Does United Airlines Have Adultitis?


photo by mauren veras

Kim came across a story in which a man was denied a first class upgrade on a United flight by a gate agent because we was dressed “too casually.” He was wearing a track suit.

Good thing he wasn’t wearing a clown suit; he’d be deported by now.

It looks like a classic case of Adultitis, and I consider myself lucky that it wasn’t me. You see, my standard travel garb is almost always a pair of Adidas track pants and a Mr. Incredible t-shirt (for good luck.) I’ve been upgraded to first class on a number of occasions, clearly not realizing how fortunate I was.

I wonder what other stipulations the agent puts on first class flyers. Is everyone required to tap away incessantly on their laptops, taking breaks only to talk about how bad the economy is or sigh loudly when it’s announced that the flight will be delayed? Laughing must surely be outlawed, but what’s the punishment for a smile? An extra helping of airline food?

In a follow-up story, United Airlines was quick to point out that the gate agent is a contract employee who works for Air Wisconsin. They also said they’re investigating the incident. According to the airline, although there is no dress code, there are two rules: Ticketed passengers can not be barefoot and must be clothed.

[Side note: I can’t help but wonder about the origin of these rules. Have they actually had naked people try to board a flight? Or did they create the rule preemptively, thinking, “We’d better figure out a way to keep all those naked people I see walking through the airport from coming on OUR planes!”]

Whether or not this incident reflects United’s corporate culture or it was simply a rogue agent acting alone, the fact remains that every airline I’ve encountered is bursting with high levels of Adultitis. It seems like Southwest Airlines keeps things fun, but I can’t speak from experience because they don’t service Madison. The only Adultitis antidote I’ve discovered for air travel is the technique of bringing a baby with you. Smiles and good service are guaranteed.

I realize that air travel is a stressful industry across the board. But I can’t help but think how easy it would be to make noticeable changes. For instance, don’t just tell us our flight is delayed. Explain why. Err on the side of giving us too much information, and don’t treat us like your slaves. Let us keep our shoes on in the security lines. Smile more (or at the very least, pretend like you give a damn).

For the overachieving airlines (if there are any), here are a few ways to take things to the next level and create raving fans:

  • Instead of peanuts, serve Cracker Jacks (with a prize inside.)
  • Hire more comedians to serve as flight attendants, or require your current people to take improv classes.
  • Paint cool murals on the planes, a la the Cow Parade that’s been held in Chicago and other cities.
  • Draw random seat numbers for door prizes, which might be 500 extra bonus miles, a free drink, or a gift certificate to an airport restaurant.

What about you? What are some ways you think the airlines could make flying more fun? Share your ideas in the comments.

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  1. – Have a random drawing for available parachutes (wait…maybe that’s not such a good idea…)
    – Paint the window shades with different murals.
    – Pictures/jokes on the soda and coffee cups

  2. I think that every time people get off the plane, they should deploy those huge slides that they use in emergencies. I’ve always wanted to slide down one of those. Why should I have to wait for an emergency landing?

  3. Minette says:

    1. Do the required safety presentation with animated video (captioned for us Deafies, of course!).

    2. Paint the window shades with different smiley faces and other comics (Kim and Jason, anyone???)

    3. Karaoke contests on long cross country or international hops!

    • Any ideas for making the safety presentation more interesting is something I can get behind, Minette!

  4. Your side note just about made me spray my drink out my nose.

    I’d like the interior of the plane to be covered in chalk board fabric. Upon entering the plane everybody gets a box of chalk. Eat it, color with it; both are childlike.

    I asked the pilot what he suggested to make flying more fun. He said, “more loops”.

  5. Steve Arnold says:

    Offer animal crackers. The picture of someone leaving the plane holding a laptop or briefcase with one hand and a box of animal crackers by the string handle in the other just makes me smile.
    Oh, and chocolate milk, too.
    How about story time? (We know the microphones work.)
    Build fun things into the tray tables, like Etch-a-Sketches and magnetic-hair-and-whiskers faces and crayons with sketch pads.
    (Yeah, but good luck getting the tray tables back up.)

    • Yeah, what’s so complicated about chocolate milk? That would be way more popular than tomato juice. The Etch-a-Sketch tables might require a bit more thought, but definitely worth the effort, IMHO.

  6. Kent Graziano says:

    Peanuts? None of the airlines I fly serve those anymore lest there be a nut-allergy incident! Sadly most airlines today only give you a limited drink choice anymore but you can now purchase ($$) your meal/or snack depending on how long the flight is.

    One exception to the rule is Continental Airlines. They actually give you food (no charge!) on all their flights over 2 hours. We just flew on one of their new 767 planes and it has brand new seat back entertainment systems complete with a hand held video game remote with lots of free shows and games. My six year old played a version of space invaders for 2.5 hours (his mother was greatly relieved!). We got to watch the movies of our choice. Very nice – dinner and a movie!

    As for really FUN airlines, you have to look at Frontier Airlines out of Denver. They have the greatest animal characters on the tail of every plane and some truely hysterical commercials featuring singing animals. Must be something about the atmosphere in Denver (or is it the lack of oxygen?). Check it out at:;jsessionid=C272A6BBE882C4E6B105585E649B7420

    • Kent,
      That Frontier Airlines looks pretty cool. And I like the idea about dinner and a movie — it almost makes going on a flight feel like a date! We fly Delta a lot and they offer a choice of peanuts or cookies, which of course are scarfed down in 1.2 seconds. It still costs about $375 for a bag of chips, though.

  7. One time we went on vacation to Thailand (we lived in the Philippines at the time), and my dad, my brother and I got bumped up to first class. (For what it’s worth, I think we flew Cathay Pacific that time.) As we were on the leg headed toward Bangkok, they gave us all kinds of things, including orchid corsages (Thailand is known for its orchids), and they kept bringing us refills on drinks. Not to mention the great food. That was an amazing trip. After we got off the plane, my mom asked us if we visited the first class lounge (upstairs on the 747). We wished she had mentioned that before we boarded, as we didn’t know the first class had a lounge.

    I don’t remember if it was the same flight, but one of the flights on that trip, we had a hilarious pilot (or whoever was talking on the loudspeaker). At one point he told us that smoking was prohibited, “or you will be immediately flushed from the aircraft.”

    Keep in mind that this was in 1990–19 years ago–and I still remember it. I can’t say that for most flights I’ve taken. :-)

    Can that already be 19 years ago?! where’d the time go???

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