I’m flying home. From Prague to New Jersey. Connecting though Paris. Pretty normal. Done it many times. Ok – it’s never exactly fun. Security checks, passport controls, crowded waiting areas and fully booked planes. With just enough legroom between seats for a mouse to sit comfortably. You know – the usual nightmare.
But no. Not today. Today we have a specially-created French nightmare. An air traffic controllers’ strike. A suddenly called one day strike in solidarity with and for the same reasons as the same one day strike by French transport unions on the Metro and railways. Because French President Hollande wants to change the country’s cushy work rules which bloat the government’s budget and make hiring, firing and doing business in France more difficult than in the rest of Europe. Ergo: France is strike central. Even more than it’s always been. The air controllers have been on strike a total of 43 days since 2009 including their last 2-day walkout just over a week ago. Both during the extra busy Easter holiday/spring break travel period.
Where is Ronald Reagan when you need him.
Eventually my husband and I get to Paris. Two hours late. Of course missing our connecting flight from Paris to Newark International Airport. But all is not lost. I still have plenty of data left on my Czech iPhone package. And before that delayed flight from Prague even starts loading @Delta Assist on Twitter has us rebooked on a 5pm Air France flight to JFK. Somewhat out of the way but at least we’ll get home tonight instead of sleeping in the airport.
So we get on the JFK flight. Almost on time. And what do we see after walking through the spacious business class section? The 3-4-3 seating configuration I had just read about on new or retooled Boeing 777-200 planes. Translation – there is always a middle seat instead of the normal 2-4-2 or 2-5-2 seating used for decades on international flights. Giving airlines an extra 20 or so revenue producing seats per plane. 7 hours in a middle seat. Oh no!
Oh yes. But this time it actually works in our favor. In the back of the plane – where it narrows – even Boeing can’t squeeze in that 3rd seat. So there are 3 rows with just 2 seats on either side of the 4 middle seats. With a little elbow room between the window and the seat and a few inches more leg room. Ok they’re next to the bathrooms. But here’s the thing. These are PREMIUM seats in tourist class. Because all the other seats are now even worse. We got them because they weren’t sold and the plane was otherwise full. Lucky us!
Until the average size guy in front fully reclines his seat into my lap. He speaks good English so I politely ask him to recline only halfway. I mean – we haven’t even had dinner yet! He looks at me like I came from another planet and says with annoyance, “but I have the right to put my seat back”. Yes I say in so many words – but – there isn’t much legroom and it would be polite if you didn’t. He looks at me, basically says F you without the F, and then fully reclines his seat back. His female partner gives my husband a break and pulls up a bit.
Maybe this guy actually paid extra for that seat in the 2 seat row ahead of ours. Maybe not. But his mother must have never taught him about consideration for others in a tightly packed world. Or maybe he was just born with the “entitled” gene like so many others of his generation.
Of course one can argue – and I do – that it’s really the airlines’ fault. They decided to extract every penny of revenue from their hapless passengers some years back. And of course it’s paid off royally with some of the best earnings in years in 2015 as they unapologetically kept every penny of the windfall from lower jet fuel prices instead of cutting ticket prices the way they raised them when oil went through the roof. And as they kept shrinking seat sizes and leg room over and over to squeeze another row or two of seats into the configuration. So shouldn’t the airlines also be cutting the recline angle drastically on that smaller seat back? When someone like the jerk in front of me fully reclines – he’s literally in my lap. Try eating when the food is hitting your waist! (He left his seat back ¾ reclined even during dinner!) I can’t even get up from the seat to go to the (very) nearby bathroom. And this is even with a few inches more legroom in these “premium” seats!
So OK you say. You didn’t pay extra for the seats, you’ll get home by midnight and life could be a lot worse. You are so right. But. Your rights (and those of the surly passenger in front of me) end where mine begin. Call it Apple against the FBI (before they dropped the case). When rights clash each person (or entity) has to give a little. That’s how most of us in democratic nations manage to live together without killing our neighbors.