Jesse Pinho

Small steps airlines could take to make flying less miserable

Every time I travel by plane, I am struck by the inanity of so much of the flying experience. It seems that those in charge of designing the experience (if such people actually exist) have done little to no flying themselves, and are thus completely unaware of how disastrously unpleasant airlines make things for their passengers.

Having just disembarked from a particularly offensive flight, I have compiled the following suggestions that I would ask airlines to implement. These are small, uncostly policy and aircraft tweaks that would go a long way toward making the flying experience at least borderline tolerable. Roughly in descending order of importance:

  • All announcements by the captain and crew must be made prior to takeoff, or within 15 minutes of landing. This is perhaps the most critical of all my suggested changes. At least fifteen minutes after takeoff on my early-morning flight today, when most of the passengers had settled comfortably into their seats to sleep, the ceiling-mounted screens lowered and a painfully useless video was played, advertising American Airlines' in-flight food and so forth. (Of course, the same information was available right in front of me had I wanted it, in the form of a flyer in the seat-back pocket.) Then, the captain decided that it was important enough to wake us up again, a few minutes later, to announce our cruising altitude and the current temperature at our destination. It is beyond me how this information could be deemed so critical that we needed to be awakened to hear it. (Our cruising altitude? Really? Who cares?!)1
  • Passengers traveling with disruptive children must take their children to the lavatories until they are silent. This policy is probably the easiest way to ensure that screaming kids don't continue their reign of terror. Of course, this could only be enforced when the seatbelt sign is off, and some provision would have to be made for those who actually need to use the restrooms. Perhaps, for example, parents could inform the flight crew that they are only using the lavatory for their child's sake. That way, the crew could ask the parent to step out of the restroom temporarily if other passengers need it. Regardless of details, something absolutely needs to be done about this; and it's absurd that nothing has been yet.
  • Boarding occurs in reverse order of row numbers (aside from groups like first class). Believe it or not, this does not appear to be the boarding policy at present. Even when my seat is toward the rear of the aircraft (as it was today), I find myself wading through crowds of slowly-moving passengers to get to my seat. Boarding times could be reduced drastically if those who were in the far rear of the plane went straight to the back first, and the plane filled up from there. I have no idea why airlines don't do this already. This brings to mind another important boarding-related policy...
  • Once they reach their row, passengers have five seconds to place their luggage in the overhead compartments. Otherwise, they must enter their row with their luggage and wait for all other passengers to pass. OK, granted, this one is nearly impossible to enforce. But five seconds is longer than it sounds. Think about how long it takes you to pick up a bag and place it on an elevated shelf. Two to three seconds, right? Point being, there is certainly no need for passengers to take twenty to thirty seconds to adjust their bag, talk with family members about who is sitting where, re-adjust their bag, decide they want to keep their bag down in the seat instead, and so forth--all while a line of passengers is forming behind them in the aisle. This may be the most frustrating part of the boarding process. Passengers on literally every flight do this, with absolutely no regard for the fact that they're holding up dozens of others in the meantime. Of course, this whole point may be moot if the airlines implemented the previous suggestion about boarding in reverse order of row numbers.
  • Ordering of service is done on a per-seat basis. No more food carts taking up the aisle, flight attendants making lengthy announcements about food choices (see "All announcements..." above), or sleeping passengers being awakened by an unwelcome "Something to drink?" Virgin America handles this very well, by installing a touch screen on the back of every seat which passengers can use to order food and drink. Within minutes, it is delivered to their seat by a flight attendant. Of course, not all planes have such touch screens; but a simple order form in the seat-back pocket, used in combination with the "Ask for service" light above one's seat, would be equally effective.
  • Seat backs can be left back and electronics can be left powered on. I believe these policies are required by the TSA/FAA, not by the airlines themselves. Let's tackle them one at a time.
    • Seat backs. Let's face it, TSA. Typical seat backs recline a total of three, maybe four inches (in the main cabin, that is). What is your concern? That, in the case of an emergency, someone behind me will really need that extra three inches to squeeze out of their row? I mean, sure, airlines leave us so little legroom that three inches does constitute a significant portion of our space; but it would be far more effective to require that our armrests be raised than that our seatbacks be straight. In an emergency, passengers will be climbing on the seats to get out quickly. Raised armrests will go a long way toward allowing passengers easy escape; straight seat backs will not.
    • Electronics. The jury is out on whether turning off devices is really necessary (in favor: articles from USA Today and Quora; opposed: New York Times and TIME). It appears, though, that not nearly enough testing has been done to conclusively prove one way or the other whether this measure is important for our safety, or just another reactionary security annoyance that airline travelers needlessly face. It'd be great, then, if more studies could be done on this subject, and hopefully this policy be changed.
  • The overhead lights and fans are remote controlled. This would probably only be implemented on those aircraft that already have remote controls built into the armrests. But imagine how nice it would be to not have to reach over your neighbor, wiggle the fan to aim it at you, sit back down, realize it's not aimed quite right, reach over and wiggle it some more, twist it a little so that more air comes out... you get the idea. The poor guy next to you really doesn't want you shoving your armpit in his face just so you can turn on your light for some leisure reading. Imagine if all of that could be done with a few buttons on your armrest. Makes sense, right?

All I want for Christmas? A tolerable flying experience.

  1. Oh, and just before landing, one flight attendant took about five minutes to list connecting flights and their gate numbers. She concluded with, "All of this gate information will be displayed on monitors at the terminal as well. Please check the monitors after disembarking, as gate numbers may change at the last minute." So, the purpose of your announcement was...?
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