On holiday travel, bad behavior and good airline employees

The woman, who was both tall and imposing, stood next to me where I sat, my two braced knees straightened out to touch the bulkhead. She was pissed. Her husband was gesturing angrily at the two flight attendants standing next to me. One of their four children, a toddler of perhaps three, screwed up her face in preparation for a hearty scream. The Ethiopian family was demanding that I get the hell out of my aisle seat and let them line up along the bulkhead.

The attendants were having none of it.

The bulkhead, as most travelers know, is prime space. You can stretch your legs out a bit. However it’s also where people with infants travel, which is the down side, so you have to have headphones. Good ones.

Some weeks prior, I had paid extra for this seat in advance via the Lufthansa website. I have two letters from my doctors explaining why I need bulkhead space. Too many injuries to my back, my knees and my noggin mean that any other seat leads to a screaming migraine attack. I am happy to pay the extra. Sometimes airlines let you, sometimes not. This was a night flight, and I needed the zzzs. It was almost one am and I’d been up since 3 am the morning before.

Lufthansa had a minor fee, I paid it, got on early (because I am covered with neoprene braces and walk funny when I fly). I had been sitting for a few minutes when the flight from Addis Ababa to Frankfurt began to fill, and the trouble began.

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The female attendant kept explaining as pleasantly as she could that I had paid for the seat some weeks before and that I wasn’t going to be moved. Things got heated. I touched her wrist and said, quietly,

You’re welcome to move me anywhere, as long as I can stretch out my legs. I don’t mind a bit.”

She registered this, nodded, but kept arguing with the family. They were told to find seats a little farther back. This was a very late night flight, with plenty of open seats (note to self, always book a midnight flight). But they were intractable. They wanted my seat. Demanded my seat. Woman HAS TO MOVE. It was starting to get nasty.

Please. Feel free to put me where you need to. It’s perfectly all right.”

I repeated my offer to the attendant. She disappeared. The child next to me launched into her scream. Not even my noise-cancelling headphones could handle that. Her mother radiated hostility. I could feel the beginnings of a migraine aura.


Seconds later, the senior attendant from first class was standing at my shoulder. He leaned over, and in his heavily-accented German, said,

“Please come with me. We have a seat for you in Business Class.”

I know my eyes got big. That shit does not happen to me on international flights.

He smiled as he touched my shoulder.

You’re one of the good ones.

I was gobsmacked, to say the least, but not one to argue with a Very Good Thing.

Another attendant helped me haul my backpack out of the overhead compartment. I was walked to the front, two rows behind First Class.

Here’s how you know you’re in a classy section. The American couple in front of me noticed my braces. Their first question was whether or not the wife’s seat would be too close to my knees when she slept. Not up here it wasn’t.

Two more of the “good ones.”

People who are woke. Aware of others’ needs. Happy to accommodate if you’re a gimp. Dear god I love traveling with people who really do know how to travel. Jackpot jackpot jackpot.

The attendants made sure I had everything I needed, and reminded me that I was welcome to move anywhere in Business Class I wished.

Note to self: Book midnight flights. On Lufthansa.

I don’t have the funds to regularly fly business class. And as I have learned (most especially on United, which has really gone to the toilet in this regard) you can pay upwards of $350 for a better seat in Economy and what that gets you is one half of one additional inch of seat retraction.

One half of one inch. For $350.

That’s not one of the “good ones.”

Those who travel a lot like I do can attest. Unless you pay a lot more for most American airlines, flights are an endurance routine, from which it takes several days to recover. Out of your expensive vacay, by the way. These days I plan an extra two or three days at both ends simply because the experience has gotten worse.

But not on Lufthansa.

As I was watching, one of the attendants assisted one Ethiopian woman to her seat. She was dressed in the flowing white robes that are the traditional garb. Her body was twisted, her walk exaggerated and awkward. The man was holding both her hands very gently, walking backwards, helping her navigate the narrow aisle. It was a thing of beauty.

Later, I told him so. He beamed, a virtual Christmas tree.

Photo by Nick Herasimenka on Unsplash

Over the course of my life I have likely racked up at least 1.5 million flight miles, albeit on different airlines. Almost 700k on United, although that no longer gets me anything. Paying WAY too much money, flying first class and other demands might get me peanuts and a bad meal. If I want good airlines, I increasingly have to head overseas, to their partners, where I am guaranteed to have a different experience. Some better, some worse.

Holiday travel exacerbates the experience if for no other reason than people bring four times what’s allowed, hog the overheads, and their IQs drop forty points as soon as they come on board. Add to that so many folks who have never flown before, have no sense of their responsibility to other passengers, and who have unfortunate hygiene habits. The crowds, the short tempers, people who want more than they paid for, and demand benefits that are no longer available to much of anyone except in first class. Weather or service related flight delays, cancelled flights and pissed off passengers who rail at what the cannot control. It’s exhausting.

Even more so for those who have to serve us.

There are times that international travel for me is a pretty terrible experience. I had a simply awful migraine attack in the middle of the Bangkok airport, the result of a bad seat and no way to stretch out my body. It was 2015. The extremely loud announcements caused me to scream in agony as I lay on the ground in a fetal position. I couldn’t even sit up I was in such terrible pain. You can’t make this stuff up.

I only vaguely recall some attendant hurtling towards me with a wheelchair, and being delivered to the medical facilities, where they administered enough medicine to placate a 2000-lb steer. Unless you have had migraines like this, you can’t relate. You really do just want to die. Those good folks fixed me up, the pain got under control. I took a quick, blessed, drug-induced nap .Then they strapped me into another wheelchair, and another attendant ran me full tilt like a NASCAR race to my next flight. That I do remember because there were some near-misses along the way, people and kids leaping out of our way, the medical facilities being one hell of a long way from my gate. I actually laughed. That was a very good thing.

As a Buddhist might say, you can’t appreciate non-headache until you have a headache. I fucking appreciate non-headache.

That flight was the last one that I took a seat in steerage without being able to recline or stretch out my legs. Thank god most airlines are amenable to such requests.

Photo by Korkiat Novmcharoen on Unsplash

That night I made it to Tokyo’s Narita airport. That was the last year that their United Mileage Plus club still had a couch. I slept soundly for hours, and woke refreshed enough to manage the flight home.

United has even cut corners at their high end clubs, where those of us who really, really need to put our faces into a pillow now can’t. I don’t like United much. But I sure like their partner airlines.

For those of us who regularly subject ourselves to the rigors and insults of international travel, and especially if we have to choose steerage because our budgets don’t support luxury, what there is of it, it has gotten epic indeed.

Photo by Benjamin Voros on Unsplash

I’ve seen many articles on how to travel on Medium. I might just offer this: I’ve been flying since O’Hare was first under construction. I popped my flight cherry by vomiting into my mother’s very well-dressed lap on our way to visit relatives in Wisconsin. While that wasn’t a portentous beginning, I have made up for it. I’ve warmed airline seats (and flown my share of planes on my own) since I was an adolescent. In just a few weeks, I’m off to Africa again.

If I have learned anything about flight, and holiday flight in particular, and international holiday flights most especially, it’s that flight attendants hold your future comfort in their hands. Be rude, and I guarantee you at some point your attendant bell gets ignored or someone forgets your coffee. Be rude and abusive and whatever special treatment you are demanding will likely be given to someone nicer to you, or if you paid for it, there will be other ways you will pay for being a shitheel.

But if you are sensitive to the needs of other passengers, respect the pressure the attendants are under, and are happy to do what you can to defuse an awkward situation (and they happen often), then you might just find yourself sipping a brandy in Business Class, courtesy your flight crew.

Because you are indeed, one of the good ones.

Photo by Mourad Saadi on Unsplash