Amherst Magazine

Its Seat Pitch, Not Legroom

Reviewed by Paul Statt ’78

Full Upright and Locked Position, by Mark Gerchick ’73, is a guidebook to the miraculous and headache-inducing world of commercial air travel.[Nonfiction] I like to read. I also like to travel, and, like many an Amherst alum contemplating a trip, my first stop before setting out is the bookstore. Visiting Sweden? Streetwise Stockholm, maybe a Kurt Wallander mystery, The Rough Guide and Teach Yourself Swedish.

Nobody ever reads up on the airplane trip itself, because there has never been a Baedeker to the strangely miraculous and uncomfortable world of commercial airlines. Now there is. Full Upright and Locked Position (W.W. Norton) reveals Not-So-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today, according to Mark Gerchick. A consultant to some big airlines and busy airports since he stopped working for the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation, Gerchick has written a companion to air travel that will enlighten the curious and might even alleviate some of our pain.

Gerchick’s book is not quite Teach Yourself Airline-ish, but he does demystify the strange ways airlines mangle language. Passengers were once called “the people” by flight crews; today we are “paying cargo.” What you or I might call “legroom” is “seat pitch” according to the industry. The person responsible for putting your baggage on the plane is called a “thrower.” The thrower never loses your stuff: it’s “mishandled baggage.” Overwrought passengers are “the irates.” The crew calls the autopilot “George.” When the flesh-and-blood pilot (who is still likely to be a middle-aged white man with military training) has to pee, the airline calls for a “physiological-needs break.”

Mark Gerchick ’73

Gerchick believes that today’s passengers need to adjust their expectations. Photo by Len Spoden.

If I were looking to rekindle the romance of flight—Gerchick confesses that the thrill is gone for most passengers—I would learn to fly a plane. Even First Class doesn’t seem all that luxurious. But a pilot’s life for me! Watching the stars and the weather, coolly warning, “We may encounter a little turbulence,” which is pilot-speak for a tornado. Gerchick describes the “strange duality to the airline pilot’s mind—poets soaring through the skies and, at the same moment, emotionless engineers.” Those laconic dreamers in the cockpit seem a bit arrogant in Full Upright, which is fine by me. The guy can fly almost a million pounds of aluminum 10 miles above the earth at 600 miles per hour. If my airline pilot thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room—well, I hope he is. It’s his employers who have made flying such a sad way to travel.

Evidently, for most of the hundred-year history of the aviation industry, there was only one way to make more money: get bigger. Bigger planes, expanded routes, new passengers. That’s why your relative cost to travel kept falling until the 1970s. But the rising cost of jet fuel, which accounts for at least a third of their expenses, forced the big airlines to look for new sources of revenue.

Their key innovation was to see that what we used to called a “flight” was actually a “bundle,” including a hot meal, a cold drink, a movie, baggage delivery and a smiling agent. By “de-bundling” and asking customers to pay à la carte, the airlines could brag that they were “offering consumer choice” and charge more.

I always travel in steerage, and I finished Full Upright feeling sanguine about the safety of my upcoming Philadelphia-Stockholm flight (although I’m still skeptical about the TSA security theater at the airport). But Gerchick comes to a melancholy conclusion about the industry: “As passengers we need to adjust our expectations. Airlines are a business that is finally making a little bit of money. The expectation of flying as a pleasant adventure is an anachronism. That’s just not the case anymore, especially in coach. If you recognize that fact, it is a bit liberating.”

A bit liberating, perhaps, but I would prefer more “flights of fancy.” Bringing my expectations of flying down to earth just seems wrong.

Airline argot for the aftermath of the unfortunate and one-sided encounter between a large waterfowl and a jet engine is “snarge.” It’s a delightful word and worth reading Full Upright just to learn it, but I wish the airlines were less determined to treat me like snarge, and Gerchick less phlegmatic about it.

Statt is a communications consultant in Philadelphia.