An uncounted number of stand-up comedians have worked the quirks and foibles of air travel into their routines at least once in their career, for the simple reason that it's a universal experience that no one has less than a strong opinion about. The old saying about how God would have given men wings if he had been meant to fly encapsulates the concept that the sky will never be our natural home -- why else would we have to design and build these garish winged steel cylinders to take us above the clouds?
It seems too, of late, that austerity has conspired to make the experience as miserable as possible for the vast majority of passengers. We cringe at stories of airlines reducing leg room so they can cram in more rows of seats. Advertising to the contrary, getting there isn't half the fun, it's something you endure.
But we passengers make it worse for ourselves.
There are a few things that could be adjusted to make the trip moderately more enjoyable, and none of them require the airline doing a blessed thing. It's just a question of some additional personal responsibility:
Pre-boarding. When the gate attendant advises that passengers with small children or those requiring special assistance in getting onboard the aircraft can come up first, why does it seem like every single damn other person in the departure lounge assumes they can as well? Unless you are carrying three screaming terrors or are so elderly you can barely stand, wait for your turn. What perplexes me most is that there's no prize for boarding first. You don't get to leave earlier, and you certainly don't get a lapdance from the stewardess or even an extra bag of peanuts. You are trading in a precious few more minutes in the wide open lounge with its ready access to expansive, clean washrooms for the claustrophobia of the passenger cabin and the smelly steamer-trunk sized toilet. Just chill and stand up when they call you.
The "fresh air vents" above the seats. I have opened these exactly twice during my history of air travel. Both times I have come down with horrendous hacking coughs and colds. The problem is that when the outside temperature up above the clouds is about -40, real "fresh air" would freeze the plane. So the dirty secret -- pun intended -- is that this so-called fresh air is just recycled cabin air, which means you're inhaling every filthy little germ that has had the temerity to sneak through security to make the journey with you. You are basically asking to get sick by opening these things. If you don't know the person you're sitting next to, do them a solid and keep your vent closed, no matter how much you want to feel any semblance of breeze on your face. Their lungs will thank you, and so will yours.
On the subject of germs, personal hygiene. I don't care if you think you're one of those people who can get away with bathing every other day. You're about to inflict your natural odor on dozens of strangers who, stunningly enough, won't find it as sexy as you think your partner does. When you know you're going to be flying within the next six hours, please, shower, slap on that Speed Stick and keep your arms at your sides at all times.
Reclining seats. I have noted above the progressive decrease in the amount of leg room available on each flight, and while you at five-foot-two may see nothing wrong with kicking back after the seatbelt sign has been turned off, the gentleman behind you who exceeds six feet (e.g. me) doesn't relish feeling like the proverbial sardine for the next three and a half hours. The very least you can do is ask. I might be in a good mood and have absolutely no problem with it. But if you just arbitrarily decide to force your seat back into my face without asking, I reserve the right to shove it back upright with equal discourtesy, and you shouldn't act shocked. And let's be honest, these aren't exactly La-Z-Boys -- the amount of extra comfort you'll achieve by reclining those three entire inches is infinitesimal at best, particularly when it compares to my level of frustration at having your seat back under my nose for the whole flight. Stay vertical and keep the peace.
Freaking out audibly at every little bump. It can be a little unnerving, but let's try to accept that air is constantly changing and the same forces that give us the rain we need to grow things for us to eat and keep our lawns green are what cause our planes to rattle around sometimes. There are thousands of flights all over the world every single day and the media's propensity to hype the hell out of the exceedingly rare one that goes wrong has led average people to believe that they have something like a one in three chance of actually surviving a flight through rough weather. The airline has nothing to gain by killing two hundred of its customers, so they don't fly through this stuff if they don't think they can make it. Just pretend you're on a roller coaster.
Clapping when the flight lands. I get that it's ostensibly a way to thank the pilots, but the clapping always sounds like it's less out of gratitude and more out of white-knuckled relief, like it's somehow a God-ordained miracle that the plane arrived safely, and the same thing didn't actually happen twelve hundred more times across the world that very same day. I know this isn't likely to change, but while we're on the subject of the end of the flight, can we perhaps not all jump up at once the instant the seatbelt sign is off and perhaps just file out in a little more orderly fashion -- again, recognizing that between Customs and the wait for your bags you still won't get out of the airport any faster?
Complaining and acting as though the airline has engaged in a massive conspiracy specifically to screw you. We are all in the same flying metal tube of doom, brah, and what's happening to you is happening to all of us. I was flying home from Calgary once and what was meant to be a short stop in Edmonton turned into a two-hour stay on the tarmac while a thunderstorm moved overhead (ground crews aren't allowed out if there's risk of lightning). While we sat there, hot, frustrated and increasingly impatient, the drunken idiot next to me felt it necessary, every five minutes or so, to exclaim with great erudition and wit, "Get this f--in' thing in the air!" Hearing this, the pilots sprang to action and revved up the engine and -- well, no, they didn't do anything other than continue to wait for safety clearance, as they would have had this dope remained silent. The only difference would have been a much calmer, more congenial atmosphere in the cabin, manna for some very tired and upset passengers. You're not being funny, or any kind of hero by expressing aloud what we might be thinking. You're just being a jerk.
So there you have it: seven easy tips that will cost you absolutely nothing, require the airline crew to expend zero effort and may result in a much more pleasant trip for all involved. What the airlines themselves can do to ameliorate the trip is a much longer list and is more of a pipe dream in terms of it possibly happening in my lifetime. But there is one thing: during the safety presentation, I think we can agree that at this point we all basically understand the general principles of how to operate a seatbelt, right?