"I'm not moving," said the guy who was sitting in my seat on the crowded plane.
He waved his boarding pass in my face. We had the same seat numbers. This was the second time in a year that had happened to me.Before I could say anything he berated me for having a "wrong" ticket, as if I had something to do with it.
Forget road rage. The real fury is in the air.
Passengers are squeezed into too-tight spaces, their knees are pressed against the backs of seats, flights are delayed and canceled, passengers are bumped, and there's not enough space for all the stuff they bring on board.
And tempers are flaring.
Good humor is even harder to find on the ground. After a flight was delayed for mechanical problems at Palm Beach International Airport, a cantankerous woman shrieked, "This is INSANE!!" every 10 minutes for an hour.
The rest of us were ready to escort her outside.
Passenger complaints to the U.S. Department of Transportation were 20 percent higher for 1997 than the year before, according to the Airline Quality Rating released last month by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Wichita State University in Kansas.
The dramatic increase in passenger complaints illustrates feelings of "aggravation" in passengers and indicates "the day of the passive consumer is past," said study co-author Brent Bowen.
My complaints against fellow passengers increased 100 percent. And, buddy, I'm aggravated.
I've traveled for more than a decade, and I've never seen a ruder, more belligerent bunch of folks than those in airplanes during the past 12 months.
There are two reasons for this, say airline spokesmen: Crowded planes and carry-ons with wheels.
One airline spokesman, who asked not be identified because talking about passengers is a "no-win" situation, said the crowded planes cause stress the same way sitting in traffic causes people to reach for their guns.
"You arrive late, and there's a long line at check-in and you're looking at the gate agents and you think they're not working fast enough. And then you can't get your aisle seat. You get on the plane and you have an attitude now. It's just human nature," the spokesman said.
And passengers don't understand that delays for weather and maintenance are in their best interest. "They don't recognize that in the heat of the moment."
"More people are flying and even more people will be flying in the future," confirms Kristina Price, spokeswoman for United Airlines.
In other words, you're going to be the one in the middle seat with your elbows pressed against your ribs for four hours. And those of you accustomed to getting the aisle seats will find that they were booked months ago.
Price also says there are a small group of people who are inexperienced fliers, drawn by extremely low airfares. They, along with experienced fliers who should know better, are the ones who try to bring onto a plane what they would normally put in a car trunk.
Which brings us to those carry-ons with wheels. They take up more space in the overhead compartments - they're way too big and inflexible to go under the seats - and are the No. 1 reason that the people who are last to board will find no space to put their bags.
They actually have to leave the plane and check their bag on the ramp, and by the time they go to their seats their blood pressure is dangerously high.
The unidentified spokesman suggested that you keep reminding yourself, "This is beyond my control, there's nothing I can do about it, life goes on."
And here's my message to all you unruly passengers:
Settle down right now! Sit quietly, and keep your hands in your laps!
We're all in the same boat, er, plane. We're all tired, sleep-deprived, hungry, and we, too, just want to hurry up and get there.
Want a smoother, more tranquil air trip? Here's my advice.
- Don't go to the airport tired and harried. Pack the night before. Get some sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Don't fight with your mate on the way to the airport. Strive for harmony and good cheer.
- Arrive at the airport early, at least an hour and a half before departure. Airlines tell you to show up an hour early, but you'll wait in line for 30 minutes at the check-in counter and end up running to the gate. And you'll be the one bumped off an overcrowded flight. Little known fact: You lose your assigned seat if you're not there 20 minutes ahead of time.
- Do not schedule connecting flights so you hit the ground running. Make sure your travel agent gives you plenty of time between flights, and assume your first flight will run late. Also, take into account that changing from domestic to international terminals takes time.
- Tell your travel agent where you want to sit, window or aisle, and reserve early. Don't make seat assignments at the last minute and then ask people on the plane to change seats so you can sit with your spouse. That really makes people mad. This has happened to me a half-dozen times lately - like I'm really going to change my window seat for a middle seat so some guy can sit with a woman he talks to all the time.
- Remember to eat when you're on the ground. Hungry people are cranky.
- It's ridiculous to expect good food on an airplane. You want great cuisine, go to a great restaurant. Airlines are not in the food business so be grateful for whatever they hand over. Pack something tasty, plus a bottle of water, in your carry-on.
- When faced with an angry and unreasonable fellow passenger, smile benignly and go back to reading your book or newspaper. Don't react, and don't get into an argument.
- If the person is drunk or way out of line, ask a flight attendant if you can move.