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And I'd like another bag of pretzels while you're at it

August 13, 2006

Mr. Glenn F. Tilton, Chairman and CEO
United Airlines
PO Box 66100
Chicago, IL 60666

Dear Mr. Tilton:

On July 27, 2006, my family and I had the pleasure of taking United's flight 559 from Chicago (ORD) to San Jose (SJC).  Since I am a traveler of some small experience — see those three-letter airport codes?  Not just anybody could look those up on her itinerary, bub — I was supremely well-equipped with food, drink, diversions, and diapers for my 18-month-old son.

As a brief digression, it may interest you to know that his name is Charlie, he can walk, he always travels in a purchased seat of his own — thereby entitling him, I believe, to adequate toilet facilities on board — and the cake is still all gone.

But back to the matter at hand.  We boarded the plane and secured Charlie in his seat without incident.  The next hour and a half was somewhat unpleasant, with our aircraft motionless on the tarmac as ORD air traffic control decided to feng shui the shit out of its departing flights, moving every single plane over to the opposite side of the airport.  (If I didn't know your crew members were mild-mannered, courteous, and judicious to a man, I'd swear I overheard the pilot mutter something like, "All the way over to 32J?  Yeah, well, you can take your lo pan and shove it straight up your Helpful Friends and Travel corner.") 

During this long interval, we were instructed to get up to use the lavatories "only if you really, really, desperately need to go," and I quote.  (I chose to keep my seat, if the state of my bladder on the date in question is of any relevance to your consideration of this matter.)  Charlie then fussed and squirmed a bit, confined in his seat, forbidden to move freely about the cabin, use his personal electronic devices, or retrieve his personal belongings from the overhead bin, but overall he was as well behaved as we could reasonably expect.  Thanks, Mr. Tilton — aw, hell, I'll just call you Glenn, because I like you — for putting those sudoku puzzles in the in-flight magazine.  He loves those.

Once we were airborne at last, I was eager to free Charlie from his seat for a bit, so I walked up and down the aisle with him in my arms.  One of our trips took us as far back as the galley, which is, on a 757, located just to the rear of the lavatories.  (You probably don't do this on airplanes like they do on ships, but just because I'm feeling all jaunty, let's call it astern, me hearty.  And a fine yo ho ho to you, sir.)  A plump and comely serving wench — whoops, sorry, a flight attendant — warned me that the lavatories were occupied, thinking I'd come back to change Charlie's diaper.

I hadn't planned to just then, having girded his toddling loins with an overnight diaper just prior to boarding, but I knew sooner or later I'd need to, Charlie having consumed approximately two quarts of milk and a whole school of goldfish while sitting on the ground in Chicago, so I asked the flight attendant whether there were changing tables in the lavatories.

No, she told me.  No, there were not.  No changing tables on a 757, the aircraft that constitutes the core of your domestic fleet.

Now, I don't know how old the specific plane in question was, but since 757s have only been in production since the early '80s, we'll agree that it's probably no more than 20 years old.  Maybe we're expected to believe that in the '80s when the 757 first rolled off the assembly line, parents didn't travel with their small children in tow.  Or maybe the design of the plane was intended to harken back to the days when children wandered bottomless through the mule tracks of their villages, squatting unself-consciously wherever the impulse seized them.  (The extra space in bulkhead suddenly makes more sense.)  Or maybe the designers of the 757 were actually brilliant visionaries, imagining a gleaming future in which children would travel in high-tech hygiene bio-bubbles, their every need attended to through ports, hoses, and those cool integrated rubber gloves where you stick your hands in and just grope around, wiggling your fingers, becoming the bubble.

Whatever the case, it's a bad design, especially on an aircraft used mainly for mid-length and transcontinental flights, and you've had at least 20 years to figure it out.  I assume — wait, that's disingenuous; rather, I merely hope without a great deal of faith — that any 757s United plans to acquire in the future have had this problem rectified. 

More to the point, I would like to know why your company has not seen the need to retrofit its existing fleet with changing tables in the lavatory.  Now, I know what you're going to say.  You're going to say, "Gosh, Julie, I'm sorry, but it would just cost too much.  Chapter 11 bankruptcy, September 11 disaster, blah blah blah blah blah."  (If you're reading this aloud, raise your pitch for those last few "blah"s to an annoying mosquito-y whine.  Thanks.  If I could be there, I'd do it myself.)

But as a frequent customer of your airline, I have to tell you that that just won't fly.  (Not only am I a savvy traveler, I'm one kickass writer, too.  Like how I did that?  Won't fly?  Airline?  Hah?  Hah?!)

I can't begin to speculate about what it would cost to retrofit your existing fleet of about a hundred 757s.  I do know one of those Koala Care fold-down tables costs approximately $150, though.  Granted, it's probably not FAA-approved for in-flight use, so you'd need a different table. And that figure doesn't include the electric drill, the handful of random hardware, the tube of Liquid Nails, the six-pack of beer, the roll of duct tape, the Steely Dan CD, and the big box of Band-Aids I personally would require to get the job done.  So let's move the estimate upward.  Say it'll cost $2,000 per plane to do it.

Seems like it could be a lot more costly not to.  Let's get back, shall we, to the conversation I was having with the flight attendant.  She told me there were no changing tables, remember?

"Oh," I said to her, nonplussed.  "Well, so, um, if I did have to change his diaper, what would you advise me to do?"

"Well," she told me, "we usually tell passengers either to use an empty seat or to spread a blanket on the floor of the galley and do it here."

Bet that made you lose your place in that sudoku grid, huh, Glenn?  Your flight attendants are advising passengers to handle human feces in the main cabin of your aircraft.  Not only are we being directed to inconvenience and probably disgust our fellow passengers, but we are told we're allowed to do so in the part of the plane where food for those passengers is being prepared.

Let's imagine for a moment how this would go down.

[Julie stands at the front of Y class holding a foul-smelling Charlie aloft.]

Julie: Hey, everybody, can I have your attention please?  Yeah, okay, see, the thing is, my kid has a pantload.  Now, there are no changing tables in the lavatories, so the flight attendant has suggested that I change his diaper somewhere in this cabin.  Anyone mind if I do it right next to you?  Oh, come on, people, suck it up! If foul-smelling recirculated air is good enough for the people in first class, it's good eno — oh!  Hey, there's an idea!

[Julie backs up several steps to the head of the F-class cabin.]

Julie: Hi, y'all.  The nice people back there thought you captains of industry might have more room up here for me to change this diaper. You won't mind if I just hunker down in the aisle here, right?  Well, hey, it wasn't my idea.  I suggested they spend a couple of thousand dollars per plane so that you wouldn't have to see this, but noooooo.  Whoops, sorry, didn't mean to get shit on your Florsheim, sir — well, look, if you don't want me doing it here, I guess I could just go back to the galley like the flight attendant suggested...you know, where they're about to make the coffee and pass out snacks...?

[Exit, pursued by a bear.]

Yeah, I didn't think that would go over big with you, Glenn.

So what's it going to be?  Changing tables on every aircraft, or a mutiny in F?  Awaiting your swift and decisive action, and your courteous and respectful reply.



P.S. "Change him in the lavatory while he stands"?  Hahahahahaha.  Good one, Glenn.  I invite you to try it on our next trip.  I'll even bring a Ziploc for the extra change of clothes you'd better have brought.  But you have to mop out the lav afterward using only your hands and a wet wipe while balancing Charlie on your hip so that he can't splash in the commode.  Fair's fair, after all.

P.P.S.  I'm not kidding, Glenn.  Fix it or I'll sic Samuel L. Jackson on your ass.  (Artwork courtesy of Jill — thanks!)