Oh, did I hurt your feelings?

By | January 25th, 2012

Although I consider “reader mail” posts a journalistic cop-out — a favorite tool of lazy columnists who can’t think of anything else to write — I’m willing to make an exception today.

During the last few weeks, we’ve had a spirited debate about annoying air travelers. It started with the remarkable story of a passenger who was forced to stand on a cross-country flight. Then I asked you to vote on the person you don’t want to sit next to on a flight. And finally, we had a little run-off election between the top two categories: XL passengers and babies.

Along the way, it seems, I offended some of you.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been accused of ruffling a few feathers. But it’s usually a clueless airline or greedy hotel that’s ticked off, and isn’t making them squirm my job as a consumer advocate?

I don’t really want to offend my readers. But sometimes I can’t help myself.

“Your singling out of large people is prejudicial and condescending,” says Donald Mounce. “As a large frequent flier myself, there are many more annoying personality traits than sitting next to a large traveler. Your column was very hurtful to a great many people, and simply not balanced or fair. I think you owe your readers an apology.”

Alright, Donald. Let’s take those one by one. I didn’t single out oversize travelers; the readers of this column did (see the poll). I agree that there are many other annoying things a seatmate can do (again, see the poll) but I will have to defer to the majority on the question of the most annoying thing.

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I never claimed to be balanced or fair. This feature is intended to provoke a discussion about travel, and give people a place to voice their opinions, not build bridges of friendship.

And by the way, I am an XL passenger. My 6-foot-2 frame barely squeezes into an economy class seat, and I often can’t help sprawling across the armrests because I’m a big guy. I’m not offended at all when someone complains about me invading their personal space. You shouldn’t be, either.

“Why are you not on the case of the airlines who make everything so small that everyone cannot fly comfortably?” asked Arleen Horna, a self-described tall, long-legged passenger who “can’t fit well” into an economy class seat.

That’s a valid question. Truth is, I’ve been harping on the airline industry for decades to do something about this problem. Airlines want to stuff as many passengers on a plane as possible and they don’t seem to care how much their economy class passengers suffer. I have been something of a crusader on this issue, and let’s just say I’ve paid a price for it.

Horna was “so offended” by my “narrow-minded, prejudiced, and bigoted” story that she unsubscribed from my newsletter and promised to never read my site again.

“You are ridiculous,” she adds. “Telling the airlines to ban people that don’t fit in your picture of perfect is disgusting. I hope someday, when you are old and in a wheelchair and need to fly somewhere – you are discriminated against as much as you are discriminating against larger people. And now to add children to the list? Although a screaming baby is annoying, lighten up and LET EVERYONE HAVE A RIGHT TO FLY – YES EVEN THE LARGE AND THE CHILDREN! Obviously you are not a parent either or you wouldn’t discriminate against children either.”

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No, Arleen, I’m not ridiculous; the name of this column is “That’s ridiculous!” And as I’ve already said, I’m a big guy and I have three young kids. Nice try.

Incidentally, Horna demanded that I not use any of her comments on my blog or newsletter. But since she’s never going to read anything I write again, I won’t have to worry about her seeing this, will I?

But big passengers weren’t the only ones who were angry about this debate. One very vocal group of readers who hated the columns were breastfeeding moms.

Here’s one thing you need to know about the inclusion of breastfeeding moms as a category on the poll. It was suggested by a woman and seconded by my editors. We all thought that passengers might feel uncomfortable — even annoyed — by having to sit next to a mother and child engaged in such activities.

“Seriously?” wrote Ginger Oppenheimer. “A breastfeeding mom drives people crazy?”

Full disclosure: Oppenheimer is Emily Gillette’s aunt. I referred to Gillette’s case in one of the stories; she was removed from a Delta flight because she was breastfeeding, and later sued the airline.

“I suppose there are some people who may get squeamish by the mere thought of glimpsing a little bit of breast,” she added. “Is it fear that a little breast skin might just be too titillating — pardon the terrible pun? Seems we Americans are easily offended by the human body when it’s used for what is a completely normal act in most parts of the world.”

Just a few observations: First, I am writing mostly to an American audience, and like it or not, we are a bunch of prudes. And second, while I agree that breastfeeding is a “normal act” so is going to the bathroom and having sex, and we tend to not do those things in public.

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All three of my children were nursed, not bottle-fed, and we went to great lengths to feed them privately, in consideration of the feelings of the people around us. The folks who were offended that I would suggest passengers are bothered by a breastfeeding mom obviously feel that their right to feed their child anywhere should trump our collective sense of decorum.

And maybe they’re right.

Even so, why shouldn’t we debate it? That’s really the most troubling takeaway for me: that some of the good people reading this column think we should stop this topic from being discussed.

Come on.

(Photo: NFSA Australia/Flickr)

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