Blame Bad Passengers, Not US Airways, for Travel Nightmares

The 8 most annoying airline passengers (including Two-Ton Tessie and Carry-On Whore).

I’ve been flying more recently. This is not on purpose—I am all for safe and secure skies, but since 9/11, flying has taken on an almost Sisyphean cast. Like an octogenarian paging through a frayed scrapbook stuffed with yellowed clippings, I find myself waxing nostalgic for the “old days” of air travel, like when you could, you know, wear shoes passing through security.

I find it not surprising that ABC’s period drama Pan Am didn’t catch on with viewers this past television season—who can relate to an age when people actually dressed to travel? Now you get in line and find yourself inching your way behind a pack of sweatsuit-clad slobs pawing each other to get on board first—it feels like you’re on your way to the 700 Level rather than your seat in coach. I’ve made it a policy, whenever possible, to now board the plane last. (I was actually paged in the airport last week to come take my seat on a flight from Philly to Minneapolis.) Anything I can do to spend less time cooped up with the great unwashed (and I do mean unwashed), I am going to do.

Because I have come to the conclusion that while there is much about contemporary airline travel that is abhorrent, most of what makes it so unpleasant comes not from the airlines themselves, but from the people those airlines serve. Yes, ticket prices are expensive, flights are routinely overbooked, luggage lost, flight attendants impatient as they slam into your elbow with their tiny metal carts. But what really makes flying so taxing is the people flying with us. Specifically, these people: the Eight Most Annoying Airline Passengers.

1. The Carry-On Whore. You know her—you may suck it up and pay the $25 baggage fee to check your luggage, but she is having none of that. No, she is bringing her suitcase, her garment bag, her makeup case, her purse, her shopping bag from Marshall’s HomeGoods, and in some cases her lawn furniture on board, because she is Very, Very Important and Busy and you are not. Actually, she is just very, very cheap and very selfish. Baggage fees suck, and we should protest them (or just fly Southwest). But that doesn’t excuse people who bring their life’s possessions and attempt to stuff them into the overhead bins—leaving you with nowhere to put a light jacket, never mind a bag. These are among the most venal of all air passengers. They are the ones who board before their zone is called for this very reason—so they can hog all the overhead space, slam the lid closed, and then sit there, paging through their copy of Family Circle, as you wanly try to locate an empty pocket of space 10 rows away. If I could insist on just one new federal law for air travel, it would be this: Anyone who brings on more than one carry-on (and don’t even get me started on this bullshit “and one personal item” nonsense) on board will be immediately thrown off the plane and put on the national No-Fly List. Creeps.

2. The Aggressive Recliner. You see them everywhere: They get into their seats, and at the very first opportunity—often during take-off, when it is specifically prohibited—they push their seatbacks all the way back, straight onto your lap. It’s not their fault that seats recline so far into the personal space of the people behind them; that’s the airlines’ fault. But dude, planting your feet like you’ve just done a dismount from the balance beam and then pressing into your heels to push your seat back will not make it go any further back. It’s not a La-Z-Boy, moron. Really. Stop it.

3. The Parents of the Screaming Infant. I know what you’re going to say: A parent has no control over an infant who’s wailing. True. But a parent certainly has control over bringing that infant on board the aircraft in the first place. Don’t give me that crap about how sometimes there is no other way—the percentage of people traveling with shrieking babies doing so to get to the deathbed of some cherished relative is probably less than a tenth of a percent of all such travelers. Instead, there seems to be a collective group-think that says, This little bastard is keeping me up all night, he might as well ruin your day, too. This is why God made car seats, people: So you can strap your little one into one and drive wherever you’re going.

4. The Constant Overhead Grabber. While not quite as egregious as some of the others, this traveler is nonetheless the in-the-clouds equivalent of nails on the blackboard: grating and irritating, like an infected molar. Often cross-pollinated with the Carry-On Whore (see #1), this is the guy who places all of his many, many, many belongings carefully into the overhead bin, and then spends the rest of the flight getting up and down (and up and down, and up and down) opening the latch and retrieving and replacing items from his aforementioned belongings. Sometimes I just want to scream, “What is it you need now?!!” Folks, it’s not complicated: Get your iPod, your book or magazine, your earphones, or your laptop, and then stash the rest. It’s a flight, not The Journey of Natty Gann.

5. The Zen Master. If you’ve ever been on a flight to San Francisco, Seattle or Portland, I can pretty much guarantee you’ve seen him or her. They’re the people with the big bottle of Purell, the organic cereal (plus their own bowl and spoon), the Mohawk Indian blanket, the cloth earphones, and the eye mask, who create their own little Worlds of Wonder within the confines of their 13-inch seat. As crunchy as October leaves, they’re also the first ones to remove their shoes and often their socks, leaving their smelly, gnarled exposed feet for all to see. Uh … Ewwwww. News flash: Adopting the air of a Haight-Ashbury hippie does not excuse you from common courtesy. Now put your shoes on, you freak.

6. The “Let’s Be Chums” Chatterbox. If you fly often enough, you know the best part of the experience can be summed up in six words: Please turn off your cell phones. Alas, for a good part of the air-traveling public, being disconnected is tantamount to public nudity, leaving them grasping for cover—or, more accurately, inane chit-chat with the person next to them, to replicate the mindless blabbering they are no doubt addicted to, cell phone permanently crooked between ear and shoulder. Have you ever listened to one of these conversations, going on behind you or across the aisle? The first thing I do when I sit down is immediately open whatever reading material I’ve brought with me and dive in. Because I would rather read Robert’s Rules of Order than endure three hours of banal chatter with the over-caffeinated person next to me.

7. The Negotiator. I sort of understand these people, even as I find them increasingly irksome. In an age where flying seems more pricey than ever, we get less than ever doing it: No food, no beer, no pillows and blankets anymore (though this is actually a blessing, it turns out—I once edited a story called “Confessions of a Flight Attendant” in which said flight attendant relayed that the airlines almost never wash the blankets they hand out to passengers). But The Negotiator is like a six-year-old in an adult’s body, constantly pushing the call button, constantly complaining about the temperature/air quality/beverage selection (“What? No Sanka?”)/music channels in the hand rest … You get the idea. They’re the coach people who always make a beeline for the business class lavatory, the ones who need extra pillows or extra napkins or anything else extra they can purloin, just to purloin it. Sit next to them and it’s like you’re sitting next to the flight attendants the whole trip—because they are constantly being summoned. It’s an airplane, people, not a flying hotel.

8. The Fat Albert. Look, I am not a small guy. But I fit squarely in a standard-issue airline seat. The trouble is, in a nation where a full third of the population is now considered clinically obese, it’s only logical that airlines are now grappling with passengers literally spilling over onto the seats around them. I spent part of a flight from Las Vegas to Denver last week at a literal 70-degree angle, trying to avoid the oozing flesh of the Two-Ton Tessie next to me, munching away on her Kit-Kat bar. If you’re going to be a house, then either buy two seats or buy a roomier business-class seat. (Or you can get your fat ass to the gym.)

I wish there was a solution to all of this, but there isn’t. As long as we keep providing people with venues to behave selfishly, stupidly and badly, they will.

Which leads me to ask: Is it any wonder that people get so upset about rising gasoline prices? Because driving may be the only link to travel sanity we have left. See you on the road.