Image: Armrest(ling)
Delta Air Lines via AP
This undated video frame grab provided by Delta Air Lines shows a scene from a short made-for-Internet video in which passengers fight over an arm rest.
By Travel writer contributor
updated 12/20/2007 12:07:14 PM ET 2007-12-20T17:07:14

Board an airplane these days and you just never know what might happen.

Wait a minute — actually, it’s a very good bet you know exactly what’s in store:

  • Before take-off, the kid behind you will start whining, fussing and kicking the back of your seat. Mom and dad will think it’s cute — or pretend they don’t notice.
  • Immediately after take-off, the adult in front of you will recline his or her seat as fast as possible and as far back as it will go, and then pretend not to notice that his or her sweaty, dandruff-flaked head is in your lap.
  • The person seated beside you will hog the arm rests, pretend it's someone else passing gas, and then fall into a deep sleep and drool on your shoulder.

I experienced all this — and more — on a recent cross-country flight. In fact, the in-flight “entertainment” began when a guy dropped his heavy winter coat on my head while trying to stuff it (the coat, not my head) into an obviously already-full overhead bin. He offered no apology, but I still consider myself lucky: Mr. Oblivious had no rocks or books stuffed into the pockets of that jacket. And at least I wasn’t seated near the couple I was chatting with out in the gate area. While they both seemed awfully sweet, one of them definitely reeked of urine.

Frequent travelers are all too familiar with some of these in-flight frustrations. Airline personnel are too. That’s why, this past October, the folks at Delta Airlines began rolling out a series of very short videos that humorously depict some easily recognizable and often-irritating on-board experiences. Five Planeguage videos (as in “the language of air travel”) have been created so far. And while they’re sort of cute, most well-mannered travelers will find them disappointing.

In “Kidtastrophe,” for example, a babyis wailing, a child is running up and down the aisle and a man ends up spilling his drink all over his shirt because a kid keeps kicking the back of his seat.  “Lavdance” evokes the disco-era to show the contortions a passenger must perform to return to her seat when those waiting in line aren’t polite enough to move aside to let her through. “The Middleman” portrays a guy who plops down in the middle seat, opens a newspaper, and takes control of both armrests. “Shady Lady” is the woman who raises and lowers the window shade when her seatmates would rather watch the in-flight movie or see the sights outside. And in the newest series offering, “Miracle on 34th Row,” a couple has obviously booked the window and the aisle seats in hopes that the seat between them will be left empty. Their wish comes true.

But I really wish Delta Airlines had done something different with these videos.  Instead of simply depicting the annoying situations travelers recognize as part of modern-day air travel, the airline could have provided a much–needed public service by including helpful tips and actual instructions on how to behave in or deal with these situations. Instead, says airline spokesman Andy McDill, Delta chose to take the subliminal route. The videos don’t come right out and say “you’re behaving badly,” he said. “Instead we chose to take a humorous approach, showing scenarios and letting people decide for themselves.”

Unfortunately, especially for the type of thoughtless traveler depicted in these videos, subliminal just won’t work. In fact, I worry the videos may end up actually encouraging bad on-board behavior. For example, in “Kidtastrophe,” no parents are shown paying attention to their children or explaining why the kids should stop kicking the heck out of the back of someone’s else’s seat. In “Miracle,” passengers are shown boarding the airplane carrying elaborately wrapped packages. That’s a definite TSA no-no. And its never comfortable being the passenger who slips into the “empty” seat between two travelers who are sure they’ve beat the system by using that window-and-aisle-seat strategy. So why encourage that behavior by showing a couple “miraculously” making that strategy work in their favor?

When they first came out, Delta’s “Planeguage” videos were described in some news reports as a bold step in educating travelers about the proper way to behave on an airplane. They may be entertaining, but I don’t find these first five (more are in the works) at all educational. And while I assumed Delta would be proudly showing these videos to all passengers as part of the pre-flight “rules and regulations” presentation — and at least drawing plane-wide attention to unacceptable behavior — airline spokesman Andy McDill tells me the videos are just one menu item on Delta airplanes with seat-back on-demand video monitors.

While the videos may not be the information-packed, in-flight etiquette course well-mannered travelers would want their fellow passengers to see and learn from, they are a step in the right direction. And if you’re not taking a Delta Airlines flight anytime soon, you can still view all the videos on-line. Each video is posted on the airline’s blog and on YouTube, where you can also try to decipher the not-so-subliminal messages in the independently-created “Delta Flight 6499”video. The now-classic video documents the excruciating seven hours passengers spent stuck on a Delta plane during a ground delay this past June.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”


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