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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 6:10 pm | Mostly Cloudy 51º


Susan Estrich: Airline Travel Etiquette Has Taken a Flying Leap

With frustrations soaring, passengers take to the skies on a wing and a prayer

The first time I ever got on an airplane — to fly to New York from Boston, around 1970 — I got all dressed up. Flying was a big deal. The airport was, I thought, one of the most glamorous places I’d ever been.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich

There were all kinds of problems on that first flight. But I was too inexperienced (or too young) to be the least bit scared and was way too impressed with everything to think of complaining.

I really hate sounding like an old timer, even if I am becoming one, but the truth is that not only did people used to “dress” to fly, but everyone was generally on good behavior. Someone might flirt with a flight attendant, but I never saw anyone berate one; I rarely saw bad behavior at the gates; I can’t remember a single screaming match at a ticket counter.

Much has changed for the better for the traveling public. Travel is cheaper, or at least it can be if you book in advance, stay over a Saturday and the rest. There are low-cost carriers like Southwest to keep everyone on their toes. Stewardesses are now flight attendants, and they don’t have to be young and female. No one dresses except business people with meetings to attend at the other end.

But courtesy? Forget it.

Of course, traveling is frustrating, especially this time of the year with the holidays: delayed flights; bad weather; overbooked planes; mechanical problems; the scarcity of back-up planes; bad food or no food, which makes you miss the bad food; $5 for that cookie; bag charges; more delays and missed connections; the seeming irrationality of who gets “taken care of” (the people who paid more for their ticket and who fly more on the airline) and who doesn’t when a flight is canceled; and all those screaming children in their strollers. No one would call any part of it glamorous.

But it doesn’t have to be ugly. The ugliness comes not from all the stuff we can’t control, but from the one thing we can: our own conduct.

There has been much written about the breakdown of civility in the heavily cloaked world of cyberspace. But there’s no hiding and no privacy at the airport, and the stunning thing is how many people don’t seem to care.

Travelers push in line, yelling at others who neither caused nor have the power to solve their travel problems. They refuse to cooperate when politely asked to exchange equivalent seats so that a family can sit together. (I used to tell my children to simply smile and say: “I’d be happy not to switch if you don’t mind helping me when I start projectile vomiting.”) They give the flight attendants a hard time when their favorite meal or snack selection is not available (a plane is not a traveling restaurant). And they generally behave like total boors.

It’s hard not to arrive frazzled when you’re traveling on the holidays. But over the years, I have learned a very valuable lesson: Getting aggravated makes it worse.

Very few people respond positively when confronted with someone behaving poorly. It is what it is. You can get mad and frustrated and angry and entitled, forgetting every bit of holiday spirit in a guerilla war to get there. Or you can keep calm, smile a lot, find a good book and figure you’ll get there when you get there.

Either way, you’ll almost certainly arrive at the same time. But in the former case, you arrive aggravated. In the latter, you land grateful to be there safe and sound. Really, that’s all we should dare to ask and hope for in holiday travel.

— Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.

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