Crossing the line

I know that I just wrote about air travel, and I know that I spent most of that time complaining about federal aviation rules.

However, flying back to Boston from Washington, D.C. this weekend reminded me of one little rule of my own that I’d like to add. Perhaps we should even make it a federal one, since we’re federalizing everything else these days…

This is a rule that almost everyone knows already, so it would really just be codifying something already recognized as a general practice for all but a few offenders. If this were to become an actual rule, I think most people would be happier travelers for it.

I’m talking about the Line Rule.

The Line Rule is a basic principle of air travel etiquette, and is really quite simple. Once everyone is seated and for the entire duration of the flight, an invisible barrier extends between every seat. It runs from the space between the head rests, then along the exact center of the arm rest, and finally down to the space between passengers’ feet. This barrier is The Line.

And the rule is Don’t cross The Line.

I said the rule was simple, but perhaps I should clarify: the rule ought to be simple. Unfortunately, it seems to confuse a number of people—or perhaps they’re just unaware of it.

I had the singular experience of sitting between not one but two flagrant abusers of the line rule on my flight out of BWI, and it’s a wonder I survived. (Actually, given my general mood while flying, it’s a wonder they did.)

The fellow on my right could, perhaps, be excused. He fell asleep early on in the flight and I can see how he may not have been in complete control of his actions after that. However, this did not make it any more enjoyable to have him snoozing on my shoulder. While I’m always happy to help a brother out, I doubt that this particular fellow man will be willing to pay for the heavy-duty dry cleaning that will be required to remove the drool stain from my shoulder.

In the true spirit of the Beatitudes, I suppose you might say that I gave him not only my cloak, but my tunic also.

The chap on my left, though, was by far the worse of the two. He was certainly awake, so no excuses there, and he also looked to me like someone who flew fairly frequently, so he really should have known. This man had rule violations in every single zone.

First, in the Leg Zone, my fellow passenger was afflicted by that peculiar ailment known as Traveler’s Sprawl. Really, when riding in an airplane, one ought to sit as one sits in church, not as one sits on the toilet. But the temptation to sprawl is no doubt very strong; after all, you get quite a bit more leg room that way! For a person of average height, sitting properly means that one’s knees almost always touch the next seat up, and if the person in front of you decides to lean back (and he almost always does, doesn’t he?)… well, heaven help you. The obvious tendency is to angle the legs out, but (again for a person of average height), this will lead to crossing The Line. That, of course, has a domino effect, since the adjacent passenger must then shove her legs to the opposite side and into the next person’s space.

Then, in the Arm Zone, there were multiple infractions of the Armrest Sharing Covenant, which is a corollary of the Line Rule. This is where I really wish I had a diagram. Picture a typical airplane armrest, which is (naturally) both shorter and narrower than your actual arm. There are usually only armrests between seats, not on the outside edges, so in a row of three passengers this means that two armrests must be shared by a possible total of four arms: the right arm of the passenger on the left, the left arm of the passenger on the right, and both arms of the passenger in the middle.

Now, there are a number of ways that this could go. The passenger on the left could go without an armrest, with the other two passengers resting their left arms; the passenger on the right could go without an armrest, with the other two passengers resting their right arms; or (as in my case) the two outside passengers could each take an armrest and leave the middle passenger with none.

However, the Armrest Sharing Covenant allows a much happier outcome for all parties. When one passenger uses the front half of the armrest and the adjacent passenger uses the back half, all passengers can prop up at least one arm, and the middle passenger can actually support two. While this is technically a slight violation of the Line Rule, the benefit is worth the cost, since resting arms are thereby maximized—from two to four.

Sadly, my neighbor had never been briefed on this simple principle, and since the flight wasn’t nearly long enough to explain it to him (and since the sleeping passenger on the other side had already claimed an armrest of his own), your humble author’s arms were left entirely without a leg to stand on.

Finally, up in the Head Zone, the passenger was listening to his music so loudly that I could hardly hear my own. It’s unclear whether noise pollution qualifies as a violation of the Line Rule, but I’m pretty sure that The Line is meant to protect passengers from both physical and auditory interference. This is actually something that happens in a variety of settings, but it seems particularly abusive when you’re sitting closer to someone than you’d ever ordinarily choose to (and where you can neither run nor hide).

The obvious question is what to do in any of the above situations. Arm wrestling, kicking the passenger, or calling the stewardess to complain are probably not viable options except for the most hardened of travelers, and an extended discussion of airplane etiquette probably won’t make anyone’s ride any better.

So would it be so crazy to make the Line Rule an actual rule? If flight attendants were to begin announcing the rule at the beginning of their safety information recitation, perhaps passengers would even turn off their iPods and listen. It might help if they played Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line in the background while making this announcement, just to really get people’s attention. We could give passengers whistles for the purpose of reporting line violations, although this may get a bit noisy. Alternatively, flight attendants could hand out straitjackets and leg irons for repeat violators, but perhaps this would be going a bit too far.

In general, though, some sort of reform is needed—so if you think of something, come find me and let me know. I’ll be the one losing my mind in coach, somewhere between seats 23A and 23C.

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