A few weeks ago, I wrote a column called “12 Ridiculous Things about Air Travel” and asked readers to e-mail their own contributions to the list. I received more than 500 responses — more than I can answer personally, but I had a great time reading each and every one of them. Thanks to those who responded; I appreciate your candor, humor and occasional good wishes.
Here are the results: a varied collection of pet peeves and wry observations — along with some polite disagreements and a handful of explanations. Many thanks to the contributors, who shall remain anonymous.
The 8 biggest gripes
1. “Seatback in the upright position.” Scores of people asked, “Is a lousy two-inch pitch really going to make much of a difference during takeoff and landing?” (See answer, below.)
2. Security. My original column came at the height of the London bomb scare, unleashing a torrent of complaints about the new no-liquids policy and the goons rifling through your bags. And why, people asked, can duty-free shops continue to sell items that their clueless customers cannot take on the airplane?
3. In-flight “snacks.” “Why bother to give out half-ounce packages?” asked one reader. “I counted, and there were only eight peanuts in a package. I saved mine so as not to spoil my dinner that night.”
4. Electronic equipment. If studies have shown that battery-powered devices do not, in fact, interfere with the cockpit instruments, why do the airlines continue to prohibit them?
5. Boarding procedures. I hit a nerve when I counted boarding procedures among the top 12 ridiculous things about air travel. Hundreds of complaints about this one.
6. Seat cushions. While praising the seat cushion for its services as a “rear-end comforter and fart sponge,” one reader remained skeptical about its suitability as a flotation device. “Come on,” the reader said. “How many people have been bobbing up and down after crashing in the water and said, ’Hey, I will grab onto the floating seat cushion’?”
7. Legroom. Much derision over the often-heard announcement that your primary stowage area is under the seat in front of you. “It may be true if you didn’t have any legs,” scoffed one reader, “but don’t insult us with that kind of foolishness.”
8. Carry-ons. There were many complaints that carry-on luggage is not subject to a weight limit. As one reader put it, “So the moron who boards with two rollerboards, a briefcase and a laptop gets away with delaying the flight and making us all feel like strangling him.”
My favorite pet peeves from readers
Readers had countless pet peeves and recitals of personal bad luck at airports, in security lines, on the plane and at the baggage carousel. Here are some of my favorites in the readers’ own words.
* “In case of a ‘water landing.’ “What is a water landing??? Isn’t that also known as a crash???”
* No nuts. “I have noticed the airlines now serve pretzels that are tough as nails and taste like cardboard. Are they cheaper or just afraid of lawsuits from medical incidents? My wife is allergic to peanuts and she knows very well not to eat them. The airlines should just serve the nuts, or at least grow a couple.”
* End points. “Why do we have to arrive and depart from a place called a ‘terminal’?”
* Pilots’ dinner. “When you’re on a flight that has no hot food on board, and the flight attendant carries a hot crew meal for the pilots up from the back and the smell wafts through the cabin. Is that a tease? If the passengers don’t get hot meals, neither should the crew, or at least be more discreet!”
* On and off. “If they are going to preboard passengers with special needs, shouldn’t they be the last ones off instead of struggling with their bags and holding up the rest of the airplane?”
* “Breathe normally.” “If I am in a situation where the oxygen mask drops in front of me, I will probably be peeing my pants. And you want me to breathe normally?”
* Bathroom runs. “In this day and age, when you have to arrive at the airport several hours before a flight, and sit around the waiting area for half that time, why, oh why, must several people always have to clog the aisles to use the bathroom while the plane is still boarding?”
* Clutter in the seat pockets. “Does anyone actually buy anything from SkyMall? Has anyone ever taken the complimentary in-flight magazine home with them for the engrossing articles (‘Five Best Things to Do in Des Moines’)?”
* Security, obviously. “Have you looked at the TSA website lately? They do not list whether you can bring iPods or MP3 players on a plane (something that about 50 percent of travelers have), but they take pains to list that you cannot take cattle prods, ninja throwing stars or nunchuks. DUH!”
5 things that seem ridiculous but actually do have a reason
Finally, here are five seemingly senseless things that actually do have a reason. Some of these I just learned myself.
1. Life vest instructions on land flights. Lots of people asked, “Why bother?“ Answer: It is for consistency and in case the flight gets diverted. The FAA’s policy is to be ready for all contingencies on every flight.
2. Doesn’t everyone know how to operate a seat belt by now? Probably. So why bother with the tedious seat belt instructions? Answer: This was the leadoff complaint in my original column, and I have since been set straight. The thinking is that passengers who are reminded about the seat belt at the beginning of a flight are more apt to remember it during an emergency, when common sense loses its grip.
3. “Seatback in the upright position.” I promised you an answer on this one and here it is. Yes, the extra five degrees of lean does make a difference in an emergency. The FAA has proven that it takes 15 to 45 seconds longer to evacuate an airplane when the seats are reclined. Each of those seconds could be a life lost.
4. Shades up on takeoff and landing. “Why?” a reader asked. “Sometimes I think the flight attendants are just on a power trip. Here I am, pupils scorched by the sunlight, desperate to get some shut-eye, and I have a flight attendant yelling at me to put the shade up.” Answer: In an emergency you will need to have the shades up so you can see what is happening outside the aircraft.
5. “Who packed your luggage?” This security question landed some sarcastic remarks, like, “Does anybody ever say that it was packed by an angry gentleman of apparently Middle Eastern origin mumbling something about ’death to all crusaders’?” Answer: Well, no. But the question might get you thinking about that “gift” that your roommate’s uncle asked you to carry for him to New York.
A couple of readers complained that I refer to air travel as a joke when it should be considered serious business. While I don’t want to be sitting next to these readers on a long flight, I do appreciate their opinion. In fact, I do think of air travel as a joke, the same way I look on all of life as a humorous journey. For me, seeing the humor in every situation is a good way to keep sane. On the other hand, my wife says I’m not all that sane anyway, so maybe the serious folks are right after all.
I hope not.