Topic: Business & Commercial

Air Travel Ethics
(7/23/2005)

A rash of business trips recently has given me direct personal experience with several current ethical issues surrounding air travel.

The most significant one involves the spate of recommendations stemming from data showing that the airlines have been hurt financially by having to use to more fuel as a result of heavier passengers…another strain of the "America is too fat" song, but one focusing on cost and pricing issues rather than health. It seems wrong to some commentators that the lean marathoner should have to pay the same resulting fare increases as the flying couch potato, so they have suggested that the extra pounds of fat be reflected in extra dollars added to the ticket price. One creative columnist even suggested public weigh-ins at the airport, because the embarrassment might have a slimming effect.

Now wait a minute…

Any equity in this argument is polluted by the underlying sentiment that obesity, extra poundage or the results of middle age metabolism is "bad" weight and needs to be punished. Of course, there are varied causes of obesity, some of which involve economic status, illness, genetics and limited nutritional opportunities. Not all women who look like pre-Trim Spa Anna Nicole Smith can afford a personal trainer, and not all men who match the girth of early-model Rush Limbaugh can hire a personnel chef who is paid to create yummy but slimming cuisine. This policy doesn't just favor the fit over the fat, it favors women over men, the short over the tall, the young over the old, the rich over the poor, the bulimic over the bodybuilder and the long-distance runner over the sprinter. It also focuses on just one source of the extra air transport weight. What about luggage and carry-ons? Why is a slim passenger carrying 30 pounds of stuff more deserving of a price break than another passenger carrying only 20 pounds of extra flesh? And should a family paying full fare for a 40 pound 9 year-old be charged even more because Mom and Dad haven't been jogging lately? Explain to me why it is fair that a 130 mother with a 75 pound eleven-year old should pay less for her tickets than a 160 pound mother traveling with the 40 pound 5th Grader. You can't; it isn't.

It is fair to tell each traveling party that a standard ticket buys only so much fuel, and that they must pay a premium for extra pounds above a specific weight. But the weight should include everything: people, kids, carry-ons, over-coats, wheelchairs, luggage. A traveler can choose whether he or she wants to go on a diet or leave a suitcase at home. That's fair.

This topic leads naturally to my own particular pet peeve: those times when a stewardess says, "We have a very full flight and storage space is limited, so we ask that passengers with only one carry on stow it under the seat in front of them, so we have sufficient space in the over-head bins."

Let me get this straight: I travel with only one small carry-on specifically so I can put it over-head and stretch out my legs, and she's saying that I have to put it in the way of my feet instead because someone else decided to bring in one of those black rolling steamer trunks (which, by a conservative estimate, uses up four times the over-head storage space of my little soft brief-case), plus another bag?

Hmmmm.

If two people get on the plane, each with one small identical bag, it would be clearly unfair to tell one he could put his bag in the over-head bin and the other that he had to put his under the seat in front of him. Yet what the stewardess is demanding is even worse: she's saying that the people who are responsible for the shortage of luggage space get the over-head bins, and those who conserve space by traveling light or submitting their possessions to the random fate of checked baggage don't. Sorry: that not fair, and I refuse to do it. Everyone should have the right to one over-head space, period. While the airlines are at it, they can reduce the size of permissible carry-on bags by about 50%.

Then we have the edict of Peggy Post and Peter Post, the great-grand kids of Emily Post, the iconic maven of manners, who have just written Emily Post's The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success. Etiquette and manners are just a sub-category of ethics, after all. Their list of air travel ethics includes not reclining your seat in coach as a courtesy to the person behind you.

That's not only nonsense, it's elitist nonsense: the Posts obviously travel first class. The ability to recline the grand total of five inches permitted by most airplane coach seats makes a major difference in comfort, especially on long trips. If everyone reclines, no one is inconvenienced by it; if someone decides not to, that's their choice. That extra five inches has been bought and paid for, and the Post heirs are off their respective rockers implying that there is something wrong with me using it. Someone with unusually long legs or other legitimate problems can ask me not to recline if it poses a problem for them, and if there are no other options (such as an open seat behind another open seat so the passenger can relocate), I will probably comply. If it's a long flight, I may also ask the stewardess to engineer a trade of seats between me and another passenger who doesn't care about reclining. Once, I agreed not to recline because of a request from the passenger behind me, and after the plane landed and he stood up I was shocked to see that he was about five and a half feet tall. He didn't have knee problems; he just didn't like the seat in front of him reclining.

Next time, buddy, take Amtrak.

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