Civility left at plane check-in

Annoyed passengers wont to show displeasure via rude behavior

May 07, 2008|By Scott McCartney | Scott McCartney,The Wall Street Journal

You'll never look at, or reach into, an airline seat-back pocket the same after reading this.

Besides being a repository for magazines, newspapers, books, iPods and air-sickness bags, seat-back pockets get stuffed with all kinds of disgusting trash, from toenail clippings to mushy meals.

People do things on airplanes that they would never do in other public settings. They pluck eyebrows, polish nails and pick noses. They stick chewed gum in places only other passengers will discover. They blow noses into blankets that get folded up for the next weary traveler. They prop bare feet up on bulkheads and seats. Sometimes they even engage in sex acts.

One reason frequent fliers and flight attendants perceive an increase in offensive behavior may be the decline in air service - customers seek retaliation for late flights, snippy workers, lost baggage and unavailable upgrades.

"Increasingly, passengers are certain that the airlines are not on their side and actually don't care anything about them," said Irwin Sarason, a University of Washington psychologist in Seattle who has studied passenger behavior. "In that kind of environment, it isn't too surprising that people will not exercise the restraints they normally would."

Though crammed together elbow-to-elbow in more-public conditions than you'd find at a mall, restaurant, church or office, airline passengers sometimes behave as though the cabin were their own small nesting place - and one where they never have to worry about cleanliness, either.

Steve Cuzzone, finance director for a Birmingham, Ala., manufacturer, has found old french fries, a festering baby diaper, half a hamburger, used Kleenex and wet napkins in seat-back pockets. He put a book in once and pulled it out to find the bottom covered in a melted candy bar.

"If you sit in a middle seat, never look in - those are the riskiest ones," he said, noting that children often sit between parents and that passengers will dispose of their grossest things in an unoccupied middle seat.

Flight attendants often say that the biggest messes they have to deal with are dirty diapers left in seat-back pockets or, worse, handed to them while they are serving beverages and snacks. "Would you hand that off to your server at a restaurant?" asked Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing workers at several big airlines.

The detritus problem is exacerbated by the fact that most airplanes are only lightly cleaned between each flight. Airlines say planes get a more thorough cleaning overnight and a "deep cleaning" scheduled about every 30 days. In many cases, seat-back pockets aren't thoroughly checked until overnight cleaning crews work over a cabin.

"Flight attendants will clean things they see sticking out of seat pockets in between flights, but the deep-down cleaning is reserved for later," says Philip Gee, a spokesman for US Airways Group Inc..

Eric Kaldenberg, a Phoenix regional sales manager, was on a flight home from Las Vegas in March with a passionate couple in first class who were anything but discreet.

"It was pretty disgusting," Mr. Kaldenberg said. He says he and other passengers complained to attendants, but no action was taken. He wrote to US Airways, which offered a form-letter apology and voucher for a discount on a future ticket, along with a suggestion that he could have asked to be reseated if the couple bothered him.

"I regret your discomfort when observing inappropriate behavior of another passenger," US Airways' customer relations office said in the letter. His second complaint drew an apologetic phone call from a customer service supervisor, he says. US Airways' Gee says the suggestion that Kaldenberg should be reseated "probably wasn't the correct response." The flight attendant involved "should have talked to the couple," he said.

While some people are testing boundaries or acting out when away from spouses, friends or seemingly any authority, experts say that for others, air travel leaves some psychologically off-kilter and more likely to do things they wouldn't normally do. People lose control because the flying experience strips them of all control - you're told where to sit, when to sit and when you will arrive.

In addition, many people have difficulty being stuffed in close proximity with others and forced to share space, whether it's overhead bin space, armrests or space taken away when the person in front reclines. As planes get more crowded, people get more cramped. The decline in air service likely has also exacerbated the problem. Some people are simply mad at airlines and seek retribution.

"Putting a melting chocolate bar in a seat back is a way of punishing the airline for shoddy treatment," said Robert Bor, a clinical aviation psychologist in London.

What's more, air travel is largely anonymous and, removed from everyday reality, people perceive few consequences to bad behavior. Just the opposite is true: Federal law requires that travelers comply with crew instructions, and penalties for disruptive behavior can be harsh.

Adding to the dehumanizing of travel is the advent of kiosks, self-service check-in and other money-saving automation. With little interaction with airline employees, customers have little emotional connection to airlines, so why worry about trashing their airplanes?

"Some rather enjoy offending others," Bor said.

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