culture tech

Inflight entertainment and technophobia

Inflight entertainment was once a lifeline on commercial jets. Drop-down TVs made all the difference between a bearable multihour flight and an absolute hellslog. Even Will & Grace reruns, played back on a tiny, faded CRT three rows away, were a welcome distraction from the cramped discomfort of the average domestic flight.

The rise of mobile personal devices has changed things. Once, a personal LCD viewscreen with live satellite TV would have seemed like an unimaginable luxury. These days, I switch off that headrest screen without a second thought; I’d rather watch content I like, downloaded onto my own devices.

The airlines have noticed this change—more and more passengers ignoring the cabin-wide entertainment—and they’re updating their planes in response. Why bother with expensive entertainment hardware if people won’t use it. Some jets have even ditched the screens altogether, moving to onboard wifi as a means of distributing movies to customers’ personal devices.

That’s all well and good for digital natives, who can jump through the requisite hoops. I love having a library of recent releases to stream. But the move away from shared entertainment on flights isn’t as welcome for those who struggle with tech—or who don’t have their own smartphone or tablet.

My mother is a good example. As the airlines have shifted away from built-in screens, she’s left without anything to watch. She’s not familiar enough with her cheap Android smartphone to connect to the inflight streaming library. Consider the dance required: download the airline’s app before boarding, enable airplane mode, re-enable wifi, open the settings app, connect to the network, etc., etc. That’s a familiar dance for the young and nerdy; for her, it’s an insurmountable wall. She resigns herself to boredom, sitting quietly through interminable transcontinental flights.

The airlines ought to accommodate edge cases like my mom’s. A little tech support could go a long way on planes without in-cabin screens. Why not invite tech-averse passengers to press the call button to receive help navigating their devices? The steward staff would receive baseline training for Android and iOS—just enough to help get customers connected.

Maybe that’s an unreasonable added burden for an already-overworked inflight staff. And maybe there are too many technophobes onboard the average flight to offer that sort of concierge-level hand-holding.

If so, the airlines probably shouldn’t have removed the shared screens in the first place. ■

travel Uncategorized

Coach class manifesto

Yesterday I flew across the country, from Dulles to Seattle. The United flight lasted five and a half hours—a tough slog even in ideal conditions.

Worse? I was flying coach, which multiplies the suffering. Like many airlines, United seems determined to nickel-and-dime their passengers to death (or at least to discomfort). Every nicety that once made air travel bearable now costs extra. Want to watch live TV? Slide your credit card. Hungry? Buy a $10, disgusting meal. Need an amount of leg space that won’t induce deep vein thrombosis? That’ll be $89.

In this passenger-hostile environment, every last dignity deserves to be defended. Yes, flying is miserable, but by following an unspoken social contract, you can at least make it bearable for your fellow flyers.

Here’s my coach-class manifesto:

  • Other passengers’ personal space is sacred and inviolable. Your seatmates are already crammed into a unhealthy, inhumane amount of space. Don’t make it worse by invading that precious little room. A few guidelines: as a courtesy to the beleagured middle-seat passenger, that person gets first dibs over both armrests, on either side. This is fair; the other passengers own the outer armrests and can lean away, but the middle passenger has nowhere to go. An addendum, however: no one should ever allow his or her arm (let alone belly or other body part) to pass over a shared armrest. (I’m talking to you, dude in 28E yesterday.)
  • Along the same lines, passengers own the space in front of them. Reclining seat backs spur many arguments over traveling etiquette. But the rule is simple: never recline your seat back without permission from the passenger behind you. That person may resent having his knees crushed. If you don’t get consent before catapulting yourself into his personal space, your victimized rear neighbor is free to kick, knee and shove your seat at will. There is one exception to the seat-back rule. If your rearward neighbor has already reclined her seat—and especially if she’s sleeping—you may recline yours without asking first.
  • The space beneath the seat in front of you is yours. If another passenger’s belongings slip into that space, you can claim them as your own.
  • Don’t be over-friendly. Greet your seatmates courteously when you first sit down. If they’re responsive and talkative, feel free to continue the conversation. If not, let them suffer the indignities of air travel in silence. Never look directly at your seatmate when talking to them. And never (ever!) touch your seatmate—even passive contact may be intensely uncomfortable for others.
  • Don’t do anything gross. On my flight yesterday, my seatmate would occasionally self-administer a sadistic sort of chiropractic treatment. He’d grip his head with both hands, then violently wrench his neck from side to side. He did this at least once an hour, and it freaked me out every time. Along these lines, don’t trim your fingernails, pick your nose, scratch, or do anything else that could potentially bother your neighbor. If you feel any of these urges, visit the lavatory, so that your fellow passengers don’t need to witness.

Air travel is awful, but it helps to remember that it’s awful for everyone else, too. You aren’t suffering alone! Be conscious of other passengers’ comfort, and we’ll all get through this together. Then, happily, we never have to see each other ever again.