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The not-so-roomy skies

If I were typing this at 36,000 feet, you couldn't read it.

Because my elbows would be in the short ribs of the passengers to the left and right of me, my fingers would be forced into an unnatural position, and my normal difficulties with spelling and grammar would be aggravated to the point of indecipherability.

Shoehorning this bod into your basic airline coach seat is a losing proposition over any length of time. So when word came that United Airlines will add 5 or 6 inches of leg room for frequent fliers and suckers _ I mean passengers _ paying full coach fare, I'm all ears.

Or feet, knees, elbows and thighs. I admit up front _ I never sit up front, but I routinely admit up front _ that this column is not for everyone. Only the large need read on. The president of United, a man named Rono Dutta, discovered that business travelers make up only 9 percent of his customers, but they account for 36 percent of sales, and they want more seat for their dough.

Rono, I have some more figures for you: 6 feet 2, 225 and 15. That's height, weight and shoe size for Cap'n Dave, the frequent flier often found in a funk. Who among us has not sat glumly at the end of a long aisle in coach, knowing the overhead bin is already overflowing, watching some late-arriving wide body of a passenger waddle down the aisle, sweatily lugging the carry-ons, scanning the seat numbers, steering unerringly for the vacant middle seat in your row? Then you have to cough up the mumbled greeting, the wan smile and endure the knowing winks of your luckier neighbors as some 18-wheeler of a traveler takes a deep breath and oozes into the seat next to you.

If God meant us to fit together like this, he'd have equipped us with standardized legs and arms that fit together like stackable chairs.

It has somehow escaped the geniuses who run the other airlines that the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thighbone connects to the hipbone, etc., etc. As a possessor of the traditional allotment of bones, joints, sinews, muscles, etc., it has been my distinct displeasure to groan inwardly every time I descend the skyway into the fuselage of an airplane plainly configured by the Lilliputian Ergonomics Corp. Don't they have any big people in aircraft design? Where are the size-challenged? The fat folks? And the big feet? Huh?

Because we oversize types are certainly not represented in the brainstorming that goes on when these morons get together and some birdbrain asks: "So, gang, how many more seats can we get into this 747 if we take out six more toilets and make everybody in coach scrunch up another 6 inches?"

So discomforting is a coach seat on international flights that I now routinely ask the agent _ no, not ask, beg, beseech, and implore _ for a little extra legroom. An aisle seat, for starters? Perhaps _ be still my heart _ a little something leggy in the emergency exit aisle? What? All booked in coach? You'll have to bump me up to business class? Oh, joy!

On a flight over the Atlantic in May, I'd settled for the front row of coach at the ticket agent's suggestion. Sure, it was slightly better on the leg room. She just never told me that because the tray table had to be stowed inside my armrest, I'd have a whole 22 inches in which to stuff my butt. For six hours! I bet the International War Crimes Tribunal has rules requiring better treatment than that. I concluded Aer Lingus must be used to dealing with skinny or runty passengers in coach. What does Ireland's rugby team do when it goes on tour? Call SwissAir?

These management consultants and market researchers who tell the airline chiefs what they want to hear _ "Take out four more toilets and add three rows of benches in coach, J.P., and that'll be $97,000 for the advice" _ all fly first, or at least business class. So what do they know?

Instead of paying for all these studies as to the root causes of air rage, why don't the airlines simply make every executive fly coach? Anthropologists explained this long ago: Simian creatures crammed together in uncomfortable settings over long periods of time, fed indifferent food, liquored up with copious amounts of alcohol and treated to inane or lying public address announcements interrupting a violent, explosion-filled in-flight movie, tend to behave rather badly.

Pile onto those provocations the certain knowledge that nobody within sight of you paid the same price you had to pay. Some of them are flying for free _ they sold their earlier reservations for freebies to compensate for the overbooking that is now routine. Some people in seats just as crummy as yours paid half what you paid, or twice what you paid, simply because their number came up differently in the roulette wheel of airline pricing.

Does anyone ever get to ask the airline executive: What is so hard to understand about the resentment and rage people feel when your pricing structures are so arbitrary, unfair and designed to infuriate? United is taking a small step in the right direction _ lengthwise, spending $30-million to space out six to 11 rows at the front of coach on 450 domestic jetliners.

The new Economy Plus section will still not accommodate those of us routinely assigned to steerage. The scheme is a lot like the Republicans' tax reform plan: It actually helps the haves and only pretends to help have-nots. But anytime a coach passenger can go from 31 inches between rows to 35 or 36, I'm for it. Rono, I've got news for you and other airline executives, all of whom fly first class because they simply could not bear it back there with the sweaty proletariat: Give' em an inch, or 6, and they'll take your air miles.

David Nyhan is a Boston Globe columnist.

Boston Globe

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