Fear and Loathing at 35,000 Feet

I originally wrote this in 1995 and just remembered it a couple of days ago.  If you’ve ever been trapped on a flight with a screaming child, I think you will appreciate this.

Fear and Loathing at 35,000 feet
© July 7, 1995 Warren P. Harris


What do the majority of us fear most about flying? If I were to pose this question to you right now, your answer would probably be something to the effect of “Crashing, of course.” Not a very surprising response, as most people aren’t exactly wild about hurtling to their death from 35,000 feet. But take a moment to consider that answer…

At least if the plane crashes (pretty rare in the overall scheme of things), your “pain and suffering” will most likely be brief – perhaps even pain-free (I haven’t found anyone available to verify this one way or the other). But consider a trans-continental flight with a screaming infant a mere 4 rows away (fairly common). Ah – now what would your answer be? Different, perhaps? Let me relate a personal experience regarding this delightful topic.

On July 5, 1995, my wife and I boarded Continental flight 231 departing Newark, NJ for San Francisco, CA (a 5 1/2 hour flight). We were seated in row 30 of a 35 row Boeing 757, so we were among the first to board. Unfortunately so was a squalling infant accompanied by the requisite two parents. Now when I say “squalling”, I’m not referring to sporadic crying punctuated with bits of whimpering. No sir – this was a full-blown non-stop (just like the flight) screaming fit that lasted from the onset of boarding (approximately 7:40PM EDT) until at least 9:30PM. More than one passenger behind us was heard to shout “Shut up!” in the midst of the onslaught, but when an infant is uncomfortable all the carefully-worded rhetoric in the world will not deter them from their attempts to convey their abject misery in hopes of some relief. Relief – that’s what I could have used about then!

As a matter of course, I always travel with a portable CD player, headphones, an assortment of CDs and plenty of extra batteries Don’t you just hate it when your batteries go out halfway into the flight? OK, so that’s great for me, but what about everyone else who is being mercilessly pummeled with the rough equivalent of a 90db version of fingernails being scraped across a blackboard? My wife, for instance, having left her walkman in our luggage, was being relentlessly bombarded with a screech-fest that had all the earmarks of being eternal – an experience that would drive even Mother Theresa to thoughts of euthanasia. A solution came to mind when the in-flight movie was announced and mention was made of the $4.00 headphone rental for purposes of actually hearing the movie (an improvement over lip-reading): Wouldn’t it be reasonable (remember that term) for the airline to supply headphones free of charge to anyone in the last 10 rows requesting them? What a concept! Remember, they’re only loaning you these quality monaural headphones for the duration of the flight.

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time… We figured “what the heck?” My wife, on the verge of developing a permanent nervous tick, decided to give it a shot. We pressed the Attendant Call button, waited approximately five minutes for a response, and finally the Flight Attendant (FA) came by, peddling her headphones. When my wife mentioned that the din was unbearable and would they consider supplying a complimentary pair of headphones to drown out the cacophony, the FA brusquely responded that they “can’t discriminate against other passengers”. We collectively conveyed that we weren’t requesting discrimination – just headphones. We were informed that there was no way they would accommodate us. We requested to speak with the Flight Supervisor Manager (FSM) and were told she would get around to us as soon as she could. Another five minutes or so of ear-splitting screaming crawled by before yet another FA arrived, this time to bring my meal (an advantage of being a vegetarian is that you’re generally served first). We asked her when the FSM was going to talk to us. Her response was “Oh, you’re that lady. She’ll be back as soon as she can.” We pointed out that the problem was far from resolved and we were a lot less than comfortable. We got the anti-discrimination speech again. Again we attempted to explain in plain English our position – to no avail.

An eternity seemed to pass (probably only around 10 minutes) before the second FA sidled up accompanied by the FSM, who proceeded to inform us yet again of the anti-discrimination policy. About now we’re just a bit tired of this anti-discrimination mantra and say so in no uncertain terms. We even re-explain our position (in so many different ways that I actually lose count of the variations) in an attempt to communicate that all we want is a cheap pair of “loaner” headphones – gratis. We don’t want the offending family unceremoniously booted off the airplane at 35,000 feet (not that the thought didn’t cross my mind). We have this delightful exchange regarding the care-and-feeding of babies and how unpredictable they can be, blah, blah, blah… I inform her that I’ve raised two children to adulthood (one is at San Francisco State) and really don’t need an explanation on the subject. She tells us the best she can do is relocate my wife to an empty seat at the front of the aircraft – not acceptable – we want to travel together (is this getting too convoluted yet?) and we’ve paid $400 each to be subjected to the rough equivalent of slow torture. Call me weird, but that’s something I’ve yet to develop a taste for.

No deal. No dice. No concession. No way. No PR. No customer service. No headphones.

Considering the copious quantities of saccharine drivel Continental continually trowels out in their sappy videos and propaganda regarding how much “they care” and want your “flying experience” to be just wonderful. And considering how they even go to the trouble to include post-paid comment cards in their in-flight magazine so you can tell Gordon Bethune (President/CEO Continental Airlines) how to “re-invent an airline”, you would think their customer service would be exemplary. You’d be wrong.

Now in all fairness we were only subjected to probably two hours (out of six) of non-stop auditory abuse. It could have been worse – four hours worse, but how many people would opt for two hours of dental work without benefit of anesthesia? After thirty minutes of this kid’s screeching I was more than ready to opt for medication for the child – or myself. At this point I really didn’t care who was medicated! The sound pressure level coming out of this tiny package (read infant) was truly amazing – actually overshadowing the 84db+ (actual specs range from 81db to 86db) produced by two Rolls-Royce RB211-535E4B jet engines producing 44,100 pounds of thrust each – pretty impressive. Pretty painful too.

Interestingly enough, after our encounters with the FA / FSM squad, several of our fellow beleaguered travelers came over to voice their support. As far as we know, most of them filled out the “re-invent the airline” cards with accounts of their experience. One gentleman from Pennsylvania en route to Alaska said his experiences with Continental prior to the shriek-attack were so negative that he was writing a letter to the New York Times on the subject. This certainly didn’t improve his Continental Experience.

At 10:45PM EDT the FSM actually came by to offer a complimentary drink. Hmmm… NOW they’re willing to give us liquor (roughly the same price as those headphones I mentioned earlier) – I suppose they figure if we’re drunk we won’t notice how bad the service is – Wrong! We politely declined (my interest in “medication” had passed), as the yowling had abated for the time being and I was already two pages into this article. 11:15PM rolled around and here comes the FSM to let us know we’ll be met at the gate by a Ground Supervisor (oh, joy! – all I want to do is go home). We said “thanks”; I continued to write; my wife continued to read; the baby slept.

As soon as we were on the ground the Ground Supervisor was on us like a chicken on a June bug. She immediately went into her anti-discrimination mantra. Having heard it just a few too many times already, we brought that to an immediate halt – and once again attempted to explain our simple position: We only wanted to be provided with complimentary “loaner” headphones (like everyone else, we’d give them back – honest) to drown out the wailing that was turning our otherwise peaceful flight into a 500mph inescapable hell. She just couldn’t wrap her mind around the concept. None of the rest of them could, so we probably would have been foolish to expect anything different at this point – and we’re no fools (generally speaking). Not really being interested in trying to resolve something that was no longer an issue, we cut the discussion short so we could just call it a night. It had been a long flight, and while I really enjoy flying, I’m not thrilled about trudging around an airport any longer than absolutely necessary.

For the record, the rest of the trip was pretty quiet with the exception of short bursts from our minuscule cabin-mate between 1:00AM and 1:30AM. Not too bad from Illinois to California all things considered.

However… All of this grief could have been mitigated in any one of several ways.

First, the parents could have anticipated the trials and tribulations of traveling with an infant and administered some Dramamine syrup, which is non-prescription, safe according to our Pediatrician, prevents motion sickness and promotes sleep – or maybe that’s too easy.

Second, Continental could have simply announced that complimentary headsets would be provided to any passenger in the last 10 rows who was interested. Considering the cost of the plane tickets ($400.00 each) and the rental cost of the headphones ($4.00), it’s only a 1% concession on Continental’s part which will hardly “break” them.

Third, and perhaps the best solution, Continental could order their planes constructed in such a fashion that perhaps two or three rows of seats are physically isolated from the rest of the seats (at the rear) and reserved for families with small children. This would give the rest of the passengers a break from any crying (or foul odors) and ensure that these families have quick access to the lavatories for purposes of diaper changing, etc. But that probably makes too much sense – and then when would the FAs get to practice their mantra?

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