Golden rule helps make flying better than ever

Regard for others, lower expectations improves once dismal travel mode

Airplanes aren't known as incubators of our better selves.

In their cramped spaces, a heart is not always stirred to selflessness.

Hey. Get off my arm rest. And, hey, it's a free country. I can ram my seat all the way back if I want to.

The strong do not always feel summoned to help the weak.

That's right, little lady, I'm gonna stand here and watch you struggle to get your suitcase out of that overhead bin. Whoa! Glad it hit your head, not mine.

Patience? In an airplane, it can feel more like defeat than virtue.

Might as well suck calmly on those free ice cubes, sister, because that's all there is.

Given how stressful flying can be, I was surprised by something that happened on a flight I took a couple of days ago, a small thing that made me recognize that, contrary to its reputation, flying has gotten better.

I was sitting in Row 16 by the window. A woman sat down next to the aisle. The dreaded middle seat lay empty.

"Can I squeeze in?" a man said.

The woman on the aisle glanced up. Big guy.

"I'll just move over," she said.

The man looked confused.

"Excuse me?"

"I'll take the middle seat," she said, scooting into it, and patting the aisle seat the way you might let a pet know it was OK to sit.

"Really," she said. "I don't mind."

He thanked her profusely — her act was the equivalent of trading a silk blouse for a hair shirt — and we rode in harmony for the next three hours and 55 minutes.

However anomalous the woman's sacrifice may have been, it made me recognize that in all sorts of ways air travel has improved.

It's certainly safer, despite the fact that the media still cover airplane crashes as if they were major earthquakes.

The recent crash at San Francisco International Airport, which killed two people, was terrible. But it was a rare event and less deadly than such a crash once would have been.

Only a decade ago, according to statistics gathered by The Associated Press, passengers were 10 times likelier to die while flying on an American plane. The risk of dying in a car is hugely greater.

Despite the noisy coverage of crashes, I think air travelers finally grasp that planes are safe. (Some of the media reaction to the San Francisco crash, I suspect, had to do with fear of terrorism, not the more ordinary fear that a pilot or an airplane part had failed.)

Safety isn't the only way flying has improved.

"Remember how they used to feed you real meals?" a friend recently said.

I did. I remembered the bad food. The stench of the bad food. The sound of strangers chewing the bad food. The greasy napkins crumpled on top of the leftover bad food. All the complaints about how bad the food was.

In the intimate society of an airplane, happiness is a bag of pretzels.

I attribute some of my improved feeling about air travel to switching airlines. I abandoned the airline I'd flown for years and started flying one that lets you check two bags for free, offers onboard Wi-Fi, and doesn't charge for changing a ticket.

On this airline, there are no TV screens and that, too, is a blessing. No craning your neck so you can numb your mind with sitcoms.

The passengers, too, have improved.

They seem more polite than they did for a while, as if they understand that the golden rule — do unto others — also applies onboard. I swear that fewer people plunge their seats all the way back.

I may find passengers more polite because I'm now flying an airline that gives them more reason to be. But I also think that more of us have adjusted our expectations of flying and so we're not as cranky. We've figured out that an airplane is not a restaurant or a movie theater, so we have less to complain about.

There remains room for improvement, however, and not just by the airlines.

Strong, tall people? You will win a free ticket to heaven if you say to a short person struggling with the overhead bin, "Can I help you?"

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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