Airlines and Society: Fighting for Our Space

We all have air travel horror stories. Some of us remember when flying epitomized the lap of modern luxury. We’ve watched in horror as air travel descended — “crashed” might be a better word — into a travel experience only slightly more comfortable than boxcar freight-hopping.

Retired Register-Guard columnist Don Bishoff wrote so many columns about his (and his luggage’s) travel mishaps that I advocated once for the Eugene Airport to name its next baggage carousel after him. (It’s not too late. He’s not dead yet. And a second carousel is in the works.)

I took a short flight last week on Allegiant Air. The fare was startlingly low, until you added their extra fees for paying with a credit card ($4), choosing a seat ($8), printing a boarding pass ($5), taking a carry-on bag ($15), and sipping water during the flight ($2). I half expected them to ask us to pay for the use of their wheels during the landing.

It’s not surprising that extreme versions of our own discomforts ignite our imaginations. When two travelers scuffled last week over whether and how their seats should recline, we sighed, “there but by the grace of God go I.” We choose low fares, and then we are pushed — crammed — to accept less and less.

Air travel was introduced to Americans as a powerful metaphor for society’s ascent. Now in decline, the metaphor still holds.

The airplane is our society. We’re all traveling together. Legroom — personal space — is what each of us gets out of the deal. We’d like a little bit of comfort and we can’t get along without some sense of security.

The flight attendants stand for government, charged with maintaining order. The airline is owned by business titans, seeking to maximize their profits.

The passengers on the airplane play two roles in the metaphor and in real life. They are the funders of the venture, but they are also its cargo. Flying airplanes around would be a lot cheaper if there were no passengers adding weight to the vehicle. Running a society could be done with almost no taxes being levied, unless you prefer a society that has people. In both cases, people just slow things down.

Airlines are testing the limits of what people will put up with before they gather together in revolt. Societies do the same thing.

Studies have shown lately that low-tax states have more unemployment, greater obesity, lower education, and shorter life expectancy. The states that ask less of its citizens also provide fewer services. Allegiant and Alabama are close in more ways than alphabetical. The question is, “How low can you go?”

Passengers splashing one another with soda pop doesn’t mark the end of air travel or society as we know it, but it does point the way. Next the flight attendants get splashed. Then the passengers conspire, seizing the drink cart. Or the airlines get the message and give back a little of the legroom they’ve been removing.

In my extended metaphor, what is the Knee Defender — this magic device that prevents the seat ahead of you from reclining? It’s crime, or graft, or losing some of your own decency.

You’re claiming more space for yourself, at the expense of some one else. And if that some one else notices, they might turn around. You might get caught. They may call the authorities. And they may feel a sudden urge to share their soda with you.

Most of us play it safe, hope for the best, and keep lowering our expectations.

We don’t purposely break rules — unless you mean speeding on the highway, rolling through an occasional stop sign, exaggerating our taxable expenses, or carrying one more carry-on bag than we’re allowed.

We call these victimless crimes, but they fray the edges of society. Disorder precedes lawlessness. “How much will we put up with?” becomes “How much can we get away with?”

We must find appropriate and constructive ways to voice dissent without giving up altogether on society or air travel. If we don’t, then our legroom — whatever it is that we hold most dear — will continue to shrink.