Monday, November 02, 2009

In Economy, Stupid

You warily glance down the aisle and spot a beefy gent clad in a t-shirt and gym shorts struggling through the narrow passage way. You avoid eye contact, bow your head, and silently plead, "Please no, please no, please no..." A shadow falls across your face and you feel (and possibly smell) his hulking presence near. You dare not look up. Then, just like that, he's gone, moving past you toward a different destination. You exhale a sigh of relief and look to see who approaches next. Hmmm...that slender Japanese girl might not be bad...

Our current economic difficulties have meant changes for almost everyone. In an effort to save a few bucks, that company that delivers my paycheck is no longer allowing us to travel in business class on flights to Asia. It's an understandable action and one that few are gripping about. At this point, the pain of flying economy seems like a small price to pay to remain gainfully employed, so it's an acceptable sacrifice to make. But make no mistake, it is a sacrifice.

When you're in business class or even in economy on a short haul domestic flight, you usually don't pay too much heed to who you sit next to. But when you're facing ten, eleven, or twelve hours of flying time in economy, you have a significant stake in your seat mates. One of the few tangible benefits of having "elite" status as a frequent flyer is that you get to board the aircraft a bit earlier than the masses. This is important if you have carry-luggage so that you may secure a place for said baggage and not have to fight the overhead wars. It also means that you're usually in your seat (always an aisle for me) before the others in your row.

Then the waiting and guessing game begins. Since most flights these days (especially inter-continental routes) are usually packed, the chances that you will have an open seat next to you are slim. I was extremely fortunate to have the middle seat vacant on my flight from Tokyo to Minneapolis last week. As an added bonus, a Japanese teenage girl who probably weighed all of eighty pounds had the window. Space--at least to the side--was not an issue. But that's a rarity. As much as you hope that you'll get lucky in such a manner, you grimly accept the fact that someone will sit next to you. Then it becomes a matter of who.

In general, you profile preference is something like this:

Women over men

Young over old

Thin over fat

Short over tall

If you're traveling in Asia, you can add Asian over American/European. It's not about wanting to sit next to some fine young thang either. The perfect seatmate is probably a twelve-year-old Japanese girl who's going to listen to her iPod or sleep the whole flight. You really just want the person next to you to take up the least amount of space and cause the least amount of trouble possible.

A few more thoughts on travel after a few weeks on the road:

- Would it kill Northwest Delta to have a flight attendant under forty on their trans-Pacific flights? For the most part the "service" is sullen and at times bitchy and bitter. That goes for the men too.

- My kids are at an age that makes it tough for me to travel. They're getting old enough to know that I'm gone and are still young enough to care.

- Despite their villainous reputation, multinational businesses have done more to bring people and cultures together in a constructive manner than the U.N. ever has.

- Wrapped up the last night of this trip with my room service standby: the venerable club sandwich. This one included turkey, bacon, eggs, and prawns. That last ingredient sounds a little odd, but it worked. The great thing about the club is that you can many varieties all sharing the common denominator of great taste.

- Being away from your family for a few weeks on a business trip helps remind one just how much the men and women in the military sacrifice to help keep us free. They're gone for long periods of time on extended deployments in difficult and dangerous conditions. They deserve our thoughts, prayers, and most of all our thanks.

UPDATE: One more travel puzzle for the ages. The Japanese are among the most advanced and organized societies on earth. So why can't they figure out how to board a 747 at Narita without it turning into a complete clusterfarg?

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