Private Space: Travel’s New Guilty Pleasure?

The "coffin" seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

The “coffin” seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

I slept with a man who wasn’t my husband. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, I’ll add that it was on an international flight and we never touched.

Am I the only one who feels a little exposed when I’ve had a lovely, prolonged chat with my seatmate for the first couple of hours on a flight in business class, then stretch out to sleep a few inches from him? While I do enjoy the opportunity for conversation, I much prefer what my friend calls the coffin, a walled seat in a herringbone configuration, where I cannot view more than a fellow passenger’s feet.

It’s said that time is the new luxury (a thought I agree with). But now, move over time, you have company: Private space is a luxury, too. This is according to Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board, Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, who said during his CES keynote last week: “Quality time and private space will be the true luxury items of the future.” These two commodities wouldn’t be considered luxuries unless they were in short supply.

Nowhere is private space more rare–and coveted–than in air travel. Certainly, economy passengers have no refuge from the masses (except perhaps a moment in the lav). And while the landscape is better for premium passengers, finding pockets of privacy for these travelers can take some effort, too. And often, some funds.

For me, one of the most important aspects of private space is the option for quiet–of not hearing someone else and of not being being heard. I don’t care to listen to others’ cell phone conversations, nor do I wish others to eavesdrop on mine. Uninvited phone conversations floating through the air are like pollution, and airport gates are heavily polluted.

Lounges, while offering the promise of private space, are often crowded and don’t live up to that promise.  A friend of mine once discussed her new job on a cell phone in an airport lounge. When she hung up, a gentleman several chairs away introduced himself and said he was the one she had replaced. Ouch.

Gradually, privacy has been taken away from us, a reality as uncomfortable as sleep deprivation. And when we travel, we experience both!

You’re the only one who knows when and for how long you need private space. But it’s nice to have the option, and the more private space options that can be built into travel, the better.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be an extrovert and never care about this. But I do. Nothing against you, fellow passenger, but sometimes I just need a little time to myself.

Where I Make the Case to Unplug under 10,000 Feet

I’m feeling a little contrary.

The FAA recently relaxed most of its restrictions on the use of personal electronic devices in flight. (Voice calls remain verboten). This was good news by all accounts, with the greatest criticism being of the “it’s about time” variety. Critics of the old rule ranged from scientists/engineers who knew a lot about why these devices posed no risk, to the rest of us (not scientists/engineers) who knew nothing but had the intuition to observe, “This doesn’t make sense.” So, it is indeed gratifying to see the FAA make some sense. However, as I mentioned, I’m feeling a little contrary.

Here’s why. I believe in actually experiencing a flight. This has changed my own business travel from a stress to a pleasure. Too often, we lose a sense of wonder at the fact that, really folks—we’re flying here! About two years ago, I changed my seating preference from aisle to window. The window seat changed everything for me.

Now, admittedly, I’m relatively small. If you’re a man over 6-feet tall, you can stop reading right here, because I get that you need the legroom of the aisle seat. But if you don’t mind the body fold, the window offers a lovely sense of actually traveling.

So back to the FAA ruling. No matter what seat you’re in, you will miss traveling when you’re buried in your phone, iPad or laptop. Yes, often I’m the first one powering up at 10,000 feet, but at least that’s after I’ve enjoyed the ride a little. The best part of a window seat view is below 10,000 feet, where you get to experience taxiing, the takeoff, the banked turn, and all that.

My colleague Janet Libert just wrote a piece for Executive Travel bemoaning the heads-down culture. When your head is down—in your device—you miss a lot. Sure, you have your emails and texts and movies and books and…–but you miss what’s going on around you. Like the every-flight drama of those last passengers to board, struggling to stuff their cellos and football team duffel bags into the overhead bin. Or the kite surfers’ aerobatics on San Francisco Bay. Or the unaccompanied minor in the seat next to you who is scared to death of takeoffs and could use a reassuring word.

I want to stay connected as much as the guy in the seat next to me. Yet because I can, doesn’t mean I should. Travel is a wonder, and I don’t want to disconnect from that. I’m glad we have more options. There are some days it’s critical for me to be 100 percent connected for 100 percent of the flight. But many days, I want to be sure to look out the window, at least for 10,000 feet, and TRAVEL.

Should Hotel Personnel Be Fully “Present”?

In the last month I have stayed in a wide range of hotels–including a five-star resort, a four-star business hotel, a three-star big box new brand, and another that could only be described as a flashback to the ’80s (maybe no stars?). In each case I noticed something new on my radar: housekeeping staff engaged on their cell phones while doing their jobs. And it was a huge turn-off for me.

I want to be realistic. I know these workers are, in general, not doing this job because it’s their calling or passion. So it would be a lot ask that they be fully engaged. But in all cases, I dinged the hotel a little in my mind…with a little bigger hit to the five-star property perception than the ’80s relic. It has made me think about the illusion of service in a hotel. I realized I want to believe the staff is there, fully present, ready to serve (even if I know, deep down, that probably isn’t the case).

If I were a hotel company, I would prohibit (and enforce) use of personal phones during staff working hours. Is that unfair? Of is it all part of creating the service illusion?

When a Cell Phone Rings…in the Cockpit

The debate continues about whether inflight use of electronics–specifically cell phones–poses a safety risk. As the FCC and the FAA ponder this issue, the flying public seems doubtful about the risk but fearful that allowing cell phones inflight might just add to the unpleasantness of air travel. Meanwhile, Dallas Morning News airlines reporter Terry Maxon received some interesting letters from pilots who had experienced aircraft irregularities that seemed clearly linked to cell phone usage–sometimes even their own phones, which they had forgotten to turn off. What happens when the pilot’s cell phone rings inflight? Ooops. Read the letters here.