The following is not a formal post but a rough draft of a complaint I emailed recently to United Airlines:
Dear United Airlines:
I regret to inform you that I am writing this letter in regards to an extremely unpleasant flight experience. On Saturday, December 19, 2015, I was scheduled to take UA862, from Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) to San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Having just taken the reverse of this flight (UA869) only 35 hours earlier, I was familiar with the wearing duration of this 12-hour journey. The quick turnaround was a grinding factor.
My flight back to the U.S. was scheduled for 12:20. However, it was to be delayed to 13:40. This delay was relayed to me a few hours ahead of schedule. I would normally regard this notice as welcome foresight by the airline, but in hindsight, perhaps it was foreboding further inconvenience.
I was waiting in the spacious area of Gate 48 when I was unexpectedly summoned over the intercom to the desk. Like a militarily trained dog, I hopped up out of the seat where I was lounging and hurried the 100 meters in bathroom slippers, wondering what could be the matter. I wish I had on headphones listening to loud black metal music so I would have missed my summons. . .
My fateful interaction consisted of the gate agent directly asking me if I would trade seats with another person whose family would be riven apart otherwise. I was already booked for Seat 57E, a middle Economy Plus seat. While the offer of a trade instantly produced hope that it would be for a Business First seat, she quickly squashed such notions by saying it would be in exchange for another middle seat.
Generally thinking of myself as a decent human being, I blindly accepted the trade to bring a family together over international waters. What a mistake this would be I could not have anticipated.
Having studied psychology both for academic and professional motivations, I know that humans are risk-averse and often prefer certainty to the Unknown. This observation has been proven in finance and military tactics, among other arenas. Unwisely, I gave up my original seat that I had carefully selected for an option that was unlikely to benefit me.
I happen to be a professional gambler and luck has usually been on my side, so to speak. Occasionally, one is dealt a cruel hand, and my experience certainly was in the world of consumer aviation.
While I believe that it is in poor taste to complain after an act of kindness, I must remind you that my trade was not a product of my occasional charity but more a blasé acceptance of an offer that was positioned not to do me further harm.
Boarding with Group 2, I arrived at my newly assigned middle seat 24J. Having examined the Seat Map in advance, I was under no illusion that the empty window and aisle to the sides of me would remain in such a state.
A little context may add some color to this recounting. I took a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. This flight is statistically impossible not to have literal tons of skinny Asians.
With this context, you can imagine my utter disappointment and statistical shock when the largest person I have sat next to for any length of time sat in the aisle seat to my immediate left. His teenage son in the window seat to my right was no small thing either, reaching a height of 6′ 3″ and climbing, but he was built like a gangly basketball player with pterodactyl arms so his presence was not bothersome at all.
Although all human beings have prejudices, I Iike to think that I am generally forgiving with regard to many factors outside one’s control. That being said, please do not interpret my stated inconvenience as a prejudice against obese beings. My complaint is solidly factual, appealing only to coldly calculated metrics, such as weight, girth, and cubic space.
Let’s get to it. My Economy Plus seat has a pitch of 34″ and a width of only 17″. The gentleman to my left was 6′ 4″ and well over 300 pounds. He was literally more than twice as big as me, and I take up one seat. Unfortunately for me, he tried to as well.
Every now and then, one reads those inane Internet stories about how incredibly large people should have to purchase two tickets. The passenger to my left was a brilliant example of such a person. The extra seat that he did purchase went to his son.
Does United Airlines not have a policy of recommending that 350-pound men buy an extra seat so as to avoid the possibility of inconveniencing other passengers? If not, then surely UA could purchase one on their behalf.
I am not going to blame him, but I do think it amusing that their assigned seats had a gap. That is, if even his own SON did not want to sit next to him, they were just setting up some poor hapless Asian passenger. Do you not find it terribly ironic that by intending to reunite one family, I was to separate another? The dark humor is all too frustrating for me.
The guy to my left was a perfectly decent human being. I’d even bet that he was a former NFL player. However, his mass forced him to violate a flight rule that I abide by: middle seat gets both armrests. In this case, there was no “both armrests” as the left one had to remain up for his body to fit uncomfortably!
His right elbow would occasionally make unwanted contact with my person. Having broken my neck last year, I am more sensitive to the danger of unnecessary contact.
In addition, he had a nervous tic where he would constantly be shaking his legs. Ordinarily, I would not care, but his mass was such that I felt the shaking could be read by one of those fancy machines that register seismological activity. The shaking was such so that I had genuine difficulty in distinguishing between pilot-announced turbulence and the one specific to Seat 24J.
I am wondering how I was chosen as the mark in this seat reassignment scheme. The Boeing 747-400 I was on was sold out of 354 seats. How did this fate befall me and not another willing passenger? I felt like I was a massaged victim of some Hitchcockian aviation plot. Clearly the most manipulative part of my experience is when the gate agent appealed to my emotions by citing a family that could be torn apart for 15 hours. There was further deception in her insinuation that I would be no worse off than in my previous seat.
Moreover, the gate agent refused to provide any compensation for my acquiescence. My round-trip itinerary cost $1889. Given that the charge for upgrading from mediocre (Economy) to bearable to (Economy Plus) can exceed $200. I would have easily paid $400 to retain my original seat where I would have upgraded from horrific (next to obese person making violent contact).
Anyone who knows me can attest to my dispassionate assessment of reality, even my own. While this letter may appear alarmingly detailed in facts and revelatory of my dulled senses, I now admit that I am drafting this letter on the flight in question, UA862, while this experience is all too real.