Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Air Rage

I didn't want my 1100th post to be something negative, so I refrained from writing about one of my flight's this weekend until after I'd crossed the 1100-threshold.

That having been completed, I feel freed to talk about the most negative travel experience I have ever had. Indeed, I'm still so put off that I don't feel the least bit of guilt in giving pretty specific details of the encounter.

On Friday, I took two United Airlines flights to get to Kansas City, Missouri, where I had been invited to play at the 2013 Kansas City Feis. I booked with my normally reliable carrier, United, with whom I have flown 18 times already this year.

Of course, I carry my accordion with me. It's a small accordion whose dimensions fit exactly under the B-seats of the Embraer jets used by Continental for short trips. On larger planes, it fits easily into the overhead bins. Its width meets the requirement and, I dare say, it's no higher than your average bookbag.

All this is to say: Karl, the accordion, does fit underneath the seat. Some might say, "Yes, but the case extends up over the metal bar." True, but so would most bookbags. It looks larger than it is. Having flown many times over the years with my accordion I'm experienced at getting it onto the flight with a minimum of commotion or disruption.



The two photographs below, I believe, corroborate this assertion. Please forgive my hairy legs - I didn't want to block the aisle in taking the picture, so I did it sitting down.

Not only can I put my feet on top of the accordion (it's a soft case) but I can also put them under the case. The sliver bar on the left shows the end of the seat. Had I obtained permission from other passengers, I'd have taken photos of others' bags underneath their seats extended as far as, if not a bit farther, under the seat.


As I tried to board United Flight #5786 from Cleveland to Kansas City, Maria, the flight attendant, told me I had to check my accordion at the gate. There's no way I'd let a $4000 instrument out of my hands, and I told her that it actually fit under the seat of the Embraer. Rather than taking a "let's see" approach, she threw her hands up at me and said, "Sir, I am not dealing with you about this." 

Puzzled, I went back to my seat and put the accordion underneath. A few moments later, she appeared at my side and told me that it didn't fit the FAA regulations for being under the seat. Not wanting to start a fight, I said, "Ma'm, would it help if I took the accordion out of the case?" She threw her hands up and said angrily, "Sir, I am not negotiating with you." 

So I took the accordion out and folded up the soft case and put it behind my back like a back pad. I sit on the case at some events when they don't have padded chairs. 

Again, she came back and was clearly not content with the accordion at my feet. She looked at me and snapped, "Where's the case?" I pointed to my back and this clearly displeased her. "OH NO! That is a violation of FAA regulations and has to be checked." I asked, probably stupidly, if it were a coat or jacket if I'd have to check it. She made me give her the bag and rather than put it in the almost empty overhead, she gate-checked it. 

Might I mention that there was no one seated in my row? I had two seats all to myself. 

The passengers surrounding me seemed sympathetic: one of them turned and said, "she has it out for you today." 

At the end of the flight, I tried some type of rapprochement. I waited for the other passengers to deplane and then I walked up toward her and tried to smile. I started by saying, "Sorry for the confusion. I'm going to get a letter..." but before I could say, "that attests that this fits on the plane," she put her hands up and kept repeating, "Sir, I'm sorry sir, but I'm following FAA regulations. Sir, I'm sorry sir. Sir, I am not discussing this with you."
At this point, I became really angry and did say, "You know what, it's useless to talk to you." She just increased her own volume and and kept repeating herself. Then, losing my cool, I did say, "You're useless." I regretted it immediately but, at this point, there was nothing I could do. I skulked into the jetway where I had to wait for my bag, which she had checked, to be brought up. Naturally, it was the last one up. 

***

I've watched passengers scream and yell at attendants. I never once raised my voice and, until the very end of our interaction, I held my composure even though I was confident that I wasn't being unreasonable. It's an accordion, not a flute. As the pictures show, however, I believe it's pretty obvious that the accordion fits. 

Riffing on Johnny Cochran's famous defense of OJ: If the accordion fits, let him sit!

I'm not going to say that I'll never fly United again because it is my favorite airline. Over the last ten years, I have had nothing but positive experiences with them. That's why this particular event is so distressing: the rudeness of this employee and her obnoxious response was really out of place. 

It's hard enough being a Catholic seminarian with a receding hairline and an accordion on one's back. Being antagonized, threatened, and mocked in front of other passengers is hardly something I feel like dealing with. 

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