An Essay Written from a Window Seat in Economy Class on an Airplane Coming Home from a Reporting Trip
As with so many of these newsletters, this is just what popped out.
OK, but hear me out: what if we had a way for the person in the window seat to get up and pee without bothering their rowmates?
It's late. The cabin lights are dimmed. Aisle Guy is sleeping. Middle-Seat Lady is watching a movie and occasionally -- or maybe I'm imagining it -- glancing over here at what I'm writing. Hey lady: if you're reading this, your scarf is ugly. Also, mind your own damn business.
I sure showed her.
I have to pee.
OK, but. Idea: a sort of ladder-and-tunnel system. So. I am next to the window, in the left-most seat. To my right, able to drop down from the luggage compartment above me, would be a ladder. You climb the ladder from your seat, through a tunnel that goes through where the luggage compartment is right now.
And then when you come out the other side, there's a ladder that can drop down, and you climb down into the aisle and then wander off to pee. Then you come back, climb up the ladder, through the tunnel, and down into your seat.
PROBLEM #1, THOUGH: What about carry-on bags? Doesn't this mean way less carry-on space?
Fair question. I think that this means if you select a window seat, you have to choose between a tunnel and a carry-on. Another fun choice, and a revealing one! Are you a window or aisle person? If window, pee-tunnel or bag?
OK, "pee-tunnel" is an objectively gross phrase. "Tunnel" it is. How about "freedom tunnel"? Way better marketing. Hire me, American Airlines. We're sitting on a gold mine here.
I have to pee.
If I write "I have to pee" a few times, I'll find out if Middle Seat Lady is looking, because she'll see me writing that I have to pee and just get up of her own accord, right?
No, that would just be awkward on everyone's part.
PROBLEM #2A: Wouldn't this system present a liability for airlines? As in, couldn't/wouldn't people get hurt climbing on flimsy ladders in planes?
PROBLEM #2B: Consider that once you've gone through the little compartment — sorry, the Freedom Tunnel — you're now going down a ladder head-first, unless you do some real contorting.
In response, I refer you to the way exit rows are currently operated: the attendants ask you if you are willing to take on the responsibilities of being in an exit row and if you're not willing, or if you don't REALLY grasp what that means [raises hand], you're just up shit creek, aren't you, when the plane goes down?
Anyway, perhaps there could be something similar with ladder seats -- the attendant asks if you consider yourself particularly agile/athletic, OR if you have ample rope-ladder experience.
Also, there could be waivers. Yes. Waivers of some sort. This is how law works, right?
Danielle, your seat mates aren't monsters. Just tap Middle Seat Lady on the shoulder and ask to get out for a minute. She probably has to pee herself and just doesn't want to ask Aisle Sleeping Guy. You'll be doing her a favor. She'll be so grateful. She'll name her kids after you.
I should write my story. I should get my notes together and write this article while I still have all my interviews and notes fresh in mind.
OK, but wait. The Freedom Tunnel plan is also ableist and sizeist...maybe ageist? Would an 80-year-old ever want a ladder seat? Or am I being ageist now? And it just wouldn't work at all if you're pregnant. Bad for all sorts of people.
Then again, flying is al those things anyway, isn't it? Is my plan just enabling the shittiness of flying? Worsening it?
OK. Idea: What if you started an airline that was expressly about making flying not-suck? Speaking of goldmines! You'd make a shit-ton.
I mean, seriously. No one likes air travel. There's figuring out when to get to the airport. There's security theater -- no, sorry, you can't go stand in the two-hour Starbucks line, ma'am...you have to stand around at security so you can SHOW US YOUR CONTACT SOLUTION FIRST. There's the fact that somehow you can just pay money and fill out some forms (???) and you get a better security line, or pay a little more money (???) and you get a better, PRIVATIZED (???) security line. What even IS that? There's the chaotic, nonsensical order of who gets to board when. There's the lack of overhead space and pricey baggage fees and likelihood of your bag getting LOST if you do check it, all of which leads us to passive-aggressively fight each other to get onto the plane first and get that overhead space, because 80% of the plane is inevitably in Zone 6 for some reason, and half of those people have rollerbags. There’s the fact that you could be sitting on the tarmac for 10 minutes or 3 hours after the flight door is closed, and if it does somehow take 3 hours to take off, no one will explain WHY you're not taking off, you'll just get some bullshit explanation from the pilot about "de-icing" when it's, I don't know, 45 degrees outside and really, the pilot could just be eating a messy meatball sub and he doesn't want to get his controls all saucy and greasy and that's why you're sitting here so long -- who knows? Well, I tell you what, Skippy: you never will. You'll never know! You're just cattle. Loaded into the chute. Heading to God-knows-what: a flight to Reagan National, sure, or a bolt to the head. And the guy behind you is over 5'11" and is also a guy, meaning he feels entitled not only to bonk your seat, but to do it while sighing loudly and also as repeatedly as possible, because he's going to be as pissy as he wants, even if it will never change his (let's be honest, probably not THAT tall) height or the fact that your seat is NOT GOING TO MOVE. And then maybe there's an unruly passenger who won't wear a mask and follow the rules like everyone else, and yes, that person is an asshole, but also, my dear airlines, if you don't want flying to bring out the absolute worst in every single person on the planet, maybe make flying SUCK LESS DID YOU CONSIDER THAT.
What if there were an airline that made all seats first-class seats? But reasonably priced! Demand would be through the roof! And then because of all that demand, the airline would raise prices and oh shit hm.
I should just work on my story.
NEW IDEA: Run for Congress, governor, hell -- president -- on a platform of solving shitty, annoying, real-world grievances. ISSUE ONE ON THE PLATFORM: air travel.
I would VOTE AS MANY TIMES AS POSSIBLE FOR THAT CANDIDATE.
I bet I could hold it the rest of this flight. 70 minutes left? Sure. I don’t need the bathroom. I’m tough. I’m American. By God.
OK, so what do you promise to your constituents? A set amount of space for each passenger -- enough that being even slightly bigger than the median person won't make flying The Literal Worst. One free bag. A passengers' bill of rights...didn't they do that already?
Note to self: look that up. Write a story on what bullshit the passengers' bill of rights must have been.
POLITICAL PROBLEM 1: Regulation of any sort is going to get you immediate, huge opposition.
Your opponents would accuse you of being afraid of freedom. Of capitalism. And look: even if hatred of our current system of flying is bipartisan (and I mean, who doesn’t hate it?), you'd have the airline lobby coming up with all the talking points against you.
You'd get accused of being a socialist. Of hating business people. After all, there's some mom-and-pop Main Street airline out there waiting for its chance, and all those regulations are going to stand in the way of Buford's Down-Home Airways in Ledyard, Iowa (pop. 121), from being the next big thing. Why do you hate small-business-owners, huh? Why do you hate America?
POLITICAL PROBLEM 2: OK this isn't the most important problem in the world, is it? There's Ukraine. Gun violence. Inequality. Medical debt. Shouldn't a president focus on that?
OK. Yes. You have positions on those things, you do everything you can on the foreign policy stage to help your allies. But when it comes to domestic policy, are you going to overhaul the healthcare system, realistically? Are you going to be able to alleviate inequality? Or are you going to do something concrete and doable, like overhauling the entire airli- ok no this wouldn’t work.
OK, but wait a minute. Seriously: you as a candidate come in and say, "Look. There are big problems. But we can help people RIGHT NOW. We can all come together over something we hate. And don't you hate flying? I sure do!" And then the American people hoist you on their shoulders and chant "USA! USA!" and carry you off to fame and fortune and 8 years in the White House. Best president ever!
Have I simply put myself in the 1990s screenwriter headspace, where I think an effective politician is purely about being plainspoken and relatable? The way that Kevin Kline could march into the White House and with good old-fashioned horse sense (and a grouchy accountant played by Charles Grodin) whip the government into shape AND seduce a prickly Sigourney Weaver?
I mean, those sorts of movies taught us that voters want someone they can relate to! Someone who comes from OUTSIDE the swamp and wanders in and WON'T LET FRANK LANGELLA TELL HIM WHAT TO DO and instead follows his conscience, even if the American people have no idea what exactly that conscience is telling him because it turns out, they didn't elect him and they have no idea that some rando is president now and ok hold on. Dave was a monster.
Anyway. Remember when a down-and-out Candidate Warren Beatty said what was *really* on his mind and started a revolution? Americans do want someone who's aspirational, yes, but who "tells it like it is" and doesn't care what people think, who complains about petty everyday problems like airlines, yes, but also low-flow toilets and says outlandish things that a sizable segment of Americans agree with and oh holy shit is Donald Trump somehow a bizarro Bulworth?
Note to self: if no one else has had this take, time for ANOTHER ESSAY after this. [Note after the fact: I checked and yes the Bulworth thing has been written about, numerous times, but I want it preserved for the record that I *got there on my own* and that counts for something. I’m not sure what, but something.] [Also, links are not endorsements of particular views ok.]
I really do think I could get up and like do a crouching walk thing -- step on me and Middle-Seat-Lady's armrest, then the sleeping guy and Middle Seat Lady's armrest, just step over both people, and drop into the aisle. That would work.
POLITICAL PROBLEM 3: OK. So you run for president with improving the flying experience as your number-one priority. But...seriously: isn't this elitist? Think of how many people have never been on a plane. Or who fly like once in their lifetimes. Or once every few years. Isn't this whole issue mainly catering to fancypants frequent travelers like, oh, I dunno, political reporters? Wouldn't someone like Bernie Sanders take dead aim at you, and wouldn't he be right?
Okay, but again, back to the tactic of saying that you're just STARTING with airlines. Maybe the play is to say "OK -- today, airlines. Tomorrow, the important stuff."
The airline stuff is just to get people on board! And the people to get on board first are the upper-middle-class who fly a lot -- and, crucially, vote and donate a lot -- right?
Yeah. OK. So you make sure you have those people on board by making sure there are policies upper-middle-class people like, like tax breaks on their mortgages and also just tax breaks in general, like for investment income and also for people in high-tax states...
[bangs head on tray table]
[crickets, depressed silence]
Fuck it ok fine I am going to go pee but I will NOT be running for president. Sorry, America.
LINKS! LINKS! (to my reporting)
An interview with the great Robert Putnam (a.k.a. Mr. Bowling Alone) about America’s ongoing dearth of social capital. If this conversation doesn’t make you want to go out and join a club/church/any sort of in-person-gathering-group, I worry for your soul.
A dispatch from a (freezing-ass-cold) Trump rally. Are we gearing up for 2024 already? Oh you bet your ass.
The Dropout is good and also very stressful. And I talked to Pop Culture Happy Hour about it.
Trump is making his whole life these days about revenge against Republicans he doesn’t like.
Margaret Atwood on The Ezra Klein Show — Oh my God just a fascinating conversation about feminism and technology and religion. I can’t usually make it through an hour-plus of interview but this is an exception.
The Tragedy of Macbeth — I’m so angry I didn’t see this earlier so I could root for it on Oscar night (and be pissed that it didn’t win more awards). It’s beautifully shot, Denzel and Frances do Shakespearean English impeccably and naturally, and the woman who plays the witches is outrageously good.
Severance — I have not looked forward to a show each week this much since Lost.
Under the Banner of Heaven — Finally got around to this book. Listening to it now. Disturbing and informative and well-written and also, I have no idea how they’re going to make this into a dang TV show.
Are these recommendations super-basic? I don’t care.