Air Travel Trials: It's the Passengers, Stupid

At this very moment I’m trapped in the hell that is seat 7A of a flight to Los Angeles.

As regular air travelers know, Row 7, in almost any configuration, puts you tantalizingly close to First Class. Close to First Class. Close, but only in the physical sense.

They’ve drawn the grand curtain of class distinction separating the swells of First with the general rabble of the main cabin. But if I crane my neck just a bit to the right I can watch as they relax in their 50 inches of leather upholstered personal space. I do have to be careful not to look directly into the glare of the revolving disco ball as it reflects off the champagne magnums being hoisted by the cabin crew as the First Classers shout "Huzzah for us."

Me, I’m dealing with something like 28 inches of personal space and acts of human behavior that are slowly driving me insane.

In front of me, a woman with no apparent concern or consideration for others has slammed her seat back as far as it will go. It will go no further than my solar plexus. I’m currently staring at the top of her head. She has reclined so far back, and the space between seats is so minimal, that she is essentially sharing an intimate moment of the kind normally reserved for me and my wife.

When she brings her seat forward I may light up a cigarette. Except I’m on a plane. And don’t smoke. Well, alright, I do smoke cigars. But if you’re a kid reading this… don’t smoke.

Having this strange woman’s head in my lap for a five hour flight ain’t the worst of it. In fact, if you took that sentence out of context, it sounds like a pretty cool flight. But I digress.

In addition to my new friend, I’ve got a woman sitting directly behind me who seems unable to go five seconds without making a noise. Her repertoire includes constant sniffling, gum smacking, throat-clearing grunts, beverage slurping and occasional humming. There’s one other sound I’ve been unable to identify. She makes all these noises on a constant rotating schedule. If I close my eyes it sounds like a show on Animal Planet.

Before you leap to her defense, she’s not elderly, not impaired in any way and doesn’t appear to be inflicted with a debilitating illness that causes her to sit there and emit a wide range of noises from her body. She’s just incredibly irritating. Like the woman getting cozy with my front side, she’s simply unaware of her behavior and how it impacts others.

Two rows ahead of me there’s a young child crying. He’s maybe 18-months-old at the most. I honestly don’t mind the young children cutting loose with a solid wail on an airplane. For them, it’s all a bit scary, their ears may hurt, maybe the nappy’s wet… go ahead and cry. That’s what babies do. The worrisome bit is that those little tykes are eventually supposed to learn proper travel etiquette from the grown-ups.

And it’s the adults on airplanes who tick me off. Specifically, the adults who don’t seem to understand that they’re in a crowded space where the only thing that can make the journey pleasant is a general, communal show of consideration for others. It calls for consideration, common sense and a general awareness of your surroundings and environment. All in all, not a heavy lift. Or so you would think.

Folks complain all the time about the condition of air travel nowadays. Usually the anger is directed at either the airline companies or our old friend, TSA. You know the drill… the airlines don’t care about us anymore… they’ve removed all the fun out of air travel because of their endless search for profits (all right, it’s more like an endless effort to stay solvent, who in their right mind wants to run an airline anymore?)... security is useless at airports… TSA doesn’t know what it's doing… why does Grandma have to remove her pacemaker for screening but the five students from the Saudi madrassa don’t get extra attention… wacka wacka wacka.

Let me take a moment to defend the airline companies and TSA. Here’s what I think: I think the biggest problem with air travel isn't the lack of pillows and peanuts on board. It’s not the regular delays or the industry's completely mystifying pricing structure. It isn't the TSA doing their best to implement security that we need but have grown bored with (can you spell A.D.D.?) It isn’t even the fact that no one wants to state the obvious regarding how asinine our no-profiling-for-security-purposes policy has become.

The number one problem with air travel, according to an exhaustive survey by the polling staff at the Peoples Weekly Brief, is self absorbed, inconsiderate passengers who act as if the entire transportation system should bend to their will.

It starts with the folks who show up at the security line either ignorant of current regulations or under the impression that the rules are not all that important.

Just this morning, standing in line, I heard other folks complaining about how slow the security process is. Naturally they blamed the TSA personnel. But here's what I saw.

Now, mind you, when I got in line there was plenty of time before my flight boarded. That's because it behooves each traveler to arrive at the airport at least one hour before departure for domestic flights, two hours for international. That’s called, ummm… lemme see, that’s called "personal responsibility."

It isn’t the TSA agent's fault if you insist on arriving at the security checkpoint 10 minutes before your flight departs.

And yet, there's always someone who arrives at the security line with seconds to spare and then tries to argue his way to the front. His stupidity is not our responsibility. These are the same folks that feel entitled on the highway merges to pass all the waiting cars in order to jam their way to the front at the last second.

So this morning, of course, there were the standard line jumpers. Some looked genuinely embarrassed, but that’s just their schtick, they practice that look constantly, which makes them late for getting to the airport. One couple simply looked imperious, as if all of us patiently waiting in line with sufficient time to make our flights were a bunch of saps. I hope they don’t breed and produce imperious offspring.

Next up, the screening line came to a halt as the bag examiner had to reverse the belt. A well dressed lady had put a full cup of coffee inside her carry on. Now, I suppose if I was a complete moron I would think she just made a mistake and forgot that she had carefully placed her coffee inside her zippered carry on.

But I watched her as the TSA agent asked her to please remove it… she had that look that a toddler gets after getting caught doing something they know is against house rules. "Really? Coffee is a liquid? Is that a new rule?" The line stopped so she could retrieve her coffee.

Four persons after the coffee moron, there was a man who had a supersized bottle of hair shampoo in his bag. Being a thinking man, he had put it inside a Ziploc bag. Unfortunately, the regulation calls for four ounces or less. His bottle had enough shampoo to wash the hair of every man, woman and child in Los Angeles. Twice. That amount of shampoo could easily bring down a jetliner. But only if mixed with an equal amount of conditioner. After he retrieved his bag and found the bottle, the line began to move again.

We had moved only two more people through the line when the detector started beeping. A passenger had forgotten to remove his belt with what appeared to be a 10-pound silver buckle. Off came the belt and he tried again. Beep. Drat, forgot his watch. Once more with feeling. The line has ground to a halt. Further back, more complaining about TSA.

I was getting close to the front of the line. A woman in front of me, about to walk through the detector, asked if she needed to take off her shoes. This was after the TSA agents had spent the past several minutes reciting the ins and outs of proceeding through security. The woman behind her passed through the detector and off went the alarm. Her hair seemed to be in a beehive and she had covered it with what looked like a sock, a really big sock covering a tall cylinder of hair stacked way up high. Marge Simpson come to life.

She went back through the detector a couple of times. Each time it beeped and each time the TSA agent patiently asked if she was wearing or carrying anything else metal. Off in the distance I heard the announcement for my flight to begin boarding. Another TSA agent walked up to assess the situation. She stared at the lady for a minute and asked "You got hairpins up there?" She nailed it in one. The lady didn’t just have hairpins, she had an entire scaffolding system. For all I know, she could have been hiding a small tactical nuke in that beehive. With the mystery solved, the line slowly picked up speed.

After stopping one more time for a businessman who forgot to take his laptop out of his briefcase and put it through separately, I found myself standing in front of the magical gray bins of happiness. Off came the shoes, watch, wallet, phone, computer out of the bag, change and belt. Boarding card in hand, I waited for the TSA agents to wave me through, gave them a smile (they returned the gesture), collected my crap and sprinted to the gate.

Now, mind you, I’m not giving TSA or the airlines a free pass. Clearly there is room for improvement, as with any organization or company. But as far as I’m concerned, if you want to understand why your trip to the airport can sometimes seem so dysfunctional, look no further than passenger malfunction. If everyone who travels, regardless of the frequency, took the short amount of time necessary to learn the current regulations, and then followed through with a sense of responsibility and consideration for fellow travelers… now that would make for a safe and pleasant journey.

Here’s one last thought. Once you get past security and board the plane… before you push that seat button and recline with all your might, think about the person behind you. Unless, of course, you’re looking for a little intimacy.

Just my opinion. Let me know your thoughts. Send your emails to

Till next week, stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.