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In Defense of Airline Violence

I don’t consider myself claustrophobic. At least not abnormally claustrophobic. Unlike my mother, I am good with elevators, unless there are 80 people in one and it gets stuck. That being said, if you stuck me in a straitjacket, put a sock in my mouth, put a blanket over my head and then dunked me upside down into a deep well that would trigger one of my claustrophobia attacks. Or you could just put me in an airplane.

It’s not because I am afraid to fly. Plummeting to my death in an airplane has never really scared me. Certainly not as much as getting eaten by a shark, or falling off a hotel balcony. My airplane claustrophobia attacks are not my fault. They are the result of the airline industry’s “efficiency” efforts. By trying to figure out how to drive down airline seats by another $25, they keep coming up with increasing ingeniously ways to jam more people onto an airplane. The most creative way is to pretend the average male femur is only 12 inches long, and shorten your leg space by six inches. This creates the sensation that you are riding on a motorcycle with the fat guy in the seat in front of you. It makes you want to wrap your arms around him to hang on; although I don’t recommend this as passengers appear to have reached the compression tipping point and are rebelling against the airline industry’s efforts to stack them like firewood into a cord.

In a case of poorly directed fury, in the past several months alone, there have been three well-publicized incidents of passengers attacking the guy in front of him, who was guilty, probably in an effort to gain more space, of the capital offense of reclining his seat. A more civil response would simply have been to wrap your arms around him.

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Mind you, this is an industry that is already famous for stripping you naked to gain access to their service, starving you during flights and getting sued for making people sit on runways for eight hours while slowly being baked to death in their seats.

On a recent flight back from England, I received the aviation industry’s full red carpet treatment. First, I told the agent I absolutely had to have an aisle seat. I wanted to explain that if I did not have an aisle seat and was stacked like firewood into the middle of a six-seat passenger bank for 12 hours, I would probably go postal. But they won’t let you on a plane if you threaten to go postal, so you have to be reserved in your objections and come up with stuff like “my knees are severely arthritic and can’t be contorted for more than six hours in the ways required of your normal passengers.”

I was kindly promised an aisle seat, then delivered a seat in the middle of a six-passenger seat bank. The two guys next to me were of normal size, which meant our shoulders all touched as if we were lined up in a firing squad. Next, I noticed the aviation industry’s “femur reduction plan” was in place and the seat in front of me was six inches shorter than the distance from my thigh to knee. So I spread my legs out in a “V” to fit. Not a huge issue for a non-claustrophobic, but it would have been problematic for a six-foot supermodel in a skirt.

The worst thing about a plane for those who are considering having a claustrophobic panic attack is that if you lose it – and you have to be almost abnormal not to – you know you are going to get jumped by six flight attendants and four guys from a rugby team who are on the plane, who are thinking you are a terrorist and are going to tie you up with seat belts and try to shove you in the overhead compartment. Not exactly the remedy the average claustrophobic is looking for.

Despite this, I was holding my cool… until the temperature reached 104 degrees. Our flight was delayed. The only thing worse for an airline claustrophobic than being shoved into the overhead compartment is being boiled alive with your legs spread. The airline industry has figured out how to make a 20-ton piece of metal fly, but they can’t figure out how to get an air conditioner to work when a plane is on the ground. Once the doors shut, it takes about four minutes for an airplane compartment to hit 100 degrees. You could be in Siberia, and it will get to 100 degrees in four minutes. This is how the industry got sued some years back. They boiled their passengers alive for eight hours during a runway delay in the middle of a snowstorm in Washington, D.C. We were only at 45 minutes of baking, which by airline standards is considered just a suntan.

Despite the minor inconvenience of slowly boiling to death, I was keeping my cool… until they started pumping jet exhaust into the cabin. An airplane had just landed parked next to our plane, and the wind was blowing in such a way that its jet exhaust was being funneled into whatever half-baked wind pipe that the airline had configured as our life-support ventilator. In addition to being baked, and contorted, we were now being suffocated. For those who have mild claustrophobia, which now included about three quarters of this plane, you know that suffocation and immolation are both triggers that make one’s claustrophobia worse.

At this point, like many onboard, I was beginning to plot my exit. A panic attack is out of the question as you’ll end up wrapped in seat belts with a sock in your mouth. And you know that politely asking the flight attendant if you could get off the plane is not going to work either. Airplane doors are like guillotines; you can’t undo them once they come down. So your best strategy is to plot a medical emergency, which is not hard to imagine for a claustrophobic. Mine was going to be “Ma’am, I know this is going to be a great inconvenience and might adversely affect the airline’s desire to maximize its profits at our expense, but I believe I am having a medical emergency. My stent has melted, and I think I am having a heart attack. I think it’s being aggravated by having my legs tied around my neck like a pretzel and pumping jet plane exhaust into my lungs. It also could be the medication I am taking for the Ebola virus I recently contracted. I am not sure which. To be honest, everything is getting a little fuzzy right now.”

Fortunately, before I could execute my plan, the plane started to move, and we cleared the jet plane exhaust. The temperature dropped to 90 degrees, and my legs fell asleep so I couldn’t feel them anymore. Out of respect to the claustrophobic majority on the plane, no one even considered reclining their seat. All was well again in the airline industry.