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How to Avoid the Flight from Hell

by Christopher Elliott

Think air travel is a nightmare? Wake up. Sandy Pradas, who says she was crushed in a tight seat on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, can tell you a thing or two. Or Andrew McConnell, who had to bribe an airline employee to get on a flight for which he was already ticketed. So can Susan McPherson, who was splattered midflight by projectile vomit.

These are not unusual stories, but they’re making the rounds with greater frequency now, as spring break approaches. It’s a time of year when more infrequent air travelers take to the skies — often, they are not sober — adding to the unbelievable but often true catalog of unpleasant in-flight encounters.

Before we continue (oh, I know you want to hear about McPherson’s encounter with Mr. Upchuck), a reality check: The airline industry’s definition of a “nightmare” is considerably different from yours. Safety is first, and when it comes to that critical standard, the industry is doing great. In fact, 2016 was the one of the safest years ever for the global aviation industry. When you and I think of a nightmare, we take for granted that the flight will arrive safely. We’re more concerned with landing with our dignity intact.

Both are important, of course. But this isn’t an aviation safety column, so let’s stay on topic. Nightmarish conditions will happen, but you don’t have to become another statistic. A little planning and common sense can take you a long way. All the way to your destination, perhaps.

Let’s get back to Pradas, who knows a thing or two about contortions. She’s a yoga instructor. But no amount of practice could have prepared her for the conditions in economy class on a recent flight from Miami to Madrid. “I had never seen so little space between seats on any flight,” she says. “And we had eight hours on this thing.”

True, airlines have been moving their seats closer and closer together, and they also have the audacity to claim we asked for it. After all, didn’t we want lower fares? Thing is, Pradas didn’t pay a lower fare for her flight to Europe. Instead, she got scrunched into a seat as if she was striking a Yoganidrasana, the legendarily difficult yoga pose that makes you look like you’re folded in half. Ouch.

Not all flight-from-hell stories happen in the air. McConnell, en route to a rehearsal dinner for a wedding, arrived a few minutes after the arbitrary 90-minute check-in time for his Atlanta-to-Denver flight imposed by his airline. Even though he and his wife had no luggage to check, and they could have easily boarded the plane, the two ticket agents assisting them refused to let them on. Instead, they were told, they could pay to fly on the next flight. After all, rules are rules.

“I pulled out my wallet and emptied it on the counter,” he remembers. “I said, ‘I have $240 here. How about I give you each $120. Then can we get on the plane?” The agents looked at each other. Then one of them said to the other, “I won’t tell if you don’t.” And they let them on the flight for which they already were ticketed. Are you rolling your eyes? Me too.

And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. That part of the story where we talk about involuntary contact with bodily fluids. McPherson, a consultant to corporate and non-profit organizations based in New York, was on a flight from LaGuardia to Dallas/Fort Worth, sitting in coach class and dressed in business attire. “I had a meeting when I landed,” she says. But the passenger next to her, a man in his mid-30s, had other plans. He became violently ill shortly before takeoff. “He not only missed his target — the airsickness bag provided by the airline — but much of it landed on me,” she says. Worse, she had to wait until after they reached cruising altitude before a flight attendant could help her clean up. “It was the worst flight ever,” she says.

So why bother regaling you with stories of sick passengers, intransigent airline employees and masochistic airline seats? It’s not just because there’s a solution, which I’ll share in a moment. It is, perhaps, to put the worst flights ever into perspective. Every one of these passengers reached their destination safely and on time. Points for the airlines on that one. In other words, no matter how bad you think it is, it could be worse. But it’s all relative. And also, preventable. For example, it’s less likely you’ll encounter a drunken passenger on the first flight of the day, so flying early may help you out of barfing class. McConnell could have saved himself $240 by arriving for his flight on time, obviously. And on an overseas flight, there still are airlines that treat their passengers with respect. (Hint: Stay away from the U.S. carriers, which generally do not.)

Steffanie Rivers, a flight attendant for a major U.S. airline, admits that part of the blame for bad service falls squarely on the shoulders of her employer. “But 90% of issues onboard the flight have to do with other passengers,” she says. “Drunk and disorderly, crying babies, support pets that poop or bite.” Bottom line: If you have a bad flight and are looking for someone to blame, you might look for the closest mirror.

* Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler *

How to Avoid a Flight from Hell

• Avoid connecting and late flights. Generally, the more connections you make, and the later in the day your flight leaves, the greater the chances something will go wrong. First non-stop flight of the day is a recipe for an undramatic flight, even at the height of spring break.

• Know your rights. By far the best resource for airline consumer rights, at least when it comes to federal regulations, is the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights brochure, which is available online ( Also, check your airline’s contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and the airline.

• Be grateful. Take a deep breath and appreciate the big picture. If your flight lands safely, that’s the most important thing. And, at least until the next airline merger, you still sort of have a choice in airlines. Next time, don’t pick the one that delivered bad service if you can afford to.

“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” @wbbrjp

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