Friday, April 4, 2014

How to Travel Like a Christian. Third Edition: Flying.

You can catch previous editions here.

First Edition: Caveats and Privilege

Second Edition: Respecting People, Also Known As God's Creation

This is a post about space.

If you have been on a plane in the past five years, you know space is a premium. The smaller spaces available as airlines cram more seats into each plane require us to be a bit more, shall we say, self-aware.

I have a few #protips to suggest.

A caveat: Of course, I understand not everyone is my size. Some people literally take up more space. That’s cool. I think God made us in all sizes. But that doesn’t mean some of us get to monopolize all the space.

Tips for flying:

Put your smaller item under the seat in front of you, unless your height makes it really uncomfortable. Nothing throws me into a rage faster than a man (it’s always a man) who is 5’7” with no discernible disability who puts his slim briefcase FLAT in the overhead bin space. Or the man (it is often a man) who puts his coat into the overhead bin immediately after the flight attendant asks everyone to hold on to her or his jackets until all the bags are up. I’M WATCHING YOU, AND I’M VERY DISPLEASED, SIR.

I know that when you board first, it is so tempting to take all that bin space. I, too, want to get the heck out of the airport to my destination. If you are flying directly to your final destination, or you are otherwise headed home, consider checking your bag. Since you, the frequent flyer, could probably check a bag for free because of your frequent flyer status, help out the people who would have had to pay to check their bags. Leave a little space.

Be nice to the people traveling with kids and older people. Don’t rush them. Offer to help. Not only does this make you a kind person, it also shows you have some empathy. Remember back when you were an infrequent flyer? Or when you were traveling with small humans? Or when you had an injury that made mobility more of a challenge?

You of all people should know not to grab the headrest of the seat in front of you when you stand up out of your seat. You can actually use your own seat! Yes, reach behind you.

Do not recline when at all possible. Have you ever been in the middle of doing a spreadsheet on your laptop when the person in front of you suddenly reclined, and your laptop got trapped between the seat back and the tray table? Also, if you are sitting in front of someone who is taller or bigger, you just took away that much more space. On longer flights, consider reclining slowly and partially.

On Southwest flights, when you see the poor suckers who checked in as Group C, and can't find seats together, and it is a parent and child or a couple, especially an older couple that maybe isn't English speaking, for crying out loud, offer to move so they can sit together. For all you know, they don't have internet at home. Or they don't travel enough to know the game.

You can learn to share the armrest. Yes, I have engaged in a silent armrest battle, but in all fairness, the last time it was with someone my size (small) who was shoving her elbow way over the armrest and into my side. Here is the deal. Taller people and wider people simply do need a little more space, and we all know that in the effort to squeeze more revenue out of the biz, airlines are trying to fit more and more seats into the same space they have always had. So if you are bigger, be aware of how much of the armrest you take. If you are smaller like me, try to let the bigger folks next to you have some space. You know, elbow forward so neighbor can use the back section. Those of us who are on the aisle or the window already get at least one armrest. Folks in the middle should have more access to armrests than those in the window or aisle seats.

Close your d*$& legs. This is about men and space. Why do you spread your legs wider than the seat width? Because you were improperly socialized to believe subconsciously that you get to take up more space than others simply due to your Y chromosome. Thanks for oppressing the rest of us all over again. I mean, you already run the world. Try not to be that jerk and control your wingspan, ok?

Do not talk loudly about how offering health care or other basic human rights to people is terrible policy, all while sporting Brooks Brothers button-downs and a SkyMiles Platinum bag tag. You fear class warfare? Because you are asking for it. You look like an entitled jerk with all the access to resources in the world, who could care less about those who weren't born on third base. (You might be otherwise compassionate and generous, but it’s sort of hard to tell, particularly since you aren’t offering any alternatives. I bet you have never had to pay out of pocket for your sister's health insurance because she couldn't afford it because she was caring for your aging father. I bet you never needed help getting a square meal once in your life. Don't be so obvious about your ignorance of what it means to be NOT YOU.)

And please don’t do this. I received this photo from fellow road warrior Jessica Vazquez Torres. 

This post is about space. The space in an airplane is not ample. As a frequent flyer, I understand the urge other frequent flyers have. It is the urge of a colonizer. When you board first or second, you think, “I was here first, so that’s great. I can put both my items in the bins because they’re empty. I can take up the space I want.” First of all, would-be colonizers, ponder this: it looks like you’re there first because you just can’t see all the other people who will be there in about five minutes. Second, just because it looks to you like there is lots of space doesn’t mean all that space is yours. Other people also paid for tickets. Other people are boarding behind you. Think of the other people.

I have been well-socialized as a woman of color to limit how much space I take up. I am always aware of the space around me. This is not always good, because sometimes I take up too little space. I try to make myself invisible, which is a source of great aggravation to some who think I need to speak up more. But most of us, especially those of us with some measure of privilege, take up more than our fair share of space, and too many of us don’t see why it’s a problem.

The space in the world, or in a conversation, or a plane, is limited. I know I shouldn’t think that life is a zero-sum game, but frankly, a plane has real limitations.

Taking up more space than we should is theologically problematic. You see, when we take up tons of space, sometimes we crowd others out. On a plane, it means someone else has to go hunting for a spot to put a bag. In life, it means we have claimed our own importance without acknowledging that all of us are created good, holy, and wonderful. Everyone deserves to be heard. We drown out the voices of others, losing out on collective wisdom, or discernment of the Spirit. We dehumanize others without thinking twice.

You might think I take this space thing on a plane a bit too far, but I think how we interact with the limited space on a plane says something about how we treat the limited space in the world. I was thinking of this when visiting California during pre-drought conditions. A county away from my hotel, everyone was on water restrictions. Because I knew that, it made me more aware of how long I let the water run. California is surrounded by water. But California, a major food producer for this country, has to manage its water, and jockey for water that travels through other states. Just because water came out of my tap didn’t mean I needed to use as much as I could.

All the space or the water or the energy or the food or the power isn’t ours. We share it with billions of other people. We are also shaping a legacy to leave the generations that follow us. And perhaps, connected as we are through sacraments, creeds, and tradition to Christians of every time and place, we might consider what it means to be gracious with the space we take up and the resources we use.


Water: Precious Gift and Endangered Resource
Downloadable Adult Study by Edward LeRoy Long, Jr.

What’s in Your Water Bottle?
Downloadable Youth Study by Martha Bettis-Gee

Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible, and the Ecological Crisis
By Patricia K. Tull


  1. Awesome post! Love it. Great closing.
    I minor point to consider: The spreading legs thing is also somewhat of an anatomical issue. If you look at skeletons, men and women are built differently. The female pelvis is tilted forward and the angle of the femur, from hip to knee, is angled inward (more "knock-kneed" than men....this is why some males are anatomically more efficient runners..a compromise between standing on two legs and still being able to give birth. The angle is also what makes it more possible for women to sit crossing legs at the knee). The male femur is angled more straight.
    My point with all this is that for most men (including me!) when seated there is no closed position at rest. If I close my knees I will literally be flexing the entire time. I don't want to touch strangers' knees either! So I deal with this by either flexing my groin muscles for 2 hours (uncomfortable) or extending my legs all the way forward to brace ankles between seat posts (if my bag isn't too big...which is rare). It is a conundrum. When seated next to another male, there is usually an unspoken agreement that we're just both gonna relax legs and rub knees, no harm no foul.

    1. Knowing more about the anatomy is helpful, but I do think that since women have been socialized to keep the knees together, I think men can be socialized to do the same. It is not necessarily easy for us, and it is virtually impossible in many airplane seats to cross one's legs. But I hear you.

  2. I like your post! I don't travel as much as you do, but I have noticed (and been guilty of) some of these things, for sure. The one that actually bugs me most is the airline regulation that requires "small bags like backpacks and purses" under the seat, so that rollers can take up the carryon space. When I travel with leena I can't manage her plus a roller, so I only take a backpack. Just one small carry on for both of us (and David!). I think its fair if between the three of us we get to put that back pack (which is a large and bulky) in the overhead. I don't think we should have to have even less leg room just so that people who brought multiple big carryons can get to put them all up top. Its like punishing us for taking less space.

    Oh, and another thing- it would be nice if people who sit on the aisle are considerate about standing up for people on the inside. I like to sit by the window because its much easier to nurse a baby there (less risk of her head or my elbows getting bonked by people walking by) and I try to hold my pee, but sometimes we do have to stand up to use the bathroom. Please don't give us dirty looks! That's the deal with the aisle seat. (most people are nice, but some make you feel like you hugely inconveniencing them).

    1. Yes, I'm an aisle person, and I expect that I will need to stand up for people sitting in the middle or window. Dirty looks are unnecessary!