Rummaging Through the Seat Pocket of the Mind

Miscellaneous Musings on Air Travel, Volume 1:
Armrests From Hell, and More Annoying Flight Attendant Habits!

Icelandic Airlines stewardesses in a photo from Keith Lovegrove's "Airline."

Icelandic Airlines stewardesses in a photo from Keith Lovegrove’s “Airline.”

February 1, 2014

YOU WOULD THINK that the people who design aircraft interiors — seats, in this case — would pay closer attention to basic ergonomics.  Isn’t that their job, essentially?

I was sitting in economy class on an Airbus A320 the other day, trying to, as the safety briefing had just suggested, sit back and relax.  The problem was, the control console for my seat-back video screen was located, of all places, in the top of my armrest.  It was impossible to use the armrest without inadvertently changing the video settings.  I didn’t want to watch TV at all, and had switched the thing off.  But every time my elbow brushed against the console, the screen would flash back to life. I’m sitting there in the dark enjoying the peace and quiet, and suddenly “Big Bang Theory” or some other idiotic program is shining into my face. And when I did want to watch something, every ten seconds I was accidentally changing the channel or turning up the volume.

Almost as annoying are touch-screen controls. They’re not so annoying if you’re the one doing the touching, maybe, but they’re definitely annoying for the person sitting in front of you, whose head you’re constantly jabbing. Press gently!

On some carriers, the video controls are built into removable handsets that snap into the seat-back.  This should be the standard.


Annoying flight attendant habits:

I’ve complained in the past about the annoying tendency for cabin crews to announce, “Ladies and gentlemen we’ve been cleared to land…”  as part of their pre-landing announcement.  I’m not sure how this habit got started, but as I detail in my book, the cabin crew doesn’t have the slightest idea when controllers have cleared a plane to land, and in reality that clearance often happens very close to the runway — sometimes less than a minute from touchdown.

Here’s another one.  Usually, just after landing, as part of the welcome-to-wheverver speech, a flight attendant will give the time.  This time is almost always prefaced with “approximately,” even when the time given is very specific.  For example, “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Boston, where the local time is approximately 9:17.”

No, the approximate time is 9:15 or maybe 9:20.  The exact time is 9:17.

It’s just another example of aviation’s tendency to shovel in words where none are needed.  The all-time classic example, of course, being the old, “Federal regulations prohibit tampering with, disabling, or destroying a lavatory smoke detector.”  Explain how you can disable or destroy a detector without first tampering with it.  “Tampering with” covers everything; can’t we just leave it at that?


Those Brazilians build a fine airplane.  Embraer’s larger regional jets — the E170 and E190 series — are surprisingly comfortable.  More so, if you ask me, than most mainline single-aisle jets.  The window seats especially are especially comfortable. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain coziness — something about the way your shoulder meets the sidewall, and how the windows are higher up than on other planes, in a more head-friendly position for viewing. The four-abreast layout means there are no middle seats, and even in the aft cabin, behind the engines, it’s very quiet. I’ll take an E-190 any day over a 737, MD-80 or A320.

Brazil has a long and rich aviation heritage. Many Brazilians feel that it was their countryman, the great Alberto Santos-Dumont, not the Ohio Wrights, who was the true pioneer of powered flight.  The in-town airport in Rio is named after Santos-Dumont.

Is it not strange, meanwhile, that the U.S. never got into the small-jet building business?  Successful regional jets have come from Canada, Brazil, Holland, the UK, and now Russia is getting into the mix with the Sukhoi line, while the U.S. has stayed out of this market altogether.  I’m not sure why.


Lastly, one of my all-time favorite aviation books was recently reissued.  That’d be Keith Lovegrove’s  “Airline: Style at 30,000 Feet,” now out from Laurence King Publishing, an imprint of Chronicle Books.

I’ve mentioned Lovegrove’s book many times in my columns and posts. It was the inspiration behind my own two-part airline identity essay, and remains the standard when it comes to anything and everything to do with airline identity, design, and culture. Indeed, the original title of the book was “Airline: Identity, Design, and Culture.”

I have to say I like the old title better. There’s something dumbed-down about the new one.  I also wish a content update had been part of the reissue.  Everything stops at the year 2000 (when the first edition was published).  The global airline scene has undergone huge changes since then. I mean, really, how can you give us a book about airline culture without a single mention of Hooters Air?

Still, expertly written and elegantly illustrated, it’s a must-have for even the most casual air travel aficionado.

Lovegrove Book


Note: Portions of this story appeared originally in the magazine Salon.

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42 Responses to “Rummaging Through the Seat Pocket of the Mind”
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  1. Franklyn Dunne says:

    I have been enjoying your postings and for one reason or another something I recently read in one of them prompted me to recall the following in flight experiences:
    1. Every two years I used to participate in a trade show in Atlanta, Ga., usually held in July or August.At the conclusion of the show, one of the largest in the United States, the airport was exceptionally crowded as everyone was trying to get home on a Sunday evening. The NewYork bound flights were always packed and this resulted in my travel partner and I being seated in different rows in the aircraft.This was fine as after a trade show quiet relaxation is usually more in demand than conversation.As I settled into my seat and prepared for take off(after a half hour delay due to weather) I decided to avail myself of in flight entertainment and as soon as it was permitted I sought a classical music channel on the audio device.What I got shocked me. There were snatches of music but they were interrupted with voices describing a dangerous condition in the cockpit. (For years after I remembered EXACTLY what was being said,but now I am afraid that the words have left my memory bank.I seem to remember”dangerous condition” and something else alarming.)I looked around me at other passengers but no one was reacting. There was even an airline pilot or uniformed copilot sitting close by me but I could not get either of their attention.So I sat quietly not sure what to do.Alert a steward or stewardess?

    • Franklyn Dunne says:

      Continued….But Was I just imagining this? I tend to be an anxious flyer and maybe this was just the latest symptom of my anxiety. So I sat and said nothing.
      When we landed two terrifying hours later as soon as I caught up with my partner I told him of my experience and asked if he had heard anything unusual but he had not.I still had the exact words in my head…thought at the time that I would never forget them…and when we reached the limo that was to take us home the limo driver overheard me and said that those were words from the soundtrack of the movie Airport.I had never seen the movie but he was positive. A few days later after several calls to the airline a representative returned my call and told me that they purchased or rente tapes from an ouside source and it was possible that the tape had been recorded over and some of the original “bleed through”!!!!!

      • Franklyn Dunne says:

        I remember the attitude of the representative as being of the “We both better forget this” sort, even suggesting that I may be subject to investigation and prosecution for concealing a potentially dangerous situation.
        Wish I had had a good lawyer!!!

  2. Peter Skipp says:

    Re. Brazilian (and other) sub-100-seaters: actually, rather than staying out of this market altogether, the US was very much in it (the Sixties’ DC-9, 737). Of course, these types grew bigger and the original niche succumbed to newcomers like EMBRAER.

    Economics favours larger aircraft: it costs just a tad more to make a 737-800 as an EMB-145, but the price is double(ish). Unprecedented competition in the sub-100 seat market helps drive prices down even more. Brazilian, Canadian, Russian, Japanese and Chinese makers offer no fewer than seven aircraft families, compared to a comfortable duopoly in the higher sector.

    Interestingly, commuter jet makers are fattening their offerings, with the CS Series, inter alia, planned to reach 737 and A320 territory.

  3. Patrick, if you ever get tired of being a pilot, I think you’d have a great second career as an editor.

  4. Mike says:

    The “welcome to so and so city” announcement is one of George Carlin’s bits that absolutely crack me up every time. “How can she who’s just arriving herself welcome me to a place she isn’t even at yet? Doesn’t this violate some fundamental law of physics?” Is also completely agree with the “cleared to land” announcements. At my airline we double chime the no smoking signs going through 10,000 and that’s it. And one more pet peeve of mine. Can we please stop the credit card/mileage plug speech right after takeoff? I’m already subjected to the signs in the airport, the people trying to sign me up in the airport, and the ads after the safety video. Do we really need another 4 minute announcement on the plane? Or at least stop this on an early morning or late at night flight-I’m trying to sleep and then you wake me up with this rant.

  5. Nicholas Robinson says:

    You would love what I call wheeled luggage: “Goro-goro.” Goro-goro is a Japanese onomatopoeic word meaning roughly “roll around” and I think it’s a delightful thing to say when you’re going somewhere: Honey, did you close up the goro-goro?”

  6. Clive W says:

    Isn’t the 55cm / 22in measurement the longest side of the case? Diagonal measurements are used for TV screens but nothing else that I can think of.

    On the ‘welcome to…’ announcements, isn’t a welcome something best issued by someone who’s already there? Hearing “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Dubai,” from a British Airways FA who’s been travelling with me for the last seven hours always seems a bit odd, whatever the time is.

  7. Tom says:

    The pilots ding the seatbelt signal twice for cleared for take off, and twice for cleared to land to signal cabin crew. So actually, when the FA’s say we are cleared for landing they do have a clue, and are telling the truth.

    They call them roll aboard bc it is the largest size of suitcase that can legally be considered carry-on for U.S. airlines. It measures 22″, diagonally (maximum) and has wheels and a pup-up handle

    As an employed Professional Pilot I am shocked at the inaccuracies here.

    • Simon says:

      That dinging may be how your airlines handles it.

      But that’s by no means a general procedure. On the many airlines I fly with there is for example no such procedure at all.

      In general, despite individual exceptions, Patrick is entirely correct. The cabin crew are not privy to these kinds of details and are just making stuff up (or rather reading off a template that some PR guy without a clue wrote).

    • Mark says:

      Right, that’s why they call them “roll aboard,” not “roller board.”

  8. Andy H says:

    Since the pilots are beating up on the flight attendants, I think its high time that the mechanics publish their annual “Top 10 Pet Peeves about Pilots”.

    I’ll warn you upfront, its tough to limit it to 10. 🙂

  9. Avron says:

    On annoying habits–specifically in announcements–of flight attendants: I live and work in Asia, and do a lot of my flying on Cathay Pacific and Dragonair. But work also finds me occasionally seated in one of the A319s or A320s of Philippines’ budget carrier Cebu Pacific. 5J flight attendants were briefly famous for their dancing safety demonstrations, but those were quickly forbidden. Besides some of the ugliest uniforms in the industry, what sets Cebu Pacific flight attendants apart are announcements (some prerecorded, admittedly) that make me want to tear my hair out. Two that stick in my mind (and craw): “We are now beginning our final descent,” and “We will be dimming the cabin lights so you can see the lights of the city” (even when landing at small, remote airports)…

    On a side note, I actually flew out of JFK a couple times on one of those Icelandic DC-8s when I was a kid…

  10. Chris R says:

    Interesting observation about the Embraer jets, Patrick. I have been on a number of these operated out of Birmingham UK and I couldn’t agree more with you. The smaller E175 especially seems very stable, maybe because it is about the same length as it is wide? The most satisfying flight I have had for many years was on one of these last June from Belfast to Birmingham.

    It is particularly encouraging to read your comments as I thought I was a little strange in preferring them to the larger 320s and 737s!

  11. Ben says:

    My wife and I love to travel together. We hate that the armrest never folds up all the way to the seat back. If you want to fall asleep on someone’s shoulder on a long haul, that damn armrest is always in the way. Also “Big Bang Theory” is pretty good for a sitcom.

  12. Montague says:

    A few years ago I spent about 12 h at Kennedy between flights. I got really tired of the announcements telling everyone that it was “the last and final call for flight…”. That gets old after the first time.
    What the hell is the difference between “last” and “final” and why is the air transport industry so fond of these inane tautologies?

  13. Vinny Noggin says:

    “No, the approximate time is 9:15 or maybe 9:20. The exact time is 9:17.”

    Without going into the problem of accuracy and precision in a temporal (dynamic) setting, I wish those pilots and whatnot would just get out of the way and let us use our devices in-flight, always,…there would soon be apps that would update everything! In real time!

    Another thing is that the pilots won’t let us smoke on the planes but they sure have no problem serving up unhealthy snacks, sorry, I mean meals. Serious CVS problem there.

    Sometimes I wish Amazon would start an airline. They certainly don’t care about making a profit and best is they do whatever you want and there would be little drones flying around the cabin delivering things.

  14. Susan says:

    On a QANTAS flight, I learned that it is more effective to operate the seatback touchscreen by touching lightly with your fingernail rather than pressing and punching with your fingertip. I imagine it’s also a lot less bothersome to the person sitting in front of you 🙂

  15. Rhett Lawrence says:

    Lots of good stuff here, but all I’ve got to say is:

    Goddamn, has it really been 12 years since we lost Joe Strummer?

  16. Simon says:

    I entirely agree with you on the armrests, Patrick.

    Problem is, some carriers think they can solve the problem by putting the controls console into the side of the armrest. So then my thigh ends up pressing buttons when I try to “sit back and relax”. Whole lot of relaxing that is. I suppose it’s considered a feature that button presses are registered even when the console isn’t removed form its slot in the armrest.

    Touch-screens are nice, but of course people should use them keeping in mind somebody’s head is resting on the other side. Plus, airlines need to clean them thoroughly and regularly, which some of them chose not to do. The result is nasty smudge on the touch-screens. Yuck.

    I’d like to see two things from an armrest. First, cushion it and make its surface comfortable so I can actually *rest* my arm on the armrest. Hard plastic or cold bare metal make me not use them on longer flights. The result is that my seat just got even narrower. Second, make it fully removable, i.e. I want to be able to fold it back so it doesn’t stick out from between the seats. Not this 30 degree angle nonsense (who the heck ever uses that?), but fully upright. When we travel as a couple or if you travel with small children its a nice way to gain a lit bit of extra space and comfort.

    Finally, in 8-abreast and above configurations where people end up with no aisle or window space, what’s the deal with only having a single armrest? It’s as if they’re trying to get passengers to wrestle for who gets to use it. Congrats to ANA who got it 100% right on their brand new 787-8. Not only did they go for 8-abreast (shame on United and Air NZ who chose 9-abreast instead), but ANA made sure the two seats at the center each get their own armrest. One right next to the other. A tiny gesture, but it’s a nice extra comfort for those guys locked in between lots of other people.

  17. Peter says:

    I collect redundancies and oxymorons. Such as: ‘advance reservations’; ‘hot-water heater’; ‘free gift’; and ‘tuna fish’. So my ears perk up when I hear anyone say ‘continue on’. Flight attendants will say something like, “Our flight today will take us to Podunk and then continue on to Cucamonga.”

  18. Simon says:

    Another useless aviation phrase is the “at this time” nonsense after every sentence.

    Well of course, honey, you want it done at this time .Otherwise you’d have come on the PA half an hour ago or in two hours from now. Since you’re telling us NOW to get buckled up I understand you want us to do it NOW.

  19. David says:

    I am also surprised how inconsistent recycling efforts are on airline flights. I would imagine that all the aluminum cans that are thrown away each year would be enough to build another airplane.

  20. David says:

    As a rather tall person, I would like to add that the adjustable headrests are not very helpful. Although they can be raised up, on several flights I have noticed that they have a tendency to gradually fall down after leaning my head on them for a while. On my last flight I tried to lift it back up three or four times. If they could maintain their position I would be more comfortable.

  21. Richard says:

    I think that you are hearing “roller board” but what they are saying is “roll aboard”. Or at least that is what they are supposed to be saying…

  22. John says:

    I always felt BA crews sounded a tad more enthusiastic when the pointy end was heading for Heath-ROW than for somewhere else, like, oh, say, scenic Newark, New Jersey.

  23. Louis says:

    After complaining about the use of “roller board”, you use it a couple of times yourself.

    I’m interpreting it as ironic usage. 🙂

  24. Rod says:

    SAVES mine.

  25. Joseph Singer says:

    “Here’s another one. Usually, just after landing, as part of the welcome-to-wheverver speech, a flight attendant will give the time. This time is almost always prefaced with “approximately,” even when the time given is very specific. For example, “Ladies and gentlemen welcome to Boston, where the local time is approximately 9:17.””

    This bothers me but for a different reason. Where does the attendant who made this announcement get this semi-official pronouncement? Do they check their MacBook for the time from their computer’s connection to a NNTP server or did she use the Airphone® to call WWV (303-499-7111) in Fort Collins, Colorado to get that time?

  26. Mark says:

    I use a small backpack. The roller luggage kills my back.68498882

  27. Tod Davis says:

    My head is still spinning from reading that straight through, but anyway good fun article as normal

  28. UncleStu says:

    “Big Bang Theory” or some other idiotic program”

    Idiotic??? I beg your pardon!!


  29. Maria says:

    There was also a boxed set of notecards by teNeues with a selection of the photos from Keith Lovegrove’s Airline. They included quite a few funky stewardess uniforms from back when they were still called “stewardesses.”

  30. Joel S says:

    I think you should get rid of that Tumi, and get a Timbuktu bag. The people at Timbuktu seem to relentlessly improve their products, year after year. I love their Command messenger bag:

  31. Randall says:

    In the regional manufacturer paragraph, you left out France/Italy and Sweden, whose older models are still in wide use.

    • Randall says:

      Thanks to Patrick for graciously noting offline that he was talking about “jets”, and sure enough, there it is, twice. So the Swedes and French lose out. But the Russians were (I think) first with the Yaks he waxed so lyrically about a few weeks ago.
      Come to think of it, I always wondered (too shy to ask) – what *is* the point of those buzzing, twirly things on the SAAB 340? They look kinda cool, but the ride is so … noisy. Are they a style thing, like the fins on my old car?