News that several major airlines are matching bargain-basement carriers with stripped-down fares of their own has me stuck in the middle.
The more I fly, the more I realize that I may never again have the window or aisle seat. It’s my own fault, really. I’m cheap. I procrastinate.
But, unlike Businessman With Spreadsheet to my left, and Skullcandied millennial zonked out cheek-to-glass at the window, I like the middle seat. Very much.
This places me, apparently, in a group of people who could all fit together in an airplane bathroom. And what a noisy place it would be. My highly unscientific yet highly probable research suggests that middle seaters by choice are extroverts who like to chat and maybe meet our new best friends. Why limit our chance to make one new friend when a middle seat offers us an opportunity to make two?
This probably was not the reaction of most fliers to news that legacy lines including American, Delta and United are creating no-frills fares to compete with the likes of Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant.
Now, there’s first class, business class, premium economy, regular economy and basic economy, notes airfarewatchdog.com. The latter option pretty much means bye-bye to overhead bins, the option to change or cancel a flight and the benefit of advance seat selection.
In other words, more of you will be joining me in the middle.
And while I know you would rather be strapped to the wing than fight for the armrest, you will survive this interpersonal turbulence.
“The days of empty middle seats are long gone,” said Suzanne Balzer, a Minneapolis-based staff negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
“The frequent fliers are going to get in there. … They’re getting the exit rows with extra legroom. They’re picking up aisles and windows. If you’re a leisure traveler or infrequent traveler, you’re going to be in a middle seat.
“Just try to survive.”
A flight attendant for 22 years, Balzer knows all about middle-seat aversion.
“You watch people in the middle looking at empty seats until the door closes,” she said. “Then, it’s a race for the aisle or window. They’re ready to pounce.”
She doesn’t mind sitting in the middle seat with family members on each side, “but God help you if you’re stuck between two people who know each other and talk around you.”
The middle seat issue isn’t limited to airplanes. Seating is now scarcer in airport waiting areas, too, which makes doubly frustrating those travelers who place a purse, coat or small bag on the seat next to them, which is pretty much everybody.
You will see the same phenomenon on buses and trains.
“Seat. Empty. Seat. Empty,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a Chicago-based web developer and regular traveler who focuses on cultural differences. He takes a metro train to work every day and regularly watches fellow riders place a bag between themselves and their neighbor.
“They don’t feel comfortable touching people.”
At least, Americans don’t seem to feel comfortable. A handbook produced for international students coming to the United States is enlightening — and humbling.
“Americans tend to require more personal space than in other cultures,” explains the International Student Guide to the United States of America.
“If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to avoid physical contact while you are speaking, since this may lead to discomfort. Touching is a bit too intimate for casual acquaintances. Don’t put your arm around their shoulder, touch their face, or hold their hand.”
And, for heaven’s sake, don’t touch their pop can.
Kantrowitz will sit in a middle seat, but typically only if it is much closer to the door of the plane than an aisle or window seat, “simply to get off the plane quicker.”
And he’ll choose a middle seat over a seat near the lavatory “because of the smell.”
He believes that middle-seat malaise could be remedied if airlines would just make them bigger, as Denver-based Molon Labe Designs has done. The company (molonlabedesigns.com) created the Side-Slip, which allows the aisle seat to “slip” sideways over the middle seat during boarding. That middle seat is 3 inches wider than the aisle or window — 21 inches vs. 18 inches — and comes with dedicated armrests.
It also comes with a promise from its creator that perhaps isn’t as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds:
“The middle seat could one day turn into the most coveted spot on the flight.”
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Middle-seat survival strategies
If you’re stuck in the middle seat, use these survival tips from veteran flight attendant Suzanne Balzer:
• Get out everything you need before you fasten your seatbelt, such as a book or magazine. Put it in your seat pocket.
• Don’t expect to work on your laptop. The guy in front of you is invariably going to recline.
• Bribe the person next to you with a drink to use his or her armrest.
• Get lost in a streaming site. Make sure you’re wearing earbuds, “the universal sign of ‘Stay away from me.’ ”