A flight attendant once told me a story of two passengers who had been issued tickets for the same seat on a crowded plane. One man arrived at his seat to find the other already occupying it. He launched into a panicked fit of self-righteousness particular to airline travel, demanding to speak to the purser and that the other passenger be moved.
"I looked at their tickets and saw that they had duplicates," the flight attendant recalled. "We had one extra seat on the plane, and it was in first class. So I turned to the second man, who had sat quietly in his seat throughout the tirade. I said, 'Today's your lucky day, sir. Please follow me to first class.'"
Just as high altitudes mean that one alcoholic drink in the air equals two on the ground, rudeness in the skies is tantamount to all-out warfare. Every year, more and more people seem insistent on checking their manners with their luggage. There's even an official name for this syndrome now: air rage. Last year, a passenger at Newark Airport threw a ticket agent onto the floor and severely injured him when the agent wouldn't let him onto the jet way. There have been countless incidents of in-flight inebriation leading to violence, not to mention a few notorious cases of passengers defecating in the aisles. Even those who keep their mischievousness to more common infractions, like threatening to file a complaint with the airline, hold up lines at the gate and cause widespread discomfort.
It's ironic, really, because air travel is miraculous when you think about it. The idea that you can get from New York to Los Angeles in five hours seems almost supernatural. Flying, indeed, used to include connotations of transcendence and technological wonder. It carried with it the sense that it was a venue for showing respect. So why do we make it an opportunity to make unreasonable and petty demands?
There are countless factors that contribute to air rage. Ever since airline deregulation lowered the price of tickets, planes have become more crowded and noticeably bereft of '60s-era perks like gourmet meals and elegant highball glasses. Air travel has grown more akin to a bus ride.
There's also an infuriating hierarchical quality inherent in air travel. Where else, after all, is first class so clearly delineated from economy class? Where else do the people in front get to choose between salmon and steak tartar and the people in back get a soggy sandwich (if they're lucky)? These days, there's a different kind of economic resentment available: the secret fear that the person next to you has scored a dirt-cheap ticket on the internet and are flying to Paris for $100, when you paid $500. And those people seem to have the feeling that beating the system means they can demand services to which they're not exactly entitled.
There is also the feeling of helplessness that comes from being stuck inside an aluminum tube for hours, the frustration with the inevitable delays and cancellations.
But that doesn't mean that old-fashioned civility won't get you anywhere. In fact, keeping one's baser instincts in check can actually score you points in the air. Though many people view flight attendants as polyester-clad servants, the truth is that they are the gatekeepers--and, by extension, the moral arbiters--of the skies. As far as they're concerned, the Golden Rule applies in the air even more than it does on the ground. In other words, be nice to the flight attendant, especially when the flight is delayed and other passengers are getting steamed, and you will get extra peanuts, a free drink, maybe even an upgrade to first class. Be surly to the flight attendant, and your special meal might be mysteriously lost.
There's no better place to begin resurrecting our airborne manners than with the perfunctory jogging suit. Passengers who insist on wearing warm-ups and other pajama-like garb, even on short trips, seem to be anticipating discomfort, as if respectable clothing were as inappropriate as showing up for a hike in evening wear.
I try to make a point of wearing business attire or at least something halfway decent when I get on a plane. Not only does this help me to transcend the mundanities of contemporary flying, it also shows respect to the crew who, believe it or not, has to pay upward of $800 for their uniforms and who appreciate nice duds in return. I've heard that ticket agents are more likely to move someone to first class if he's dressed nicely--and if he's respectful and friendly. One airline lists a regulation in the handbook that states that passengers are not allowed on board with curlers in their hair. "The fact that they even have to print that is really depressing," my flight attendant friend said.
Since people these days probably spend more time on airplanes than they do in church, maybe we should transfer some of that church decorum to the jetliner. Maybe we should put on our Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, sit quietly with our hands folded, and enjoy the flight. If we're lucky, we might land ourselves a place in first class. You can't get much closer to heaven than that.