Podcast #94 — Plane Conversation Etiquette; Decline of Hot Flight Attendants

Chuck the Flight Attendant © hello jenny / Flickr

Chuck the Flight Attendant © hello jenny / Flickr

It’s been a while since the last podcast. Contrary to what you might have thought, I haven’t podfaded — at least, not quite yet.  A flight out of Grand Junction, CO gave me a throw-back moment — a flight in a prop plane. Sitting next to a huge guy on a very small plane got me thinking about how to deal with row mates — row mates “of size” and row mates who like to chat. I talk about how the Global Entry program saved me from a huge line at ORD and comment on the now-infamous TSA exhortation to “Get Your Freak On Girl”. We close with an economics lesson — what’s happened to all the hot flight attendants. Here’s a direct link to the podcast file or you can listen to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here are the transcript from TravelCommons podcast #94:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Looking at the calendar, it has been a while since my last podcast. I’ve kept meaning to do a new episode, but then something – usually work – gets in my way. Also, I am absolutely the least efficient/most distractable writer I know. Probably contributes to the problem.
  • Anyway, I’ve been bouncing around a bit since the last episode – London, Dallas, Milwaukee, Orlando, Phoenix a couple of times, and a biking trip in Moab, Utah.
  • The biking trip did challenge my packing skills – how to pack for a 4-day biking trip followed by 3 days of work in Phoenix, all in a carry-on roller bag.  Luckily, biking gear isn’t that bulky – except for the shoes. And in Moab, a non-faded pair of jeans is considered high fashion, so the after-hours clothing count was pretty low also.
  • To get to Moab, I flew in and out of Grand Junction, CO on the first prop planes – a Mesaba Dash 8 – that I’ve flown in a long time.  I thought regional jets had replaced all of these things years ago.  Knowing that I’d be flying down to Phoenix on a commuter plane made my post-bike packing a bit easier. I could expand my rollerboard a bit because I wouldn’t have to fit it in an overhead; I’d be gatechecking it at plane side.
  • So I was a bit surprised when the gate agent was encouraging people to carry on.  Really?  When was the last time you heard that?  Usually the gate agents are prowling the boarding area looking for oversized carryons to gate check. Indeed, with sold-out planes being the norm, more gate agents are announcing that everyone in the last boarding group will have to gate check their carryons – not even letting them get on the plane to try. I wonder if it’s a marketing ploy for the new airline credit cards that offer advanced boarding along with a mile for every dollar spent.
  • Well, expanded out, my bag wasn’t going to fit in a normal sized carryon bin, let alone the shrunken vestigial one on a Dash 8, so I grabbed a gate check tag and left it plane side like I always do.  I did, though, ask the woman there about what I thought was an odd request – why ask people to carry on? “’Cause we’re weight-restricted” she said, “and carryons don’t count.” So a 20-lb bag counts against the weight restriction when it’s in the cargo hold below the passengers’ feet, but not when it’s shoved above the passengers’ heads?  She just shrugged and pointed me toward the stairs.
  • Bridge music — Revolve mix by His Boy Elroy

Following Up

  • We’ve talked in past episodes about row mates; seat neighbors.
  • Well, once I got on board that Dash 8 in Grand Junction, I found that my row mate was Larry The Cable Guy’s overweight twin – or perhaps the more appropriate way would be to say “a passenger of size”.  Whatever way you want put it, there was no way I was getting the armrest down between Larry and me.  Hell, I couldn’t even see the armrest. I didn’t make a big deal out of it – I had the aisle I could lean into to, and Larry kept his arms forward to try to minimize the spill over. But it still was an uncomfortable 2 hours. Pressing up against Larry for that entire time, I could feel (literally) the justification for making “passengers of size” buy two seats if they can’t fit into one.
  • But then there was this huge guy on my DFW-ORD flight. Standing in the aisle for 5 min stashing his stuff, holding up the entire boarding process. |Not that he could’ve stepped out of the aisle – he was too big for that. But then he got offended when people tried to squeeze around him as the flight attendants started banging on about the need for everyone to get seated so we could leave on time.
  • I’m not a tiny guy myself. But, in spite of what the spokesperson for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance says, it’s not about rights.  It’s about being polite and living with the choice you’ve made – or purchased. For a given price, you’ve bought a seat of known dimensions in smallish metal tube that you’ll share with 50-200 other people all trying to get in and out of said tube in as short a time period as possible. If you can’t sit comfortably with the armrest down, then buy the seat next to you, or buy a first class seat (or at least an upgrade) on planes that offer it (certainly wasn’t an option provided Larry on that Dash-8).  If you don’t want to be rushed during boarding, check your bags and wait ‘til last call – or charter your own jet.  But don’t get huffy at the rest of us.
  • While I was waiting to start my trip to Moab, I had a bit of dwell time in ORD so I did a little test.  I fired up my Verizon 4G Hot Spot and ran the Speed Test Chrome app on my MacBook Air – a smokin’12.3 megabits per sec down, 15 Mbps up. I then fired up the Speed Test app on my AT&T iPhone 4 – 0.3 Mbps down, 0.05 Mbps up. I don’t know what’s wrong with the AT&T data service in ORD, but it’s just pathetic.
  • A year ago – in episode 85 to be exact – I interviewed Michael Komarnitsky, founder and chief executive of GoMiles, a mileage tracking and management website.  Earlier this month, AA and SWA went gunning for Michael and other mileage-management sites, serving them “cease-&-desist” letters claiming security and terms of use violations.  What it’s really about, I think, is not wanting travelers to have tools to be “more efficient” in how they cash in miles or frequent sleeper points. Miles are a big money-maker for airlines – they pull in millions selling them to credit card companies and the like.  They’re even more profitable when they expire unused.  Sites like GoMiles make it easier to keep track of your miles, including expiration dates. I’ll put links to our interview with Michael and a WSJ article in the show notes.
  • In the last episode, I was getting ready to head over to London, and was looking forward to testing out the Global Entry lane, seeing if it cut my re-entry time at passport control.  Coming back into ORD, it was a huge time/frustration saver. The US citizen line at passport control was longer than I’ve ever seen it – all the cattle-pen switchback lanes were full and then the line stretched out another 50-75 yards into the terminal walkway. I walked up, showed the line marshal the “CPB” Global Entry sticker on the back of my passport and was waved through to a row of 6 Global Entry kiosks.
  • It took me two tries to get a valid 4-fingerprint reading, but I was through in 5 minutes. Was definitely worth the couple of hours I invested back in July.
  • Robby Smith wrote this on the TravelCommons Facebook wall –
    • I now have 3 data points for Global Entry in the last 3 months.  My average time in Immigration is about 20 seconds. Customs just takes receipt from the GE kiosk and say Welcome Home. IAH has a separate Customs arrival lane for GE only.  I know the GE program is only about 18 months old or so but I should have done this the day it came out. At $100 for 5 years, it would be ridiculous for me not to have it. Finally a Gov program that works and makes life better.
    • BTW; United Mileage Plus 1K and GSM now get this as a free benefit of status.
  • Robby, thanks for that.  I agree that it’s a great program – the one thing the Dept of Homeland Security has done to make travel a little easier.  And more programs are picking up the $100 fee.  It’s now a benefit of Amex’s Platinum card.
  • And of course, the podcast wouldn’t be complete without a TSA item.  Every once in a while, on those rare occasions that I check luggage, I’ll find a card from the TSA politely letting me know they’ve opened my luggage and searched through it. Sometimes they re-pack things nicely, other times they leave a wadded up mess.  For one woman earlier this month, they left her a more personal note, printing “Get Your Freak On Girl” along the margin of the standard TSA card.  Prompted, she guessed, by the screener’s discovery of what she described in a tweet was a “personal” item – battery powered.  She was stunned, but kept a sense of humor about it. Given recent arrests of TSA agents stealing from screened luggage, she’s lucky the screener just left the note.  There’s a link to an article on the TravelCommons Facebook wall, and I’ll also put it in the show notes.
  • If you have a question, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along.  The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — use the Voice Memo app on your iPhone or something like Virtual Recorder on your Android phone to record and send in an audio comment – or iMovie if you want to send in some video; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at travelcommons.com.
  • Bridge music — Earth Soda by septahelix

Plane Conversation Etiquette or The Risks of Talking to Your Seatmate

  • Humans love/need to put order to the randomness around them, and one of the most common ways to do it is the “There are two kinds of people in the world” construct – Those who like durian or mushrooms or Brussels sprouts or ferrets and those who don’t.  In travel, the classic split is between fliers who want to talk to their row mates and those who want to be left alone.
  • You can see it when you walk on the plane – the people who sit down and immediately power up the Bose noise-canceling headsets and those who are looking all around
  • I saw the ultimate example of a talker on the same DFW-ORD flight (yes, it was one of those flights…). The guy in the row in front of me talked for 45 min straight, seemingly without taking a breath – he must’ve been an amateur didgeridoo player trained in circular breathing. He started before takeoff.  Sitting in the center seat, he swiveled his head like an oscillating fan, equally torturing both row mates. I was half expecting him to swivel his head all the way around “Exorcist-style” and include me in his life story.
  • Four of us in the two rows behind him traded glances as we watched him in a mix of amazement (equal parts how long he could talk and how clueless he was of what he was doing), horror (at the mental anguish he was inflicting on his row mates) and relief (glad we weren’t sitting in that row). We started a little pool – 5 bucks a piece – would he stop or be told to shut up, and when would that happen. I figured he’d eventually run out of gas – if his row mates hadn’t plugged in their iPods by now, they were going to let him go.  The guy across the aisle from me won the pot, though, because I underestimated how long this guy would talk.
  • As you might have guessed, I’m not generally a talker. If you end up next to me on a plane, it’s pretty certain that the only conversation we’ll have is when you ask me to get up from my aisle seat to let you go to the toilet.
  • I use plane flights as my alone time – I mostly nap, then read, maybe do a bit of e-mail or play solitaire on my iPhone while listening to podcasts. As I’ve mentioned in past episodes, I rarely use in-flight Wi-Fi.  I enjoy that little bit of unwired isolation.
  • I do think I miss out on things, though.  On a flight down to Phoenix, USAir screwed up my reservation, lost my advance seat assignment, which dropped me in a center seat.  I was sitting in my seat, not looking forward to the next 3.5 hours. Getting up to let in the older woman who had the window seat, she said to me “I really don’t care for window seats.” “I’ll slide over if you want this center seat instead,” I offered.  She gladly took it.  I got into my usual position – plugged in, eyes closed, waiting for takeoff – my own little world. Only after I was walking down the terminal in PHX did I think – that’s a bit odd about not wanting the window; I should’ve asked her for the back story.
  • I’m not like I’m a complete social hermit. Eating at the bar in a restaurant while on the road, I’ll strike up a conversation with the bartender or the guy sitting next to me. At dinner last night at a restaurant with communal tables, I got the thumbnail life story of the couple sitting next to me, even traded splashes of pinot noir for an impromptu wine tasting.
  • So what’s different?  Well, in that bar or in that restaurant, if things get a little weird, a little uncomfortable, or a little boring, I can always excuse myself and walk away.  Not easily done in a metal tube 35,000 ft in the air. While I might be kinda curious about a person, I’m not that curious to risk being pinned against the wall of a plane for three hours…
  • Bridge music — Hear Us Now by scottaltham

Decline of Hot Flight Attendants

  • Megan McArdle of the Atlantic magazine has become one of my favorite bloggers. I’m sympatico with her call-it “wet libertarianism”. Could be because we both graduated from University of Chicago’s business school where a sort of cold-blooded economic theory pervades everything.
  • Anyhow, a recent article of hers caught my eye – “The Declining Hotness of Flight Attendants”. The TV show Pan Am – set in the ‘60’s, a Mad Men in the air knock-off, has let to a string of “then vs. now” articles, comparing the “Clipper Class” era to today “Greyhound Bus” level of service.  Another blogger, Glen Whitman, had written a Pan Am-inspired post on the “Economics of Hot Flight Attendants”. His thesis – prior to deregulation, with the Civil Aeronautics Board setting prices for flight routes, airlines could only compete on service. Since in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, most fliers were male salarymen, airlines would pay more for attractive flight attendants to differentiate their service.  After 1978, airlines found competing on price overwhelmed differences in service and so out went any rationale for the hot flight attendant salary premium.
  • McArdle’s response – “As a libertarianish economics blogger, I would love if this story were true.  But I’m skeptical.”  And then she goes outlines a more plausible scenario – the combination of union representation, anti-discrimination laws and, as she puts it, “feminist shaming”, allowed the flight attendant population to age, resulting in “a workforce composed mostly of older and not particularly attractive people.  Mirroring the larger American workforce”
  • Reminded me of when Virgin Atlantic started flight into Chicago. I was running a dot-com consultancy at the time (like 75% of the working population, or so it seemed) and was flying to London twice a month. I quickly became a Virgin Atlantic regular. The flights were much better than United or American or BA. The planes were new, the food was good, and yes, they had hot flight attendants.  On a flight back to Chicago, one of the flight attendants asked me for suggestions on things to do on her layover. She told me that she was bidding on different runs every month so that she could “see the world” since she, like other the other flight attendants, was on a 36-month non-renewable contract.  No danger of declining hotness at Virgin.
  • Now, all that being said, it’s wasn’t the “hotness” of the Virgin flight attendants that mattered (though in and of itself, it wasn’t a bad thing), it was their attitude – lack of cynicism, sarcasm, surliness.  This was still new and exciting to them – unlike the 25-year veteran flight attendants at United or American. The Virgin flight attendants would be serving passengers throughout the flight, rather than racing the meal carts through the aisles and then hiding in the galleys. When asked to describe meal choices, I would receive a polite explanation, rather than the “Does this look like a restaurant” reply I received from a Northwest flight attendant.
  • We won’t ever get back to the Pan Am Clipper Class days, what’s called the “Golden Age” of travel.  I’m OK with that.  I’d be happy for just some pleasant attitudes in today’s flying buses.


  • Closing music — iTunes link to iconPictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #94
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • Bridge music from the ccMixter site
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  1. Nice bridge music. I recently flew Copa Airlines Colombia between Medellin (MDE) and Panama City (PTY) and flight attendants were still young and hot. Of course, different country and labor laws and in Colombia is normal to discriminate by age.

  2. Mark, you gotta get to more airports. As a domestic road warrior, I’ve flown into some of the smallest airports with commercial service on a wide variety of turboprop planes. Whether it’s Mesaba (Delta) with their Saab 340s or Horizon (Alaska) with their Q800s, just about every regional carrier has turboprops in their fleet. Up until their demise 3 years ago, Midwest Connect was using the Beech B1900D, a 19 seat flying minivan that did not require a flight attendant. It remains the only plane that I could guarantee I could fall asleep in.

    You big time international guys may look down and scoff at the small birds, but as a private pilot myself, I rather enjoy flying in a type that is closer to what I pilot. It feeds the fantasy that I could possibly jump into the cockpit and take over just in case the crew had the fish for dinner 😀 .