thwack!

The next few seconds passed in a blur.  An enraged Betty, while still in the air and reeling from the impact of yet another stinging blow to the spine, managed in one swift motion to spin her sizeable frame into an upright position while yanking her own seat back fully forward.

Bracing both feet against the metal seat rails in front, she took a deep breath and heaved her substantial shoulders to the rear, lunging with a savagery not unlike that of a sumo wrestler butting his opponent out of the ring.  Oomph!  Betty's seat back crashed flat into my lap.

That is when both of my knee caps broke, cracking like kindling wood.

That is also when the flight attendant summoned the captain to the scene.


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