James Werrell

Flying the friendly skies comes with some risk

I used to be scared to fly because of the airline food. Now I worry about having my front teeth knocked out and being dragged off the plane by airport goons before I’ve even had a chance to look at the In-Flight magazine.

Much of the entire world gasped at the videos taken by fellow passengers of a man screaming like a scalded cat as he was being bashed against an armrest and forcibly dragged from a United Airlines flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, blood streaming down his face. This did not seem normal, even for an airline that had recently barred passengers from boarding because they were wearing leggings.

Surely this couldn’t be legal. The man had a ticket and had been seated on the plane.

Well, the man (may we call him the victim?) has lawyered up and will sue both the airlines and the airport that hires the thuggish security guys. And it seems likely he’ll get something for his broken nose, cracked teeth and the trauma of being dragged off the plane.

But the experts say that, basically, the airline did nothing illegal. In a nutshell, when we buy a ticket on an airline, the fine print says we are paying to be flown to another location – when the airline feels like it and not necessarily on the same flight or even the same day listed on the ticket.

Airlines overbook, knowing that some passengers will be late to the gate or otherwise miss their flights for a variety of reasons. Overbooking assures that the airline can fill the plane even if some passengers don’t show.

When there aren’t enough seats for the passengers on hand – as on that fateful flight from O’Hare – the airlines usually offer to compensate customers who willingly give up their seats. And that generally works.

It also helps ensure cheaper tickets for everyone. Full planes equal cheaper seats.

As for refusing to leave a plane when asked, it is not advisable. Everything around the plane is essentially still America.

Inside the plane is a space ruled by the pilot, the attendants and the airline they answer to. If they want you off the plane, you will leave, walking or prone.

We generally have nothing to fear if we behave and follow orders. And, as a rule, pilots and attendants are friendly, helpful and extremely efficient at moving people and things around in tight spaces.

But one of the reasons we sympathize with the guy who was dragged off the plane is that, even if we have an uneventful flight, modern air travel is a pretty miserable experience. Having your nose broken and your teeth knocked out seems like just one more infliction of pain in an already torturous process.

Standing in line and going through security makes just preparing to get on the plane an ordeal. And the reward for finally boarding is a seat that must have been designed by Torquemada.

Space for overhead luggage has been squeezed to a minimum. In fact, everything is squeezed in an effort to get the maximum number of passengers into the smallest possible sardine can.

But this is important: we asked for it. People who fly once or twice a year – which is most passengers who fly coach – want the cheapest tickets they can find surfing on the Web.

We no longer need a meal or even a bag of pretzels on the flight. We don’t need to be able to stretch out our legs and enjoy the view or take a nap.

All we want is to be minimally comfortable for the few hours we spend on the plane and to arrive at the right destination approximately on time.

I sometimes fantasize about taking one of those flights on an Asian carrier where your “seat” resembles a small, private hotel room. The seat converts into a bed with sheets and a blanket, and you are surrounded by amenities such as a pop-up bar, high-end snacks, electronic devices and other luxurious items. The plane even has a shower room.

But here’s the catch: an average ticket costs around $15,000 or more.

I might continue to fantasize about a flight like that, but in the real world, I’ll take the sardine can, the free Diet Coke and the possibility that I will be dragged off the plane.

James Werrell is opinion page editor of The Herald.

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