Why to Avoid the Middle Seat

Keep your hand away from that seat pocket, lest you want to make some unpleasant discoveries, says reporter Scott McCartney.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with Day to Day, this next story, maybe you'll thank us. It's likely you won't. Wall Street Journal reporter Scott McCartney is here to tell us about just how disgusting airplanes are. He wrote about what people are leaving behind in those seat pockets, and brace yourself. Hi, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT MCCARTNEY ("The Middle Seat", Wall Street Journal): Hi, Madeleine. How are you?

BRAND: Fine, thanks. So what's in there?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Dirty diapers, cups of tobacco juice, french fries, half-eaten hamburgers, all kinds of tissues and things, nail clippings...

BRAND: Nail clippings?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Yeah, nail clippings. People will put anything, expecting airlines to clean it out, which often doesn't happen.

BRAND: So they don't when they're going through between flights? They're not cleaning out those seat pockets?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: The cleaning the airplanes get today is really pretty light between flights. At many airlines, it's basically flight attendants coming through, and they pick up newspapers, trash and things like that, but it's not until overnight checks that seat-back pockets get a real cleaning.

BRAND: And I guess the middle seat is the worse.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: That's what frequent travelers said, for two reasons. One the middle seat is often where parents put kids, and kids sometimes leave the melting chocolate bars, or things like that, and the other is that if the middle seat is empty, that's where people will tuck their most disgusting trash, because there's even more anonymity to it.

BRAND: What do you mean by that? And why don't people just use the garbage can?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: Well, it's an interesting thing. Garbage cans aren't readily available on planes, which I think is part of the problem and I think there's several reasons why people kind of "act out" on airplanes. People behave differently in the air than they do in other public places on the ground.

For some people, there's an element of - and I think this has grown some, I talk to psychologists about it - an element of retribution, if the people are angry at the airline or the service or whatever.

There's also a byproduct of the self-service culture that you never make a connection with the airline. You never talk to employees. When you do, they may be snippy. It's a stressful thing. But there's no sort of connection to, gee, I feel good about this company, so I want to take care of their equipment.

BRAND: There's also this feeling that it's kind of a quasi-private space.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: It is. Travel, you know, as much as we get identified and profiled and everything else, it's basically anonymous. The people next to you don't know who you are. The flight attendants don't necessarily know who you are, unless you happen to be sitting in first class. They may have your name. You're away from home. You're away from coworkers, spouses, free to behave basically anyway you want. And so people do behave any way they want.

BRAND: Free to act like a pig.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: For some people, that's their choice, yes.

BRAND: And it's not just those seat pockets, right?

Mr. MCCARTNEY: No, it's not. Another potential hazard for people are the blankets that are on airplanes. People sneeze into them, do all kinds of things with the blankets, and then they get left and basically folded up and put back, ready for the next passenger.

BRAND: And I don't even want to get into the pillows and what happens there.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: No, let's not go there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: OK. Scott, thank you.

Mr. MCCARTNEY: It's good to be with you.

BRAND: That's Scott McCartney from the Wall Street Journal. He writes "The Middle Seat" column.

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