02/05/2013 01:23 EST | Updated 04/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Holding Out for a Hero (To Save Us from Air-Travel Hell)


Recently, a Sunwing flight en route to the Dominican Republic from Halifax was forced to make an emergency landing on the island of Bermuda. This was not the stuff of a Mayday episode. No engine trouble or fuel leaks or autopilots gone wild. The problem was three passengers, all related, who are alleged to have lit up cigarettes during the flight and refused to stop smoking when told to do so by the flight crew.

Without knowing exactly how things went down, the fact that one of the accused passengers is alleged to have yelled, during the incident, "You f---ing ass----, I just pissed all over the floor," suggests that these people were not very sympathetic.

That is too bad. Sadly, air travel has become such a draining and demeaning slog that we could actually use a fearless travel rebel to publicly stand up to the airlines over unnecessary indignities and arbitrary demands. But no one wants that rebel to be vulgar and prone to urinating on the fuselage. Or to choose indiscriminate in-cabin smoking -- an act that has the very real potential to set the aircraft on fire and trigger a true Mayday scenario -- as the principle over which to fight.

No, these three Cape Bretoners -- who are said to have looked embarrassed during their appearance in a Bermuda court to face charges over their bizarrely aggressive smoking -- are not the activist heroes air travellers need. I do think such heroes must be out there, though. I'm talking articulate, respectful and continent travellers who are not going to ground a plane (because grounding a plane is a pain in the ass for fellow travellers), but who are going to show the backbone the rest of us wish we had when given an inane order by a flight attendant or treated like the baggage which now costs us $25 a piece just for the privilege of having it chucked in the hold.

I'm thinking, for example, of the mother who decides that she's willing to risk the ire of the flight crew and criminal charges by taking her four-year-old to the bathroom while the fasten seat-belt sign is illuminated rather than having him soil himself. I understand that the federal regulations that forbid this are there for our own safety. But the federal regulators aren't the ones who are going to have to spend the next four-and-a-half hours sitting next to a miserable unhygienic disaster of a child, while being glared at by disgusted fellow passengers.

You shouldn't be so intransigent that you get the plane grounded. I feel like that bears repeating lest I get accused of fomenting airborne lawlessness. And as I mentioned, getting the plane grounded is ultimately a far greater inconvenience to the other travellers than being stuck in a dirty seat that smells faintly of vomit while staring vacantly at a busted in-flight entertainment system and getting bitched at by a flight attendant for not turning personal mobile devices to airplane mode even though every person over 65 accidentally leaves his smartphone on and transmitting ("Which button do I...?") on every flight to no apparent ill effect.

Still, if you do choose to be that renegade who stands his ground in the face of unmovable flight attendants, please select your cause wisely. The smoking thing is a no go. Given that you're not currently allowed to smoke in private clubs or sin-filled casinos, the likelihood of getting smoking approved on airborne vehicles that carry innocent babies in close proximity to massive tanks of jet fuel is awfully low. It's better to focus on more attainable goals.

I would, for example, be sympathetic to a passenger who caused a ruckus over being left on the tarmac for hours in the middle of summer with no substantive explanation and no air conditioning. (Yes, this has happened to me.) I would be similarly understanding toward a traveller who threw a minor fit over, say, being denied the ability to purchase food (which is sitting right there on the cart) on a six-hour flight because the credit card machine is broken and cash isn't allowed. (Yes, this has happened to me.) Same goes for literally wretch-inducing bathrooms.

A wise business sets its customers' satisfaction as its highest aim. However, in the heavily regulated airline industry, customer satisfaction is not necessary for success. A company need only alienate, aggravate and push its customers buttons a tiny bit less than its competitors to be in the running.

As an airline customer, it is not possible to vote effectively with one's wallet, unless you're willing to simply drive instead of flying (and it's awfully hard to drive to Hawaii). The choices are just too limited. And the barriers to entry are too high (in many cases, impossible as decided by government) for new companies to jump in and offer better airline alternatives. That's why civil airplane disobedience that garners press is sometimes the only way to make a real point about unfair or unreasonable airline policy or treatment. I just wish this latest instance of passenger defiance had been a principled one that helped make air travel more civilized for the rest of us, instead of an apparently petulant insistence on compulsive smoking.

That's the trouble with activism, airline-related and otherwise. The rebels with the loudest voices tend to be the ones with the least to say.

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