I’ve been flying a lot lately. One month of book tour means quite a few flights, and then last weekend I came over here to England, which is where I am now, in windy – really WINDY, Sussex. But this is about one of those flights they call, “The flight from hell,” but it wasn’t really hell, just really uncomfortable (and for me, every flight is pretty uncomfortable), and I might add, one that flouted a few safely rules. Here’s what happened – and I might not have chosen to write this if United had bothered to email me back. But you’ll see why I’m glad I did.
I finished my book tour a couple of weeks ago with an event at the lovely Broadway Books in Portland. Because I had knee surgery a few weeks before the book tour began, I needed to sit in aircraft seats with more leg room pretty much throughout the tour, so on this particular flight I paid extra for Economy Plus. Here’s what happened.
While waiting for my flight I noticed a blind man – I guess he was in his late 60’s, something like that, he might have been older, not sure – he was in the departures area with his really big service dog who was dozing away by his feet. I thought about how brave it was, to make a journey through airports and onto a plane, not only with a dog, but with the challenge of not being able to see. I can see and I have enough trouble.
The flight was called and the man was among the first to board, and because I had paid a bit extra for this Economy Plus seat, I wasn’t far behind him. It was when I saw the plane that I thought, “Uh-oh ….” It was one of those really small aircraft, and I just knew that I had been sold an Economy Plus seat when there was no extra legroom in 1D. Then I discovered the man and his dog had been allocated seat 1C.
I like to be accommodating, so I made it sound simple when I had to climb over the man and his dog to get to my seat – the Labrador was 124 lb and took up all the leg room in front of his owner’s seat and my seat – well, actually, just in front of my seat, because that’s where his behind was and he wouldn’t lay down for the entire flight, so at least the man was able to pat his dog’s head and tuck his feet somewhere behind the dog’s paws. The dog, with his bum right in front of me, also had a bad case of flatulence.
Because there was nowhere to place my feet, I had to elevate my legs and rest them against the bulkhead about three feet up, which, after a while began to really hurt my back. My knee wasn’t feeling great either. They were still boarding passengers at this point. There were no spare seats. The flight attendant apologized profusely – but what could she do? I just hoped there would be no need to assume the emergency position, because I would be toast!
After take-off, about the time the flight attendant came through the cabin with drinks and the quite delightful man next to me began knocking back his whisky and sodas, I was imagining being in traction for the rest of my life, though the Labrador’s digestive issues seemed to be improving. I felt like turning around to the passengers behind me and saying, “It wasn't me!!!”
Finally, I could take it no more – about 20 minutes before landing I had to move, so I staggered over the dog, who was drooling all over the floor by now. I had to walk up and down the aisle several times before I could feel my left leg from the knee to the ankle. Then I went to use the bathroom, and when I came out the concertina doors snapped shut and caught the back of my jacket tight. This was of course nothing to do with United Airlines, and everything to do with me and Fate on this particular flight. Everyone around me thought it was really funny, me being stuck in the door, and I laughed too – but not one soul came to help me and even looked quite sorry when I elbowed the door open and the in-flight entertainment ended. I made my way back to my seat.
The delightful young man sitting in 1B stood up as I returned (I was gearing up to clamber over the 124lb Labrador) and he offered to take my seat to give me a bit of a break. I pointed out that his legs were far longer than mine, but he said not to worry, he was happy to sit doubled up for the remainder of the flight. Actually, he just said, “Not to worry,” and I know, I just know, he almost followed it with, “My bones are younger than yours.” Oh well.
Right now I could go on about how I think United Airlines really failed in their care of the man and his dog. I discovered from the blind man that all service dogs travel free on most forms of public transport – and I think that’s great. But the genius who booked the seat for a man who needed help, plus his very large dog should, I think, have realized that no one should have been allocated the neighboring seat. That would be the seat erroneously labeled “Economy Plus” when it should have been rated “Steerage.” I could go on about that for a long time, plus the fact that the FAA might have grounded the aircraft if an inspector had been on board, because I was one passenger in an unsafe situation. But I will leave it there, you get the picture. Maybe United Airlines will one day decide to reply to my email, and I might get a $29 refund for the extra leg room I didn't enjoy. $29 is $29 after all.
Instead I will tell you this. The blind man was a chatty guy, full of his week's adventure in Portland and happy to talk about all the countries he’d visited over the years. He’d been blind almost his entire life and his dog (who shall remain nameless to protect his identity – no one needs to know more, now that you know he has really bad gas) was one in a long line of dogs the man had loved and who had served him well until they were retired. When the young man sat next to him, he wanted to know everything about him. The lad – mid-twenties, I would say – was pretty clean cut, the sort you wouldn’t mind your daughter dating.
“Got a girl, son?” asked the man, in a really loud voice.
The young man blushed. He nodded and said, yes, he had a girlfriend.
“You find yourself a good girl, and you marry her when you find her. Don’t let her go.”
More blushes from the young man. Rows 2 and 3 were all ears now.
“I married my girl. She’s gone now - lost her a few years ago.” He sipped his whiskey and soda and ran his fingers across the dog’s big head, and the dog leaned against his charge. “She was eight feet tall, my wife – four feet eleven in her bare feet, but eight feet tall to me. And you should have seen her – she was beautiful.”
OK, so United Airlines, you really messed up. But somehow, I wouldn’t have missed that flight for the world. I just wish we’d all been in first class on a bigger ‘plane. That would have been a good flight.