CLIMBED ON a passenger jet the other day, which is what you do for penance after a week in the sun.
The ordeal was pretty much as anticipated. The pleasant woman in the next seat smiled and introduced herself by saying “I have bronchitis” (I’m not making this up), while the children seated behind me behaved exactly as any preschooler trapped in place for five hours would be expected to behave.
The flight itself was as turbulent as a Sean Spicer news conference. Every now and then a carry-on bag the size of a small East German automobile would tumble out of an overhead bin and brain someone into unconsciousness, making other passengers envious.
For those who didn’t download their own entertainment, the in-flight movie was a documentary (Pulp Friction: The Crofton Mill Strike of 1970), though it’s impossible to say whether it was as fascinating as it sounds, as the picture quality was reminiscent of that of the first moon landing, breaking up worse than Brad and Angelina.
Likewise, the audio system featured a selection of music channels with names like Easy Listening Favourites and Lite Country Classics, though only two — Medication Time and Stranded Elevator Purgatory — sounded like anything other than a man being murdered by chainsaw at the bottom of a deep, deep well.
Some passengers had picked up a tummy bug on vacation, so the washroom lineup resembled a Costco checkout on a rainy Sunday afternoon, though Costco shoppers don’t have to worry about crawling into the lap of an aisle-seat stranger to allow the flight attendant’s cart to squeeze past like an ambulance threading its way through the Colwood Crawl.
The cart allows people who just spent a week or two becoming addicted to cheap liquor by the pool to eagerly guzzle drinks sold at a markup that would make a loan shark turn pink at the ears from embarrassment.
Ditto for food priced 10 times what the airline paid for it when Canada’s troops left Afghanistan. (No freebies on this flight; some carriers now charge passengers for the kind of meal that would start a prison riot.)
To repeat, all this was expected, and would have been endurable were it not for one thing: the seats.
Unless you’re one of those who sprawl smugly/guiltily at the front of the plane as the rest of us shuffle toward the sheep pens, your seat is going to be cramped. We all know this.
But there is cramped, and then there’s cramped. On this plane, I couldn’t even untie my shoes. Battery chickens get more elbow room. Barely tilting forward, I could use the seat back in front of me as a chin rest and read the phone of the woman in the row ahead of that (she’s having an affair!).
The bigger you were, the grimmer it got. A towering man was basically trapped in the fetal position, knees to nostrils, for the entire journey. He appeared to have been baled up by a garbage compactor. For all I know, it might be permanent.
The seat squeeze is not new, but it is getting worse. Airlines are carrying more passengers, meaning fewer opportunities to stretch into vacant seats. Carriers keep finding ways — such as installing thinner, less comfortable cushions — to shoehorn in more chairs.
In 2015, Fortune magazine reported the average seat pitch — the space between the back of one seat and the back of another — had shrunk to 31 inches from 35 in a generation. Some were as tight as 28.
Seat widths withered, too. The Wall Street Journal reported that by 2012, more than two-thirds of Boeing 777s were delivered with rows 10 seats abreast, up from the standard nine.
We also learned last year that new Boeing 737 economy seats, patterned after office furniture, will take tight confines into account — things like not having to bend over to plug in electronics, as the outlets will be over the tray. Oh good, not being able to bend over is now part of the design.
The congestion causes conflict. Note that in 2014, a United jet made an unscheduled landing after a passenger’s use of a Knee Defender — a device that prevents the person in front of you from leaning back — led to an in-flight fight. Air Canada and WestJet have banned the gizmos, though many passengers now deem it socially unacceptable to recline your seat, as it is impossible to do so without ramming a tray into the gut of the person behind you.
OK, I should not complain. I got a week in the sun. Moaning about the airplane seats seems churlish, like berating Noah for the tiny staterooms on the ark.
So I’ll stop whining, just as soon as the feeling returns to my legs.
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