Saturday, May 28, 2011

What Flying Can Tell Us about Our Culture

I just got back from Portland, Oregon where I spoke at the Dare 2 Go Bare(foot) workshops. Most of you reading this know that I was tossed from an airplane once (on the ground thankfully) for being barefoot. Yet again, I was asked this weekend to put on shoes (flip flops, actually) by a flight attendant. I politely asked why as I donned my footwear; she said being barefoot was unsanitary. Okay, I can forgive her ignorance about shoes, feet and germs, but then she added something less forgivable: “This [the plane] is my office and I don’t allow bare feet in my office.”

Wow. Okay. That’s the attitude of customer service right there.

Of course, we all know that customer service is long dead in America. I am 41 years old; I vaguely remember genuine customer service as a kid. I’m sorry Miss sour-faced flight attendant, but I paid big bucks to fly that plane and I chose your airline over your competitors. It was a privilege for you to have me as your customer. (BTW, I should also mention that I purchased my ticket one month in advance, but the airline cancelled the flight two hours before takeoff. Thanks, Delta.)

So, okay, flying the not-so-friendly skies reminds us that customer service is gone. What else does flying tell us about ourselves?

Just Do as You’re Told, Dodo Bird
Why do we have to turn off all electronic devices while the plane takes off and lands? I’m told that the Mythbuster guys tackled this one already, but it doesn’t take much thought to conclude the whole routine is pointless. How is my nook or my cell phone going to disturb the plane? All of these electrical devices have to meet certain FCC requirements including, Part 15: “(1) this device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) this device must accept any interference it receives.” Plus, the average cell phone can communicate with a cell tower some 15-20 miles away (Wikipedia says up to 45 miles). Since passenger planes typically fly 5-6 miles in altitude every cell phone on the ground reaches the plane; not to mention all the GPS and other satellite signals the plane is flying through. And remember, your ipod has to be turned off only when taking off or landing, the very moments when the plane is (1) closest to the ground with all those walking/driving electronic device users, and (2) in the most populated areas of the country with all those walking/driving electronic device users. Shouldn’t everyone on the ground near an airport have to turn off their cell phones? I guess that would include all 10 million people in NYC since they all happen to be within a few miles of an airport. Oh, and finally, people use cell phones in private planes with no problems (yes, I have flown in a private jet).

And yet, sitting in my seat on the plane, the flight attendant demands that I turn off my nook while the plane takes off and if I don’t comply? Well, she has the authority to have me arrested. And according to my captain, shutting down my nook is required by the FAA. I wonder if the guy who thought Guam might tip over was involved in passing that requirement.

*WOW: Just minutes before I posted this blog ABCnews reported on this myth:

Sink or Swim
Let’s now turn our attention to those seat cushion flotation devices. Is anyone out there aware of a single instance in the history of aviation in which a 747 went down in the ocean and that floaty seat cushion came in handy? If your plane goes down in the water your seat cushion may float, but I doubt you will notice it. Having seat cushion parachutes makes a little more sense, but even that is unlikely to save you if your plane is going down.

Hmmm... As I write this I think of US Airways flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson river a few years ago. I supposed the floaty seats may have come in handy there, but the plane was evacuated in 90 seconds (maybe a bigger miracle than the safe water landing) so I doubt most passengers had their seats in hand. Still, since the system is in place is seems more cost-effective to leave it going and, hey, they are useful for that one-in-a-million survivable crash landings in water.

Shampoo Bad. Scissors Good
Here’s something else I don’t understand: The woman beside on the plane was cross-stitching the whole time (even during take-off and landing). She showed me her sharp, pointed scissors and collection of sewing needles and said she’s never had a problem flying with them. What? They confiscated my shampoo because the bottle was too big!

I know this is a cynical blog post; I just get this way when flying. But I will end on a positive note: Remember how Delta cancelled my flight just before departure? Well, the only reason I made it to my speaking engagement in Portland on time is because a wonderful lady named Ruth V. gave me her seat on another flight. Yes, Ruth, I will pay it forward! Thank you and God bless you for your kindness.

So when it comes to commercial flying, we have (1) no customer service, (2) we’re required to jump through ridiculous hoops for no logical reason (3) and it’s all enforced with an attitude. On the plus side, there are passengers like Ruth that make the whole thing bearable.


  1. Daniel, I know the feeling, but I think you've had some just really bad luck with flying barefoot. I've done quite a bit of traveling while barefoot in the last 8 years or so, and though there've been a few incidents, generally I've had excellent luck and very few hassles. I've actually kept a tally of all the barefoot flying I've done. My last trip in December of last year made a total of 48 separate flights that I've flown while barefoot. That included traveling through 27 different airports and using 13 different airline companies. Of those 48 flights, only 5 times at some point have I been told I had to put on footwear to board. However, of those 5 times I was told, I actually did put the footwear on only 2 times (because they were watching me) - and both of those were just to walk on board; I took them off and stored them away as soon as I was at my seat. For me that's an average of about 10% that I was told to put on shoes, which, IMO, are very good odds of not having any problems when flying barefoot. However, just in case of that 1 in 10 possibility of an issue, I always have flip-flops conveniently tucked away in my carry-on that I can easily grab if I have to. I don't plan on having any arguments with airline personnel - not the time or place, IMO.

    So I hope you won't remain too discouraged, as I'm very sure most future flights will not be like your last one.

  2. Agreeing with Kriss... I'm sort of astonished at your bad luck. I've never been told while ON a plane that I need to wear shoes, and only once that I needed to wear them to walk down the jetway. Then again, I've never flown Delta since I started going barefoot. I am booked on one two-leg Delta flight in June... hope I don't have a bad experience. :-s

  3. Vivian, I've flown 8 flights on Delta, in 2005 and 2009. And only once had an issue. In 2005, while walking on the tarmac in Atlanta to board a small Delta plane, a flight attendant on the tarmac checking bags told me I had to have on shoes to board. I put them on, boarded, and then removed them for the rest of the flight. Other than that, all other Delta flights have been fine.

  4. Encouraging, Kriss. I've not tried traveling barefoot, yet. I'm still at the beginning stages. After reading this post, I'm going to be sure I have flip-flops with me at all times...just in case.

  5. I've been questioned when boarding a plane barefoot, and once a flight attendant told me that I "should" have shoes on, but I've never actually been told to put on shoes. I fly Continental almost exclusively and frequently walk through Houston Intercontinental barefoot. I've OFTEN been told by counter clerks and gate agents that I'm the first barefoot customer they've ever had. And I've never, never, ever seen another barefooter inside any public establishment of any ilk.

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Welcome to The Barefoot Professor blog, intelligent talk about running, walking and living barefoot. I encourage your comments, even if you disagree with me. In this spirit I don't even moderate the comments. However, PLEASE use critical thinking skills when leaving comments, and avoid inflammatory words. Please keep your comments short and to-the-point. THANKS.