New Rules for Flying

Flying on commercial airlines in 2019 is a horror show. Sure, they’re not killing us as much as they did 50 years ago, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s a good thing anymore. In the past month alone I’ve been relegated to a middle seat for the 16 hours from Hong Kong to NYC, I’ve had a domestic flight delayed 18 hours without an option to re-book my connection, and I’m going to stop now because I can feel the privilege oozing out of my pores.

Here’s the rub. Flying isn’t optional. It’s part of life, it’s part of business, and you’re not supposed to have a problem with it. That expectation runs up against the reality of commercial flight — which is that the status quo of decorum has gone through the floor in the past 20 years. Airline decisions have turned up the heat in the pressure cooker, but it’s ultimately you and I, the passengers, who have really lowered the bar for the flying experience. That’s what we’re going to talk about this week, not a flashy set of road warrior survival advice — that can come later. This week, we’re going to make some new rules for flying together. All of these rules are enforceable and, in at least this one weary traveler’s view, would certainly take the edge off the human factor that makes flying less-than-magical.

How did we get here?

There is no shortage of articles on the internet talking about the horrors of flying in 2019. Why is that? Aviation’s global safety record beats any other mode of travel (how does .07 deaths per billion miles sound?) including walking (6300 pedestrian fatalities in the US alone last year). Planes takes us coast to coast in hours, a journey which in not-too-distant history used to claim months and lives (a moment of silence for the Donner Party).

So why is so much digital ink spilled on the awfulness of modern flight? Why do folks long for the golden age of flying — when we boarded impossibly noisy unpressurized DC-3s, flew at low altitude in non-stop turbulence, stopped every 2 hours for fuel, and crashed with alarming regularity?

The missing ingredient, the one that makes all of that uncomfortable milieu seem bearable in retrospect, is respect. Respect between the airline and passenger, sure, but more importantly respect betwixt travelers. The way this is usually expressed is in terms of a longing for “when folks dressed to travel.” Putting on a suit or dress doesn’t automatically make plane flights better. But the idea that everyone boarding a plane would respect the institution enough to dress for it is a lynchpin which unlocks a number of behaviors that make travel less of a slog.

Grousing about the degradation of airline loyalty, mounting fees, and disappearing legroom is unlikely to change anything about the way airlines do business. We are moving to an à la carte model — low base prices, then buy the privileges you want. It’s the same approach content creators and cable companies have taken, commonly called un-bundling, and consumers usually love it. We hate this un-bundling in aviation simply because it intensifies bad behavior in our fellow wayfarers.

9 New Rules for Flying

So let’s focus on the stuff we can fix — passenger behavior. Here are nine rules to dramatically improve modern plane travel. Doug Parker, I’m looking at you buddy — let’s lay down the law and make flying civil again.

  1. One above, One below. Carry-on baggage rules have been consistent and universal since 2001. One carry-on for the overhead, one smaller personal item under your seat. When you put both your roll-aboard and your loose overflowing tote in the overhead bin of a full flight, what I see is your firm middle finger extending towards those of us with the audacity to both follow the rules and desire storage. There already isn’t enough space for every passenger to stow a single roll-aboard above. Two fixes: give flight attendants the power to interrogate people as to bag ownership and enforce under-seat stowage, and carry a soft-sided bag whenever you can (I do, even on business trips) — enabling stowage under the hinge portion of the bin.
  2. Neutral food only. Smells, coming from you or your food, are unacceptable. If you wish to bring your own food on the plane (understandable given cost and quality of most onboard fare), it must not smell. Bologna sandwich? Great. Tuna fish sandwich? No. Beef jerky? Yes. Whole cooked chicken? No. There is no shortage of healthy and delicious food that won’t change the scent profile of the whole fuselage. Stick to it. While we’re at it — it’s your responsibility to ensure your food and drink don’t end up on your neighbor, including during inevitable turbulence. Get it together.
  3. Actual shoes only. Proper daily hygiene does not suitably prevent foot odor on long travel days. Enclose your hooves in shoes. No flip flops. Flip flops are shoes in much the same way that a colander is a bowl. I respect that cultural norms in many places in the world are in direct opposition to this rule. However, when you enter a metal tube with me for hours, we have a new shared culture, and that culture doesn’t involve any of my 5 senses being aware of your feet. I will make a concession for socks on overnight flights.
  4. Soothing your child is your duty. I have enormous empathy for parents, and I know that commercial air travel with young children is often not a choice. However, when you board a plane with your child, you take on the duty of soothing the child when it commences noisemaking. I know you are tired, and there are no certainties when it comes to assuaging babies’ concerns. I also understand that decompression is painful and scary for young’uns. However, your pride and joy is causing untold annoyance to hundreds of people. All we’re asking is to see at least the appearance of concerned action on your part, regardless of the result.
  5. Everyone is entitled to a seat-width of personal space. I think we can all agree that when we pay for a seat we deserve the seat’s width of personal space. It’s one of the few inalienable rights of air travel, and we understandably feel helpless and frustrated when it’s violated. If you need more space, please buy it, making the flight more comfortable for both of us.
  6. Make the Middle Seat Bearable Again. Every seat comes with its perks and downsides. The aisle sitter gets a little extra legroom but needs to get up to let middle and window denizens out. The window sitter gets uninterrupted sleep and views, at the considerable inconvenience of waking the middle and aisle sitters up to get to the bathroom. What concession is left to the middle seat? Both armrests. Not half of them. Not side to side or front to back. I don’t want to rub biceps with you. Give me at least the perception that I am not a cold cut.
  7. Barter tactfully. It’s a reality of modern flying that families have a tough time finding seats together. Solo travelers shouldn’t have a problem being asked to switch an equivalent seat to help a family. But don’t ask someone to give up their aisle for your middle seat. The veiled threat is twofold: they will look like a heartless ogre if they decline, and they’ll spend the whole flight sitting next to an angry and resentful family member. Don’t make this awkward, and don’t make perfect strangers feel like monsters just because they want to sit in the seat they chose (and, these days, probably paid for) ahead of time. The simple workaround here is to choose your extra non-connecting seats as aisles or upgrades instead of middles. Then you have a bargaining chip.
  8. Seatback pockets are public space. Seatback pockets, along with tray tables, windows, and other hard surfaces, are not cleaned during plane turnovers (I know, yuck). That means that the used tissues you stuffed in there will most likely not be removed before the next flight. There is no good reason to use seatback pockets in light of what we know about modern germ theory. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little pride of place. If you’ve sullied one, get it shipshape before deplaning.
  9. No recline shaming. I know, the recline feature is the Gaza strip of the commercial aviation battleground. This is more simple than it looks, though. The recliner should slowly recline her seat over the course of at least 5 seconds, giving the individual behind the time to react and safeguard whatever they may have on the tray table. We don’t need to interact. We don’t need to have a conversation about this. It is perfectly possible to eat when the seat in front of you is reclined. It’s also possible to work on your laptop with a little ingenuity. And, so long as the under-seat tunnel isn’t stuffed with a bag, your legroom isn’t impacted significantly either. Remember, aviation is à la carte now. Buy what you need. If an optimal working environment is required, upgrade to premium economy or business. Your desire to save money and travel in coach has no bearing on my desire to recline my seat 5 degrees so I’m not hunched over the whole flight.

Cool Thing of the Week:

Shop Towels

Cotton towels are expensive and hard to clean. Plus, your significant other may dislike what they look like after you use them for their intended purpose. On the other hand, paper towels are a joke for serious tasks. Beyond their intended use, sopping up orange juice and being folded into napkins, they come up far short of their beefier cousins.

That’s why I’m so excited to introduce to you one of my absolute favorite household workhorses — the shop towel. Fitting right in between cotton and paper towels, these pale blue wünderstrips don’t shred into lint or become un-usably soggy. Use them for seasoning pans, wiping grease off your dipstick, staining the deck, or anywhere else you are afraid to use the monogrammed hand towels from the “nice” bathroom.

Get /Giphy With it:

Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:

Mandatory Self-Promotion

After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.

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