As You Like It: Zoned OutBy Joan Florek Schottenfeld
I used to love flying — the whole idea of getting away to something and somewhere new. Even the time spent in the airport was fun. Once you checked in you were already on vacation, poking around the airport stores, buying snacks that you wouldn’t usually eat and magazines that you would never read outside of a dentist’s office. People watching — wondering how that woman could possibly be comfortable in those shoes or wondering if those were pajamas that girl was wearing, the one who was carrying a pillow and teddy bear.
You waited patiently to get on the plane knowing that they would let you on from back seats to front so that no one would block the aisles. The stewardesses smiled at you, welcoming you aboard and then asking if you needed anything. I would always eagerly grab the airline magazine to check out the in-flight movies and menu.
There was a pillow and blanket on your seat and earphones so you could listen to music. Once the plane took off, the stewardesses would walk around offering people warm wash cloths, drinks and snacks. And best of all, there was enough leg room so that you didn’t feel that if you sneezed you would end up with your knee in your ear. All fond memories.
Luckily, last month we were able to purchase our tickets for Tucson with points. Two seats cost us $70 plus $25 for a checked bag. Later I would find out that the headsets were free, but using them would cost me seven bucks. Not bad, not bad at all. Or so I thought. What I hadn’t realized was that not paying full price for tickets had set me up for adventures before I was even settled on the plane.
The first revelation was that even though I had chosen seats, they weren’t locked in. My friend Ginette told me that she had made plane reservations for her family months in advance and naturally had chosen four seats together. When they got on the plane, though, they were scattered throughout the cabin like breadcrumbs. It seems that if someone is willing to pay an extra $25 for a “good” seat, i.e. near a window, on the aisle, or in the plane, they automatically bump you to another seat. Theoretically, I suppose, you could end up sitting in the bathroom.
The second fun-filled adventure was zoning. United Air assigns you to a boarding zone according to how much you paid for your seat. After first class, business class passengers and babies, you are no longer seated from back to front, but by zones. I noticed that we were assigned zone 7, but since we already had our seats I didn’t care when we boarded.
However, I would shortly learn what being a denizen of zone 7 meant. It seems that after the enlightened people of zone 4 had boarded, there was no more room in the overhead bins for carry-on luggage. We were told that our bags would be shipped separately. All that time that I had spent carefully packing my carry-on with clothing and toiletries in case they lost my checked bag had just been thrown out the window. I ended up groveling at a stewardess’ feet so that I could take mine on board.
One desperate economy gentleman pushed his bag into a first class overhead bin as he got on. The outraged stewardess threatened to throw him off the plane, have him arrested, and then claim his firstborn child if he didn’t immediately and forthwith remove his offending bag. I was shaking as I boarded, not daring to look at her lest she throw me off as well.
Shatz and I soon realized that there were other differences between the zones as well:
Zone 1: First class, business class, cute, quiet babies and paid-in-full AARP members. They all boarded first and were allowed to tread on the royal blue carpet on the right. Definitely the 1 percent of flying.
Zones 2 and 3: Premier carpet people. These were flyers who had paid extra to board second, walk on the aforementioned blue rug (I believe the rug vibrated to give them a foot massage), and have plenty of time to settle into their seats to contemplate everyone else struggling to get on.
Zone 4: Was not allowed to walk on the blue rug, but on a red rug to the left. The last people on who could bring their carry-on bags (see above), they were also allowed to wear a smug look on their faces.
Zone 5: The last people to have over six inches worth of leg room.
Zone 6: The last people that the stewardess acknowledged with “Have a nice trip.” Also the last people allowed to use the bathroom gratis.
Zone 7: Our zone. The dregs of society, deadbeats, i.e. people who actually had the nerve to use points for tickets. They pulled the rug away when we walked up (while I was walking on it!). People in our zone had the flu. The stewardess told us to “Have a trip.” When we got on board, we weren’t even allowed to buy food! Our money was no good there.
As we prepared for takeoff, I heard the lady behind me say, “These seats seem so small!”
“First timer,” I sighed, and thought seriously about hitchhiking to Tucson next time.
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