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A Few Words on Flying United

During the medieval period, pilgrims journeyed their many wearying miles flagellating themselves in penance for sins imagined or real. To sustain themselves on their awful journey, they fed simply on what meager foods they could forage. Today, this is called flying economy.

My own period of self-flagellation began with booking my ticket for our flight from London to California and back...

Her: Hello! This is Marcie. Thank you for calling United and how may I help you today?

Me: I’d like to upgrade from economy.

Her: We don’t like to use the term “economy.” However, we could upgrade you from standard Double-Amputee Class to our slightly roomier Toulouse-Lautrec section for $100, or perhaps you’d prefer the plush Sunrise at Campobello service for $7000.

Me: Can I use my miles?

Her: Of course. Although certain restrictions apply.

Me: Such as?

Her: Blackout periods extend May through March, weekends, workdays, evenings, and travel to or from the Americas (North and South), as well as trips that overfly any land mass.

Me: OK, well I was hoping to use the 60,000 miles that I’ve earned by flying United for the past 20 years.

Her: Did you fly them yourself?

Me: Sorry?

Her: These miles are only redeemable if you personally piloted the craft. If someone else piloted the plane you were on, well, you can hardly expect to accrue credit for work performed by someone else.

And on it went.

In the end, I settled for the Tolouse option, also called “Economy Plus” (the “Plus” referring to the extra $100 United made off me). The last time I had this kind of seating, I got the extra legroom, but lost the extra seat width, because—surprise—the armrest was fixed in place, locked into a permanent down position purely out of a corporate need to convey to me that there was no way a passenger was going to get one up on them. However, I was smarter by now, and asked if I could raise the armrest to make the seating between Aline and me more comfortable. “Yes,” the operator kindly assured me, I could most definitely raise the armrest.

(By the way, Virgin Airlines has their own version of improved seating. When I flew them the previous month, I tried to get emergency exit row seating, as that has extra leg room and I’m more than willing to help passengers in an emergency by leaving the door open behind me after I’m the first one to flee the plane. But according to the brochure the helpful Virgin woman—sorry, I know how that sounds, but it really does refer to the corporation she works for—handed me, the airline charged $85 for the “extended legroom” and increased odds of survival.)

So what did an extra $100 per ticket on United buy me? It’s not that the legroom was greater, it’s that they didn’t shrink the legroom like they had in the rest of the economy class. OK, score one for United. Well, I thought to myself, at least I could raise the armrest so Aline and might share the space. But as I pulled it up, the armrest stuck at a 45-degree angle, exactly parallel with my ribcage as I reclined in the seat. The effect was to wedge the armrest between my ribs in much the same manner a surgical ribspreader does to provide access to one’s internal organs during open-heart surgery.

Thinking this must be a mistake, I flagged down a flight attendant. “Excuse me,” I said. “The armrest only goes back half way. Am I doing something wrong or is it broken?” (Naively thinking these were the only two possibilities.) “No,” she responded, her professional rictus smile hovering over me. “That’s the way they work. It’s unfortunate, but they were designed that way.” Do a lot of in-flight, open-heart surgery, do you? I thought. Instead I asked only, “In that case, could you bring me a pointed stick for my other side, to sort of even things out?”

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