Reasons not to fly

(number N in a series of many)

It is a well known fact that airline employees are for the most part jobsworth automatons. Witness my recent experience with Virgin Atlantic. Apparently they have a rule for us plebs in economy class that your one piece of carry-on luggage must weigh no more than 15 lbs. And so I was forced to weigh my bag! Ridiculous. If I can lift it without much effort – and believe me, I have no wish to lug anything very uncomfortable around an airport/plane for 15 hours – then I see no problem with my taking it on board the plane. I am aware that overhead bins have a weight limit, but I see many people with bags that must be heavier (and are certainly bulkier) than this, and this one fits under the seat in front anyway. I like to keep it to hand during the flight.

So with a sense of dread, I put my bag on the scales. It happened to weigh just over 17 lbs. I was informed that it was too heavy and I would have to remove something. I tried to ask why, and remonstrated with the airport droid, but the (non)sense of the rule's existence did not enter her mind: she just wanted to see the scale read 15 lbs or less. No exchange of thought or human reason was possible.

When she started with the “I don't know why people have such an attitude” line (Madam, reasoned polite debate is not attitude) I decided that I would rather just actually take the flight rather than be led away in handcuffs and suffer the non-rights of a non-citizen at the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Luckily, I knew how to make the droid happy: Making no attempt to hide it, I removed a couple of bottles of water from my bag, and put them in my coat pocket (coat worn, and also carried on). Bag weighed under 15 lbs. I proceeded to the checkin desk, replacing the water in my bag. And so in my own small way I demonstrated the stupidity of the rule.

There are 2 postscripts to this story:

First: On my return flight, I packed my bag in exactly the same way, and I was also carrying a bubble-wrapped framed picture (fragile, so I didn't check it) which was a present from my parents. Doubtless, I was violating both the 15 lb rule and the one-piece-only rule! But this time there was no pre-checkin checkpoint, and I was not asked about hand luggage at the desk. I just carried both through and on to the plane, where I was sure that the actual flight crew (usually exceptions to the automaton rule) would be happy to stow the picture in one of those cupboards they keep uniforms in. And indeed this was the case. Thanks, VS007 flight crew of 29/11/2004, you are human.

Second: Underlying this whole weighing business is the fact that I am being discriminated against. Most airlines also have rules about checked baggage: maximum 2 pieces per person, maximum 70 lbs per piece is typical. 70 lbs is actually quite heavy: my bag normally weighs somewhere in the 35-50 lb range, and I can accept this weight ruling because actual people have to lug the bags about somewhere in airport-land behind the checkin desks. (I once had a bag that weighed over 100 lbs – go me! – but that was just after my wedding when I had a brand new huge piece of luggage and had filled it with books, or something).

The purpose of this weight limit is economy: more weight means more jet fuel. Jet fuel is actually fairly cheap in the grand scheme of flying things, since there is a huge economy of scale, but at the same time it's one of the few economic variables that airlines can control and it is a major part of their expenditure. So, here's why I am discriminated against: I weigh something close to 140 lbs, that's why. And yet I receive the same weight allowance as people who weigh much more than I do. Often they're worth a whole extra bag to me! Not that I need another bag, but it's the principle of the thing, especially when I am subject to ill-devised rules like the 15 lb one.

I suppose if airlines were to start weighing people as well as bags, and basing their pricing on total weight, overweight people would be up in arms about discrimination. But this would be my preferred system, if any weighing is to be done at all. However, it looks like I will have to accept discrimination for the time being, since I'm not prepared to sacrifice health and eat myself to 200 lbs just to spite the airlines. Perhaps I'll just cut down my flying frequency, and put Virgin Atlantic on the blacklist for a while.

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