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.