Earning My Wings

Embracing the glories of the last row of the plane

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

I recently saw this headline: “Airlines Want You to Be Uncomfortable.” At least I think I saw such a headline. I’d cite the article, but now that news websites, chasing viral gold, rewrite headlines every five minutes, I’m no longer able to find the things I thought I once saw. This condition, in which one cannot find a thing and begins to doubt whether that thing ever existed, is popularly known as “madness.”

In any case, there is a thematic connection between these constant, discomfort-inducing changes in the quest for virality and the airline industry’s constant, discomfort-inducing changes in the quest for cost-savings. I could take the grandiose path here and tell you that this connection is called “capitalism.” Instead I will take the petty path and tell you that the common theme is my discomfort. After all, the headline, imagined or real, said “Airlines Want You to Be Uncomfortable.” And if I am the one reading the article, then You means Me.

Why do airlines want me to be uncomfortable? What did I do to them? Eight months before a recent trans-Atlantic flight, I purchased tickets from a popular travel website. This, I thought, would ensure me a degree of comfort in my seat assignment, though the website did not allow me to choose my seat. Still … eight months! I had to be somewhere near the front of the line, if not the front of the plane.

I have always been a good airline rider. I never complain to the stewardesses or stewards or superintendents. Even as a child, I never hassled the pilots—never approached them, say, in midflight to ask for one of those pins with wings, or insisted on sitting in the captain’s chair and flying the plane for a spell. No! I sat quietly by the window and marveled at the miracle of flight! And when the plane landed, I clapped. I did not care in the least about the food. It was wonderful enough that several tons of metal managed to rise into the sky and stay there long enough to land safely in a different place. It seemed entirely unnecessary to fuss over creamed chicken with string beans. I’d be perfectly happy with peanuts. Or honey-roasted peanuts! I really like those.

But apparently I crossed the line somewhere, because out of the four legs of my recent journey, I spent three sitting in the back row of the plane, directly in front of one toilet and right next to another. Have you ever sat hemmed in by two toilets on a long-distance flight on which creamed chicken is served?

I’d hoped to get some writing done, but there was always a long line next to me. People got tired in the line, or perhaps a little nauseous. Who can blame them? Creamed chicken always seems good, until you’ve actually eaten it. Anyway, while they waited in line, they wanted to take a load off their feet. That meant sitting on my armrest. Or leaning on my seat. Or—like one large rear end in faded Wranglers—leaning on me. I pushed the large rear end away. There was no retaliation. The rear end understood my plight. Who can write under such circumstances? I managed only to scribble a few pages in my journal during this time. (I hope you are enjoying them!) The seat reclined only half-an-inch before striking the restroom wall. It was possible, for a moment, to doze off to the white-noise whoosh of the chemical toilet.

The smoking gun in this travel mystery came as I boarded the plane for my journey’s final leg. Homeward bound! All I had to do was make it back to the 45th row. But as I walked the aisle, I noted that the first 10 rows were not called “first class” but “economy comfort.” By default, that meant that the rest of the plane was “economy discomfort.” At last I understood: I was not alone in my suffering! The airlines did not simply want me to be uncomfortable. They really do want you to be uncomfortable, too.

Solidarity, comrade!

Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Coaching & Consulting, providing storytelling training to students, professionals and organizations.

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