It’s in the bag — and on it.

I don’t vomit often when I fly. But I do fly a lot, and so I imagine that I have puked on planes more than most people. I’m not bragging, but I’ve even been puked on by other people on airplanes — and not simply because a seatmate was reading something I’d written and felt the need to weigh in with an opinion.
One time when I desperately needed an air-sickness bag there wasn’t one in the seat pocket before me, and so I had to roll a few glossy pages from the in-flight magazine into a snow cone and hope for the best.
Why, any reasonable person might ask, am I telling you this? Because earlier this month U.S. Airways — an airline I like a lot — announced plans to sell advertising space on its air-sickness bags. Speaking as a frequent flier on many carriers, I am not surprised.
This is, after all, merely the confluence of two trends. First, there has been the tendency by marketers to promote their products anyplace they can. Just for the record, air-sickness bags are from the lowest venue. To wit: urinal advertising. Yup, even there men can multitask.
Second, the airline industry, once known for dignity, elegance and panache — just think of those classic black-and-white photographs of a young Elizabeth Taylor descending the rolling stairway on the runway as she disembarks — has become a largely low-frills business in which there is almost no corner that cannot be cut to save money, and no area or service that cannot be viewed as a profit center.
As ridiculous as the idea of advertising on barf bags might sound, I’m neither appalled nor disgusted, (though, it’s painfully evident, these days it takes a lot to disgust me). The presence of the ads will increase the likelihood that there will be a bag in the seat pocket because the airline will be accountable to its advertisers. Moreover, reading the ads — and then commenting on them to the person in steerage beside us — will take up another minute of the flight, thereby decreasing the time we will spend shopping for pre-lit palm trees from the Sky Mall catalog ($259.99 for the 8-foot royal palm), or contemplating the reality that we are five miles above the Earth in a metal tube that even I know weighs more than air.
The reality is that marketing communications surround us wherever we go. Earlier this summer, a company called Gas Station TV began testing TV advertising on 20-inch monitors at gas stations in Dallas. Why? Because we have to look at something when we pump gas, and it might as well be television. Let’s face it: Even reruns of “Three’s Company” would be more appealing than staring at the pump as the digits for the dollars move at the speed of light, while the digits for the gallons creep along at a pace that could only be called glacial.
Consequently, it was just a matter of time before someone would try to sell us something when we are about as captive an audience as possible: on airplanes. Some folks might wonder if the best moment to try to convince people to sample new products is when they’re about to regurgitate the tuna grinder that already looked a little rancid on the way to gate C-16. Probably not. But most of us won’t be reading the bag when we need it. Most of us will be scanning it when we’re bored beyond belief on the runway, wondering whether that person beside us sharpens the points on his elbows.
I wouldn’t be surprised if 10 years from now the cabins of passenger jets resemble the insides of subway cars, with ads for Club Med, chiropractors and hemorrhoid cremes running the length of the tube.
I won’t even be shocked if someday after an emergency landing a passenger is opening the exit that surrounds a window mid-cabin, and discovers instructions that read, “Lift handle. Pull door inside. Just do it!”
Perhaps when that day comes, I’ll need the air-sickness bags on a regular basis.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 30, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

Leave a Reply