03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Wassup In The Air?

No Perk Too Small for Top Fliers

'Tis the season to be jolly, right? Not if you're flying coach. I'm breaking from Wall Street's headlines to discuss holiday travel, an experience that generates equal parts zeal and dread. How many times have you hustled through airport security, stuffed your bags somewhere in the cabin, and sunk into your seat only to suffer the living purgatory of a long flight?

You know what I mean: somebody with HDD--Hygiene Deficit Disorder--lopping over the adjacent seat; snippy attendants who've been standing eight hours too long; or food that would make your dog wince. In the spirit of these holidays, I'm offering readers a gift. It's my personal technique for combating those forward seats that recline into your face. All it takes are a couple of C-clamps.

Airline Survival Tip #1

Let me set the stage. I fly coach, not the coach-plus class that bills for five extra inches of legroom, just cattle-car coach. At the rates I pay, no airline has ever super-sized my space. And it's always the cross-country flight where some gigantosaurus tilts back, burrows deep into the seat, and wedges a fifteen-inch Apple computer up my nostrils for five hours.

It beats me why airlines bother with food. I can't eat with a drop-down tray crammed halfway through my diaphragm. And as far as the bathroom goes, forgetaboutit. Even contortionists don't have the dexterity to limbo out the row when the passenger up front reclines all the way back.

"Every limbo boy and girl,

All around the limbo world,

Gonna do the limbo rock,

All around the limbo clock."

During a flight from New York to Wichita, I once suffered perhaps the mother of all ewwh moments. The tall, balding man in the forward seat leaned back, way back, back far enough for me to count the hairs on his scalp, back far enough for him to flake dandruff onto my tray. I'm talking a nor'easter-sized skin blizzard violating my body space. Gross. I had hours to consider the problem and finally decided:

I can't take it any more.

When it comes to spatial matters, I'm hopeless. But necessity is the mother of invention. And here's how two c-clamps can help: lower the drop-down table after the plane takes off. Then clamp the tray rails as far down as possible, one on either side. The sides of the c-clamps block the seat from pivoting backwards. There you have it. Gigantosaurus is stuck in forward.

Maybe 'tis the season to confess. There's a dark satisfaction in watching the forward passenger struggle to recline. It's the kind of moment that would make Abby Hoffman proud. Or Thoreau. It's like great and glorious vengeance over callous airlines that engineer their seats for maximum discomfort. Those feel-good-about-flying scenes in Up in the Air are nonsense. Sometimes I feel like it's "up yours in the air."

Civil disobedience always carries risks, and my technique is no exception. Let's start with security. I've never seen c-clamps on the list of prohibited items. Two 1.5-inch clamps make it through every time. But if security balks, I'd turn them over in a heartbeat. It's a five-dollar loss and the cost of doing business.

There's also the risk of getting caught. What happens when the guy in the forward seat pushes the call button and the steward discovers the clamps? Talk about an embarrassing moment. That passenger is entitled to the space up front. It's included in the price of the ticket. C-clamps invite a confrontation, where everybody in the cabin turns and stares and thinks: what a jerk.

Oh well, so much for my Christmas gift. But you know, I'm sick of all the hype coming from the airlines. Video clips of Up in the Air don't make flying any better. And for that matter, who cares about Boeing's new Dreamliner if it's a sardine can? I'd be happy with a decent seat. Maybe you have some ideas for how to cope with Christmas travel.

What are your tips for braving the air?

Happy Holidays.

Norb Vonnegut