In the unlikely event of having a comfortable airplane seat

What's the difference between Dracula and an airline president? One is an insatiable, blood-sucking monster, and the other is a vampire.

Aren't you glad other things don't run like the airlines? You'd show up at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to see the afternoon performance of "King Lear" and be told the ticket you bought months ago won't get you in.

"We're overbooked," the woman at the box office says with that maddening smile. "But we might be able to get you into "My Fair Lady" in about six hours if a bunch of people don't show up."

"But I don't want to go to 'My Fair Lady.' "

"Well, if you come back tomorrow, we could get you into 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and you might be able to get into 'King Lear' from there if you don't mind going through Neil Simon."

Inside, where there used to be 15 rows of seats there are now 25. They are the width of a phone book.

According a new report, complaints to the Department of Transportation about the airlines have jumped by 20 percent.

Hey, where else can you spend big bucks and get treated like a Hong Kong street criminal? OK, big-time rock concerts, but that's another column.

Most businesses try to make it easy for you to be a customer. What do we have to do to put you in our product today, Mr. Jones?

With the airlines, it's the opposite. You wanna be our passenger? We don't think so. You want to comparison shop? We have ways of dealing with your kind. When you go back to the site where you saw the best ticket deal, it's no longer there. That'll teach you.

You find yourself in a cavernous room with long lines of people, some of whom still have luggage. Those people are on the first leg of their trip, and the airlines haven't had the opportunity to lose their bags yet.

You are next subjected to the arbitrary mercies of the Transportation Security Administration. These people should display a large sign with this motto: A thing not worth doing isn't worth doing well.

Have you wondered why something that passes security at one airport won't fly at the next? Remember the scene in Joe Heller's "Catch-22" when Yossarian has been assigned to censor soldiers' letters home? Bored to tears, he makes a game of it by arbitrarily blacking out parts of speech, declaring one day "death to all modifiers," on the next a "war on articles."

Same deal. TSA screeners meet over coffee and decide what to go after. One day no baby lotion will pass. The next day it's death to manicure kits. Then it's a war on toothpaste. And the guy with a hockey stick breezes through.

That look of mindless authority? It's a front. They're trying hard not to snicker. First one to crack up has to buy beers after work.

When you board a plane you are at the intersection of three trends: fatter Americans, smaller planes and airline companies determined to cram still more people into them.

First airline seats shrank to 19 inches across. Some are as skinny as 17 inches. Experts say a good seat width would be 25 inches. Meanwhile, Americans have become some of the world's biggest fatties.

So window guy leans into the window as if he can open it, aisle guy's arms and legs flop into the path of the food cart, and everybody's thighs and elbows play touchy-feely for the next three hours.

You're told to cram your bag under the seat in front of you and find that the space between seats has shrunk several inches. And the airlines are saying they're going to cram still more people into planes. What will this look like?

There will be yoga and tai chi instructors alongside those quickie massage stations in airports. Yoga masters will teach such poses as "The Fetus," "Head-to-Knee Forward Bend" and "Feet Behind Head." Tai chi teachers will teach "Shrink the Buns," "Repulse the Monkey in the Next Seat" and "Tying Chi into a Teensy-Weensy Knot."

The other thing the airlines would like to do is downsize those toilet cubicles designed for Frodo Baggins to add still more seats. Look for them to eliminate them altogether and distribute portable toilets and those little fisherman's friend gizmos around the cabin.

Have you ever seen one of those old airline commercials in grainy black and white where happy businessmen in Brooks Brothers suits exchange smug glances as shapely young flight attendants bring them their (complimentary) extra-dry martinis before their Michelin-rated three-star nouvelle cuisine?

Here's my idea of justice. Round up about 200 airline executives, cram them into a 100-seat plane and make them watch an endless loop of those old commercials on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to London. Feed them on peanuts, pretzels and half-warm lasagna. When the plane lands, keep them on the tarmac for three or four hours. Don't forget the porta-toilets.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. If you have comments or suggested topics for the column, please send them to

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