The Wedgy

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Why do the airlines allow all the passengers on a given flight to carry on luggage, winter coats if it’s that time of the year, and other stuff, regardless of the overhead space available to hold those items?

Oh, wait. When you read the title, you probably thought I was talking about the well-known “playground wedgy,” aka the “locker room” or “hallway wedgy,” whereby someone picking on you grabs the elastic of your underwear in the back and pulls it up so your underpants get stuck in… in your you know what. ..So I’ve heard, but claim not to know from personal experience. That’s my story. Anyway, this “Wuf?” is about an entirely different class of wedgy, the “airplane wedgies” of which there are at least two kinds.

(I’m curious. When I was in high school, girls didn’t wear pants. Wedgies were strictly a guys thing. Now that times have changed, is there anything like a girl wedgy?)

As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing about flying lately. I’ve been traveling a lot, and I write what I see. If you fly at all, you know that many passengers with smaller suitcases, usually “rollaboards” (suitcases with wheels to make them easier to carry), take their suitcases on board with them to be stored in overhead compartments. They do this to avoid having to wait for their bags after they land – to return from Tahiti where they were mistakenly sent – and to save the checked baggage frees many airlines charge. (USAirways charges $25 per bag, so which is not chump change.) To be fair, baggage rarely gets lost anymore. Carrying a bag on the plane is about saving time after you land, and the fee which has encouraged more and more people – business travelers and others going on short trips – to carry their bags on board.

Last week, on my way back from a business trip, I was headed down the aisle to find my seat – I’d checked my bag and had only my briefcase with me. – when I had one of those Newton moments, you know, the kind when an apple falls off a tree and you realize the Law of Gravity. A short, somewhat stocky older woman in front of me, barely taller than the rollaboard she was dragging with her, had made it past the first class section to the small open space by the exit doors. She looked up, way up in her case, to see the row numbers, and then proceeded to enter the coach section toward her seat.

Airplane aisles are really narrow. As she proceeded to walk between the first set of three seats left and right, her unwieldy rollaboard fell behind. Turning slightly, she yanked it forward, but continued walking, the result being that she and her suitcase arrived at the narrow opening at the same time, wedging her stuck between the seats on each side of her. Naturally, I – suppressing the temptation to whip out my phone and take a picture of the woman’s predicament – and others, including a Flight Attendant, moved immediately to assist her and the problem was, thankfully, short lived. It was, to my knowledge, the first ever instance of the “aisle wedgy.”

It was then and there that I realized my “Second Law of Boarding.” “The smaller or older the person, the larger the suitcase he or she will be carrying, squared.” In case you’re interested, my “First Law of Boarding” is that “The larger and/or smellier – due to cologne, hairspray or bad fast food – the more likely it is that that passenger is going to sit in the open seat next to me.”

Back to boarding… So the airlines let everyone bring their bags on board – one suitcase that will fit overhead, and one personal item such as a briefcase or backpack – regardless of available space. People do their best to stuff as much as they can overhead, because there’s really no room under the seat in front of them for a carryon and their feet. It’s now the end of the flight. We’ve landed, the “Fasten Your Seatbelt” light has gone off, and everyone that can has stood up and is in the aisle trying to get his or her bag out of the overhead compartments.

Uh, oh. Something has happened during the flight. Many of the overhead items have swollen. It’s happened for reasons, understood only by astrophysicists and some Shamans, that must have something to do with cabin pressure and the chemical interaction between ballistic nylon and leather. Something like that. I’m not sure. In any case, while it was difficult stuffing everything into the overhead compartments before we took off, they are so wedged together it’s now nearly impossible to get anything down. This is the phenomenon known as the “overhead compartment wedgy.”

The really good news is that the “OCW,” as it’s known in scientific circles, gives rise to human behavior at its finest. Strangers, of all ages and types, regardless of income or beliefs, rise, literally, to the occasion, communicating, helping people get their bags, passing them down often from several rows away. It’s a good thing, if only momentary. Not the wedgies per se, but our reactions to them. It reminds me that there may be hope for our species after all.


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