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My story of 'plane' misery

September 2, 2001 1:42 am

THERE'S NOTHING like flying across the country and back to give you a seat-of-the-pants feel for the state of the U.S. airline industry.

I guess I'm not what you'd call a seasoned airline passenger. I've flown nine or 10 times in my life, mostly before the kids came along. I've discovered that it's not until you travel with children that you learn just how friendly or unfriendly the deregulated skies can be.

For those of us accustomed to vacationing in the not-so-far-off places that traveling by automobile affords, air travel is at once great fun and a major ordeal.

Having flown only once before a few years ago, our kids are now old enough to grasp the concept. Six-year-old Michael's eyes open wide as the huge Boeing 757 leaves the ground behind. He's fascinated that the clouds are soon below us, and asks if this means we're in heaven. It's a good question, I tell him, but while we might be pleased to get to heaven eventually, as far as I know we're not there yet.

Four-year-old Megan is equally excited in an adjacent window seat next to my wife. She remarks very confidently that she really likes this--"this," as best as we can figure, is the entire experience of flying.

Part of the reason our children enjoyed the flight is that they are small--the preferred size for anyone occupying a coach seat aboard an airliner. In an effort to pack the most possible paying passengers aboard an airplane, the airlines put the seats close together--far too close together.

As I had gotten seated with my son beside me, it occurred to me that anyone larger than another child would certainly leave me uncomfortably sandwiched for the next five hours. Soon my fear became flesh when down the aisle, ducking the overhead television screens, came the World's Largest Living Human.

Though I have assigned to him this unofficial title arbitrarily, I am certain that if anyone else actually holds the distinction, either this gentleman was overlooked or the contest was rigged.

As he sat down in the now-miniature seat next to me, I remained prepared to greet my fellow passenger, knowing that we would be living in intimate proximity for the duration of the flight. Having had all of the air squeezed out of my lungs, however, I was unable to speak.

"I probably should have paid for two seats," he uttered.

He already had half of mine without even paying for it.

Once we were in the air the flight attendants began the lengthy process of handing out refreshments to the 120 or so of us coach passengers, more fittingly known as steerage.

The wait was a nonissue for the World's Largest Living Human, who had plenty of time to consume the large Burger King meal he had brought on board.

When the refreshment cart finally reached our row, I chuckled to myself as he requested a Diet Coke and rested it on the pull-down table in front of him. He then shifted his weight, leaning a bit on the table. As if in a slow-motion movie scene, the Diet Coke tumbled off the table, pouring into the credit-card-thin gap between our jeans. Trapped by my own pull-down table, I was unable to manage a quick escape. I was sitting in a puddle of Diet Coke less than an hour into our five-hour flight.

I beckoned a flight attendant, who suggested I flip over my seat cushion. The bottom was some sort of heavy cardboard.

"It'll be hard but at least it's dry," she said.

I said I wished I could say the same for my pants.

She offered no solution, other than to hand me a blanket to soften the seat.

Later, in retrospect, I realized my good fortune that it was a Diet Coke, because NutraSweet isn't as sticky as sugar.

Because most of the passengers had emptied their drinks into their mouths rather than into their neighbors' seats, several of them needed to use the restroom just as the flight attendants were pulling the lunch cart up the aisle. Their path to the bathroom blocked, they had no choice but to line up behind the cart as it inched along--an odd sort of situation.

One young passenger told the flight attendant that he really had to "go."

The attendant's reply: "You'll just have to wait."

Finally, all the passengers had their relief and their meals, respectively. Clearly this served as a mere morsel for the World's Largest Living Human. His meal was gone in an instant, partly because his right arm was free to maneuver his utensils.

The next time you are served a chicken breast, try to cut it while keeping your elbows tight to your body while your plate remains no more than an inch from your chest.

I think it was the first time I actually wished I had no forearms.

Unless you can fly first-class, my advice to anyone boarding an airliner is to be less than 4 feet tall.





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