Friday, 2 January 2015

Nuts on a plane

There have been a few articles recently on the behaviour of people on planes. The main ones that come to mind are issues over people putting the seat back and resulting arguments with the person behind, and more recently an article on ultra orthodox jewish men delaying a flight because they cannot sit next to a woman.

So, this got me thinking on what is "acceptable", both on planes and in society in general. As usual this meant a few odd nights composing a blog post in my sleep, and finding, rather annoyingly, that I still have to type the damn thing in the morning.

Freedom of faith

We live in a multicultural society, which means we have people with different faiths interacting with each other, and somehow we want society to continue to work. This is tricky.

Obviously, I could simply take a pop at any religion and pull it to pieces, but let's assume for the moment that it is "human nature" for people to believe stuff like this and there is not a lot we can do about that. Can we come up with rules that allow society to work but also allow some freedom or faith. Can we create impartial rules? Can we decide where to draw lines?

Obviously this is just my rambling views on this, but here goes...

Should we allow people to believe what they like?

Well, in general, I would say yes. As I say, there is human nature, and we cannot do much about it. If you try to ban people thinking in a certain way, they'll do it anyway. However, even this has to have some caveats. As a society we recognise that some people are vulnerable. This may be young people, or people that are stressed, perhaps after the death of a lost one, or people who lack normal emotional maturity. As a general rule we, as a society, want to protect such people and would not want people to get sucked in to some extreme cult any more than falling for some scam artist. It is, however, very difficult to draw any lines here - when is a "cult" an unacceptable scam, rather than a religion?

Believe what you like, in your own head.

I would say that we should not have any sort of "thought police". People with the mental capacity to make up their own minds should be able to believe what they like where it really has no impact on other people. And there is no reason not to allow such people to meet up and discuss things themselves.

Selling religion to others?

One of the things I dislike, but which is inherent in any established religion, is the way that the religion gets sold to others. That the religion tries to encourage others in to the belief. Some are worse than others, and some even go door to door with leaflets!

Personally, I would like to see religion controlled in the same way as any other business. I would like to see adverts subject to the same scrutiny. Saying "you will live on forever in heaven" is not acceptable as an advert, surely. Otherwise, what is to stop me selling broadband with a "guaranteed place in heaven for all customers". How is that different?

That said, there are organised religions that offer a lot of things, and they could advertise those. They offer a social group, with venues and events to allow people to meet and talk to like minded individuals. They offer "make you feel better that your life seems to have a purpose" even. They might organise social and charitable events and carry out community projects. These are all good things that I would have no trouble being advertised and encouraged.

Silly clothes?

Of course, saying people can do what they like as long as it does not affect others, has some issues. Silly clothes is one. I have no trouble with someone dressed up as Captain Kirk all day, but if a religion said you had to be naked at all times, we, as a society, would not find that acceptable. What if you had to cover your face such that you cannot be identified - OK mostly, but what of using a bank or passport check in airport? What if your religion says you have to wear your hair such that you cannot wear a motorcycle helmet? How far do you allow things?


Restricted diets in one of those areas that always struck me as odd. Thankfully the issues are almost totally addressed by market forces - if enough people want food a certain way then food vendors cater (literally) for them.

At one end you have people with allergies, where the wrong food can cause serious and even life threatening reactions. We even have laws on food labelling because of this.

But there are also likes and dislikes. I am sure a lot of this comes down to what you are fed as a child - which makes sense - your parents having learned the hard way what is safe to eat, you learn to "like" that food. However I expect some is down to genetics - a group of people that dislike something that happens to be poisenous survive better. However it happens, it is not easy to change. I like marmite but some people do not, and force feeding them will not change their views on the matter.

In some ways restaurants and food providers cater for different tastes, offering a menu. But they are really not so good when asking about details "does this have mushrooms in it, as I don't like mushrooms" often does not work well.

Then we have choices of diet - whether "on a diet", or choosing to be vegetarian. It amazes me how much more catered for vegetarians are than people that like or dislike some foods.

But then you get in to faith based dietary requirements, and it gets complicated. Not just a matter of not eating certain things, perhaps at certain times of year, but rules on how things are prepared or how animals were killed.

As I say, fortunately market forces do handle this - there is a lot of choice of food, usually. Though planes are a slight issue, you can take your own food easily.


Well, this is where it gets messy.

Planes have to be one of the worse cases of trying to make a multi-cultural society fit together - you are literally crammed in to a small space with no choice but to be so close that you cannot avoid contact. They are quite horrid - topped maybe by rush hour on the underground, but without the shortness of trip or option to get out!

I was amazed how much debate a recent discussion started simply on seat backs. If I pay for a place on a seat on a plane I surely have the right to use the features of that seat, including, if it does it, reclining the seat a bit to make it easier to sleep. I have been in the position of someone getting cross with me over this and I pointed out that I paid for extra leg room (exit row) and he chose not too - his choice to be packed in so much and he should live with that choice. It was not a very fair thing for me to say, but it did end the argument. There have been reports of much more serious arguments over such things. Some people have very opposite views that it is inconsiderate in the extreme to recline the seat. My real argument here is that the airlines pack people in too tightly, end of story. The people put on the spot are not to blame.

But then we get to the orthodox jewish men that cannot touch a woman unless married so refuse to be seated next to a woman - delaying the flight until other passengers agree to move around.

One of the interesting outcomes of such a debate was the idea that the airlines should be more accommodating - not just asking about special dietary requirements but also special seating requirements. They could then put people in seats that are compatible.

  • Allow people to pay for an exit row seat for more legroom, as some do now
  • Allow people to say if they are orthodox jewish men that cannot sit next to a woman
  • Allow people to say that they must not be sat next to a fat person
  • Allow people to say that they must not be sat next to a black person
Ooops - that escalated quickly - there is a (no doubt made up) story of a woman that complains that she must not be sat next to a black person, and the flight attendant manages to arrange an upgrade ... for the black person - because nobody should be forced to sit next to a bigot.

How is insisting on not being next to a black man any different to insisting to not being next to a woman? Why would we allow it because it is someone's faith. Apparently it is also not allowed for them to flay over a cemetery, but should that mean they can dictate the flight path?

Can I start a religion that does not allow me to have things touching my knees? That way I could always be sure of an exit row seat and leg room?

We had another interesting report of someone that was allergic to nuts and the plane staff announce nobody is to have any nut based food (closed air circulation, and all that). That actually happened on a flight I was on - where we had not booked a meal and had (you can guess!) peanuts, a snickers bar and peanut M&Ms as snacks to eat on the plane, and me going hypo. Thankfully we found some crisps. There have been reports of such a case where someone ignored the warning, caused a reaction, and he was banned from flying (ever!). Now, if banning someone from flying is actually a valid and acceptable option I could argue that banning the person with the allergy actually reduces the inconvenience to passengers as a whole. I know that is not the PC thing to say but it is the maximum passenger benefit equation. Of course, the argument is that the person with the allergy cannot help it - a valid argument. I do wonder if "stressed at being packing in a tin can for 8 hours" would ever count as a disability and mean the guy with the nuts "could not help it" either.

I do wonder if there are conditions which really are incompatible for people packed on the same plane. The nut allergy is not quite one, as people could simply avoid nuts, but what if there are cases where you simply cannot put two people on the same plane for 8 hours without some issue which neither of then can help? Who wins? Who gets kicked off the flight and who stays, and how do you decide.

At the end of the day religion is a choice, as it getting on a plane and subjecting yourself you a set of rules that are unpleasant. My overall view here is that, unless you are prepared for the indignity and inconvenience of a flight, then don't take one. Or pay for better seats. Don't force others to accommodate you. This is not denying your faith - you have a choice to fly or not - make that choice in accordance with your faith. Am I wrong?


  1. >> What if your religion says you have to wear your hair such that you cannot wear a motorcycle helmet?

    "On all journeys, the rider and pillion passenger on a motorcycle, scooter or moped MUST wear a protective helmet. This does not apply to a follower of the Sikh religion while wearing a turban."

    1. I know :-) But it is not clear why. Either it is right for the state to intervene, even in cases of personal safety, and insist on a helmet, or it is not. What justification was used to make the law in the first place, and how exactly did that justification not apply to Sikh people? What aspect of being Sikh meant that the need to enforce some personal safety does not apply exactly. Or are we saying the justification was specious anyway so we can just make arbitrary exceptions if we like. Surely this is no different to an exception for a woman that has just had a perm and it would be ruined by wearing a helmet. Or does being Sikh actually convey magical powers that help prevent injuries?

    2. I suppose in this case, it comes down to the fact that it is entirely at the person's own risk. This is essentially a nanny state rule but one of the better ones. There are plenty of people who stupidly wouldn't wear a helmet if it wasn't against the law but no one is going to go as far as claiming to be Sikh to avoid it.

    3. It is sort of saying that the nanny state does not care about Sikhs.

    4. As a motorcyclist, I'm more annoyed that petrol stations et al insist I remove my helmet before fuelling. I don't have anywhere to put it without it getting wet while I'm putting the fuel in. They have my number plate in case I drive off, and they would never insist a religious person remove head coverings for "security".

    5. That one's very easy to resolve: get rid of the nanny-state laws entirely. The state is there to protect the vulnerable from situations over which they have no control; it is NOT there to protect adults from the consequences of their own stupid decisions.

      These laws are not only unnecessary but also frequently used as a foothold to justify further expansions of the state's power to regulate our private lives, i.e. "We already ban riding without a helmet, so we should also ban cigarettes, unhealthy food, pornography, being mean on the internet, or whatever else the Guardian/Daily Mail/Westminster Bubble disapproves of this week".

  2. Your exit row seat upgrade argument is not valid. I always try to book exit row seats, but they are almost always not available because they sell out very quickly. I tried to pay extra for more legroom but couldn't due to lack of enough of such seats on a plane.

    My main concern on flying is I have a bad back and I need to be able to move about in seats and change position. Cattle class seating does not allow this, the seat is so small there is only one position I fit into them. I also have a largely irrational worry of ending up sat next to a very obese person who intrudes into my seat.

    As for reclining the seat, I agree with the recent guidance on this. Only recline on long haul flights and only when the lights are dimmed to give passengers the opportunity to sleep. ie. conform to the day/night cycle the plane uses.

    Religion wise, if the orthodox jew can't sit next to a woman then that's his problem and his option is to not fly. I have little time for such a stupid religion that won't move with the times.

  3. We should protect the vulnerable (ie: the children), a recurring idea for some, yet we let them go to school brainwashing them in believing that there is some kind of God, supranatural being or spaghetti monster (ok unfortunately not that many school assembly mentioning spaghetti monster) when they are obviously too young to critically evaluate the idea.
    Maybe that contribute as much as "human nature" to the irrational believe / behaviour of some later in life.

    1. My daughter is only at nursery right now but I was under the impression that this is fairly restrained in non-faith schools these days. I spent 14 years in the same Catholic boys school and was adamant by the time I turned 16 that it was not for me. I always was a bit against the grain though. ;-)

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  5. What about religious dietary "requirements" for those who are in prison?

  6. Nobody is forced to fly anywhere. If one wishes to fly, one must avail oneself of the available travel offers: Owen Smith with his backproblemshould buy a business class seat, the Orthodox Jew should buy two seats to ensure the seat next to him is empty and the person with the nut allergy should travel on a private jet. If they cannot afford these options, they cannot fly. It is not a God given right to travel in convenience at the expense of the airline's profits or the convenience of the fellow passengers.

    1. I don't really follow the nut allergy issue. Japanese people fly with a mask if they believe they might have a cold to avoid contaminating other travellers, surely people with extreme allergy could ware such a mask to avoid breathing recirculated nuts particle.
      Otherwise fully agree with RSchu if you want space go business if you want no one next to you go business or get 2 seats.
      My religion requires anyone serving me to be naked and crawling on the floor, which company will accommodate me?

    2. I try to buy Economy Plus seats but not all flights have them. Business Class is ludicrously expensive, I don't need all the pointless stuff it comes with, I just need a slightly larger seat. Then there are budget airlines that just don't have any options at all.

      For another issue, Julian Lloyd Weber used to complain that if he wanted his Stradivarius cello to travel in the cabin and not the hold he was forced to pay for a second seat, which he felt was unfair. He felt travelling musicians should be given special treatment (this is on record). Frankly, if you can afford a Stradivarius cello you can afford a second seat to keep it safe from damage.

    3. Exactly. Airlines charge a fortune already, I recently completed a 9hour each way trip to the US, which cost £840 return. There are only two classes of service on the aircraft and business class started at £2500!! I would actually happily pay an additional £50 for another 4 inches of legroom. I could then use the seat back pocket in front, which I have to empty to fit my legs in. Airlines really are 'cattle class' - and we force laws on animal handlers on how to treat them.

    4. Forgetting the fable of Goldilocks certainly seems to be common among corporate types.

      Yes, there are basically two classes of travel accommodation these days: the one sold on luxury and convenience, but where the price is scarcely mentioned - if you have to ask, you probably can't afford it; and the one sold purely on price, and where comfort and convenience are reduced to the bare minimum requirements. Maybe there are separate premium offerings for the truly rich and the business traveller, and maybe there's the option to pre-pay for your in-flight refreshments in cattle-class, but that's about it.

      Time was, there were *three* classes of accommodation on ships, and originally railways did the same on most lines (partly because they sold through tickets to include the ships) - adding a fourth "workmen's class" on some trains, with wooden benches to reduce cleaning costs. But over time, "second class" became rare (dedicated boat trains only) and was essentially first-class compartments without first-class service; in the end, "third class" was renamed "standard class".

      Personally, I'm uncomfortable with being waited on hand and foot. I look at many of the perks that the upper crust apparently expect, and ask myself why anyone could possibly desire such things. I would be entirely content with the basics being done properly: a comfortable seat, peace and quiet, space and power for my laptop, coffee and (if the length of the journey justifies it) a meal. Whether I'm flying or not. That would be worth a reasonable premium on the ticket price, which from the airline's point of view would more than offset the extra cabin space required.

  7. The nut allergy thing borders on incompetence by the airline - nut allergies are quite common and bad ones (less common but not exactly unheard of) really can be triggered by being in the same room as a bowl of peanuts.

    In fact given that there are a fair few recognised food intolerances (egg, soya, gluten etc.) I would think that every airline should ensure that the food on offer minimises common allergens all round. I also can't see that it would hurt economies of scale and ease of serving that much to offer two or three menus even on relatively short-haul flights to make sure the majority of the passengers can find something they can eat - a diabetic who has taken insulin but then can't eat anything is potentially a serious medical problem and insulin treated diabetics are hardly uncommon.

  8. I had a comment, but I clicked preview, the page loaded, and it was gone :(

    1. I've tried to add a couple of comments but they keep disappearing too.

  9. I've never understood why airlines delight in handing out packets of peanuts. I know that pubs put out bowls of peanuts because they make people thirsty and then they buy more drinks. But do airlines want people to drink more ? The reduced oxygen level in the cabin means that alcohol has more effect anyway - and the cabin crew get a bit shirty when people get drunk, start fighting, or have sex with strangers.

    And peanut allergies are fairly common - wouldn't it make sense to ditch the peanuts and hand out jelly babies (for example) instead ?

    1. Unless there were vegetarians on the plane. Jelly babies contain gelatine (boiled animal skin). It just proves you can't please all of the people all of the time.

    2. Vegetarians cannot eat jelly babies as they contain gelatine (boiled animal skin). It just proves you cannot please all of the people all of the time.

    3. I think that would trouble vegans rather than vegetarians.

  10. I don't think it follows that the seat has a recline feature, therefore you have a right to use it at any time.

    This attitude has led to many short haul seats being manufactured without a recline feature at all, partly to work around people with that attitude.

    Ideally, perhaps, seats would still be reclinable, but the social convention would be that it's only acceptable to recline them when the cabin is put into night mode (or by special negotiation with any person behind). This way, for example, seats in planes used on both short and medium haul services can still allow everyone to get a bit more horizontal when a medium haul flight goes into night mode, but we avoid the anti-social use of the recline feature during daytime.

    As an alternative interim measure, I propose that anyone reclining their seat during daytime (as defined by the cabin crew and the environmental controls they excercise) into the space of a person behind from whom they have not gained consent, should acknowledge the imposition by turning round briefly and saying "aaaaaaaaaaaaaah"! in a gloating manner. This acknowledgement would be commensurate with the imposition, and thus appropriate.

    More seriously, there was an interesting Peter Day programme recently on this: