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Baggage Handler: What Airport Behavior Says About Us

RadCivlittle.jpgIn January 2008 Jason Barger boarded an airplane in Columbus, Ohio, with a singular objective: to spend the next seven days either on an airplane or in an airport. Think of it as the modern American equivalent of an Aboriginal "walkabout." Instead of spending time in introspection surrounded by the great outdoors, Jason embarked on a "flyabout," seeing what lessons he could learn from going through security lines, sleeping in uncomfortable seats and watching people hump their luggage.

The result of that week jetting to and from the four corners of the United States is "Step Back From the Baggage Claim," a book that isn't actually about stepping back from the baggage claim.

Or, rather, it's about more than stepping back from the baggage claim.


Jason (that's him above) got in touch with me when he heard about my Radical Civility movement. The Radical Civility movement is not a metaphor for anything. It has as its modest aim the elimination of movie texting. If the impulse to be polite should spread to other areas of public life, great. But I'd be happy just to watch "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" in peace.

Jason, on the other hand, wants to change the world.

Though the 33-year-old Ohioan is not an ordained minister, he has something of the minister about him. For 10 years he was the director of a church-run summer camp and helped build homes for poverty-stricken families in Latin America. He sees how we behave on airplanes and at airports as a metaphor for our lives.

"The airport just represents a microcosm of much of the world that we move in and out of every day," he said in an interview. "Using the image of the baggage claim in part, but also other airport images, I wondered: Does that reveal something about our lives away from the airports? Does that tell us something about the way we are choosing to move around the world together?"

For example, why do so many people jump up as soon as the "fasten seat belts" light goes off after the plane lands? Does racing into the aisle really save us that much time? Why, when we enter a TSA security line, do we constantly compare our progress to people in other lines? And what does the scrum at the baggage claim say about us? Wouldn't it be better for everyone if we all just took three steps back and only went forward when we saw our bag?

Writes Jason:

I don't believe everyone who crowds the conveyer belt is merely a selfish person who doesn't recognize the needs of others. I choose to believe that, in most cases, the mayhem at the conveyer belt occurs because we just aren't thinking about what we're doing. My guess is that the very same person who is aggressively jockeying at the conveyor belt would not only benefit from stepping back from the baggage conveyer belt, but could use a step back in other areas of their life as well. Taking a step back from the conveyer belt is a conscious decision to gain new perspective, include others and see the interests of others as well as your own.

The book is a slim 136 pages. Jason said he wanted people to be able to read it on a two-hour flight. He's sold 5,000 copies. Not bad for a self-published book. As a way of spreading its message, he urges people to leave it behind in airports once they've finished reading it. That can't be very good for his bottom line, I said.

"Yes I do need to earn a living and yes I need to have income," he said. "The point is not about money, the point is about the spirit and the message of the book spreading."

That message? Writes Jason: "Only when we begin to handle the small events of our lives can we begin to address the bigger challenges." Going through the airport in a spirit of compassion and gratitude can help us go through life with a healthier attitude.

I am pretty resistant to inspirational books--and there were places in "Step Back From the Baggage Claim"--where I scribbled "simple" and "corny" in the margins. But in the end Jason won me over. I applaud his effort to change the world one baggage carousel at a time, especially since it overlaps with my humble crusade. For in the end, they both boil down to something pretty simple: Think about other people.

By John Kelly  |  August 11, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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I can give a partial answer to "jumping up"...

For those of us with long legs and joint disease, coach airline seating is something like hell. I stand up because it's a relief to stand up - I can rarely stretch my legs during a flight anymore. Parents are walking their toddlers endlessly up and down the aisle, the snack/beverage service seems to take forever, or (invariably) I get to sit next to someone who was separated from their party and someone from that party is standing and leaning on my aisle seat to talk to them at length over my head (talk about lack of civility).

I jump up, because even with "IcyHot" patches, ibuprofen and trying to get one stretch in, I am usually pretty uncomfortable. I don't expect to get out of the plane any faster, but the ability to pop my various joints is bliss after being trapped in the seat.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | August 11, 2009 2:00 PM | Report abuse

I have always wondered about some of the things mentioned in this article. The only post here explains why this particular person jumps up when the fasten seat belt sign goes off. What about the hundred or so others who do the same? They cannot all have the same issue. The luggage carrosel is another of my favorites. Everyone has to crowd up to the device so when you see your bag coming you practically have to be like a football player driving through the line to get to it before it disappears down the line. In general people are not very courteous whether at the airport, mall or grocery store. It seems that people are totally unaware of others, civility, courtesy and decorum when it comes to the treatment of others.

Posted by: OhBrother67 | August 11, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

There's a place in life for equity and virtuosity, but the luggage carousel isn't it.

Experience has shown that if I stand even one foot back then the last clown off the plane will invariably find a way to expertly weasel his way directly in front of me, thereby preventing me from even seeing my bag on the carousel, never mind grabbing it. Just like being behind the inattentive left turn lane motorist - they make it through on yellow, yet I am left waiting for the next cycle...

Posted by: mm489942 | August 11, 2009 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I gave up with the jumping up as soon as the plane stops. I just sit there. :-)

Posted by: Akinoluna | August 11, 2009 6:54 PM | Report abuse

I have to admire you (and the carousel guy)for tilting at these windmills....they will keep turning, in spite of you, but a great many people in your audience, at least, will be more aware. Don't despair.

Posted by: OldLady1 | August 11, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps if Mr. Barger flew for a few decades, his advice might be useful. Someone deciding to write a book after hanging around an airport for a week is just killing trees and getting in the way of those people who have to fly as part of their job.

I regularly fly anywhere from 8 to 14 hour flights. I get up when the seat belt light goes off to stretch, get my stuff out and organized - and to let the poor soul in the window seat have the opportunity to do the same. It is rude to trap a person because you think your principles are worth more than his/her comfort.

The earlier you get off a flight on international flights, the faster you will get through Immigration. Now, if there are already several flights which offloaded before you, this does not help. But unless you know ahead of time, play the odds.

What is aggravating are the folks who continue to sit until the line begins to deplane, then gets up and retrieves his/her items from the overhead, holding up the line for everyone behind him/her. Again - it is rude and inconsiderate to inconvenience others to demonstrate that you believe yourself more "worthy" than fellow passengers. I give credit to those who sit until others have disembarked - unless I am waiting on one of those buses that move people from the plane to the airport. Big picture folks.

Now - as for that baggage carousel. I pick my spot and wait. I don't see people not permitting others to break through and get their luggage. I do see people who don't "pick a spot" shove others aside, then stop and decide that wasn't their bag, then barge out to assault someone else. People pick their spot because this works. I have tried different variations but find I prefer to stand closer so that I can identify my luggage and pick it up quickly. This works fine with larger planes because the carousels are huge. My personal pet peeve is airports where employees remove bags from the carousel before they go completely around. Then people are forced to congregate in one small area instead of being spread out along a carousel.

Posted by: doglie | August 12, 2009 5:21 AM | Report abuse

If you are late to get off any airplane arriving late at night, you won't be able to get a taxi. Therefore I get seats near the front on such flights and am very aggressive about getting off the plane as soon as possible. That includes jumping into the aisle, because if I don't, other people still will, and then I'm stuck.

Posted by: dal20402 | August 12, 2009 7:07 AM | Report abuse

And if you have a connecting flight, your ability to make your connecting is often directly related to how quickly you get off the plane.

Posted by: janedoe5 | August 12, 2009 9:27 PM | Report abuse

It would be useful if the people that wrote these rules actually flew.

With respect to the jumping up, there are numerous good reasons to do so. First it has to do with the legs and the need, frankly, to try to restore some degree of circulation.

Secondly, its a matter of "self-defense" as people behind will come through and potentially bash you in the face with a bag. When you are standing, that does not happen.

Thirdly, time is also important as the "slow" people can cause you to miss connections.

With respect to the luggage pick up, that's a matter of security. Most airports no longer have security to ensure that baggage is not stolen. Many suitcases look alike. I travel a couple of times a month and often check baggage. At least twice a year I have stopped my suitcase from walking off (I believe accidentally) because I was at the belt and saw what was happening. The scrum in the International Terminal is not nearly as bad as Customs provides at least some degree of protection.

Flying is hard these days.

Posted by: dcraven925 | August 13, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

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