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Air Travelers at Their Best — and Worst

A few weeks ago, we looked at what the all-powerful, yet long-suffering flight attendants do best, and what they could do better. This week, as promised, we’ll look at what their allies and antagonistas in the air, we the passengers, do best, and what we could do better.

What We Get Right

1. Joining the herd.

From airport shuttles and parking lots, through bag check and TSA points, all the way to our seats, the vast majority of passengers accept our role as flying cattle, and simply go with the herd. To do otherwise mainly affects our own kind, our fellow travelers. It almost has the feel of a dystopian novel, where our human tendencies toward creativity, individualism and feistiness are our worst enemies. When security queues stretch across ring road overpasses and into airport parking lots, we’re just better off behaving like herd animals and shuffling along — four legs good, two legs bad!

2. Sitting down, shutting up and looking after ourselves.

On average, there are 1.73 million of us in the air over the United States every day. Yet with so many people crammed into tight, nasty seats with relatively little food, water or entertainment, we mostly sit down, shut up and get on our way. Granted, it’s not like trying to cross the country in a horsewagon, but this is still no small accomplishment for that many people.

As much like helpless animals as the airlines try to make us, we are anything but — and most of us passengers are pretty good at taking care of ourselves even during the longest and most arduous flights. Wise travelers do their homework to find out what will and won’t be available on their flight, and pack accordingly, stocking their carry-ons with snacks, drinks, MP3 players, e-readers, sudoku books, sleeping pills, neck pillows and beyond.

3. Working together and helping each other.

When your luggage is flopping around on a conveyor belt, or your shoes are crushed under someone’s carry-on, or your seat isn’t next to your companion’s, or you don’t feel well, or you are trying to sleep, you’ll usually find that fellow passengers are willing to help you out. On every flight I have taken this year, I have seen travelers switching seats even when the swap isn’t perfect, assisting each other with bags when boarding and exiting the plane, helping deliver food across several seats, and more.

4. Keeping calm when things go wrong.

This could apply to anything, from crying babies to the lack of drink service during a turbulent flight — but in general I think the majority of fliers deal well with some uncertainty and adversity. And the number of stories of passengers stepping in when things get really hairy — from stepping in when pilots or flight attendants have lost it, right on to spotting bomb threats — are legion. Well done, folks.

5. Reading articles like this.

I may not be the best judge in this case, but given the number of friends and acquaintances who have stumbled across this column, it is clear that a very large number of travelers put a lot of effort into educating themselves on the latest rule changes, on airport protocol, on ways to make travel easier on everyone. When we write about armrest etiquette, for example, we get a ton of mail in response — people are paying attention. And I have noticed over time that more and more travelers understand and heed the unwritten rules and human courtesies therein. The more people who read and think about these issues, the better off everyone else will be, so thank you.

What We Could Improve

1. Stop whining.

There is a lot to complain about when it comes to air travel these days, but when it comes to minor offenses, the airport is probably not the place to do it. Certainly there are some things you can’t simply let ride under any circumstances — physical or verbal abuse, loss of or damage to your property and the like, but often you are better off if you just let it go for now. If you have a real problem that will impede your ability to get where you are going, make your complaint politely, but don’t get belligerent and don’t drag it out. If you’re not getting anywhere, get a name, record details and take care of business later. And, of course, vote with your feet by booking with someone else next time.

2. Stop thinking some animals are more equal than others.

We don’t care if you are wealthy, or paid more for your ticket, or are wearing a nice suit, or log a lot more miles in the air than we do. We also don’t care if you don’t like checking bags, or have to travel with too much stuff for some unknown reason, or where you are going and what you are doing. You are still expected to stand in line, go through security with the rest of us, board when you are supposed to, take up only your allotted overhead space and refrain from sucking the oxygen out of what is already an almost airless experience.

And please don’t hog the armrest — or worse, put it up so your neighbors can’t use it.

3. Don’t schlump obliviously around the airport.

This is a personal top gripe — folks who stand in a long security line, only to get all the way to the front before they start thinking about getting out their boarding passes and identification, putting away phones and electronics, getting kids ready, etc. You bought your tickets weeks ago, you packed all your stuff hours ago, you checked your bags and stood in a line for 20 minutes — so I know it is not a surprise that you are now at the front of the security line. Then you do it again at the food court, and again at the gate, and again getting into your seat. Wake up!!

4. Commit to being low-maintenance.

In my last column I talked about how utterly outmanned the flight attendants are on every flight, and especially in coach. If you are asking much more than your fair share of the attendants — that is, if you are a very high-maintenance passenger, then the meager resources we all have to share get stretched very thin. If you have good reason to ask for help, by all means do so — and the rest of us will try to be as low-maintenance as possible so that you get the help you need.

5. Follow the darn rules.

When you fail to follow the rules — for carry-ons and storage, for cellphone use, for seatback positioning, for drunkenness, for walking around the plane, for boarding — it might make you feel better, but it slows the rest of us down. While flight attendants track down and remind and argue with you, the minutes of our lives spent stuck on an airplane tick ever upward, never to be recovered.

I asked the editors of what their pet peeves were among fellow travelers, and they emphasized lack of adherence to carry-on rules and common sense; straining the bounds of the carry-on is a serious offence. And it isn’t just bringing on big bags; the staff also kvetched about people who “put teeny little bags in the overhead when they could easily go under the seat and save room for larger cases.” A few other gripes: “People who put their carry-on in the first overhead bin they see rather than one right near their own seat — then people who actually sit in that row don’t get to use their own bin space. Or people who put their roll-aboard in sideways instead of wheels first!” The list goes on.

Flight attendants have some hard-earned opinions on the topic as well:

The 10 Types of People That Drive Flight Attendants Nuts
10 Things You’ll Never Hear Your Flight Attendant Say

Do you have any suggestions for your fellow fliers? Let us know in the comments.

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