Why Airplane Seats Come With Barf Bags

One of the last remaining luxuries of airplane travel

barf bags
via Wikimedia Commons

While many major airlines have slowly stripped away the free food, movies and legroom that used to make airplanes sort of fun to ride, there’s one last luxury left to every passenger: the barf bag. And believe it or not, that humble little bag in the seat pocket in front of every chair on every airplane played a big role in making airplane travel more accepted for the everyday traveller.

As Vox’s Phil Edwards writes, the vomit bag was first introduced to the friendly skies in the early 1950’s. However, its creator, an entrepreneur named Gilmore T. Schjeldahl, didn’t design it to give nauseous travelers something to aim into. The vomit bag was actually intended to store food and liquids for a long period of time; Schjeldahl envisioned the thermoplastic lining that makes the bags perfect for someone feeling airsick could be sealed with a hot iron to keep the food inside fresh. Of course, airline companies quickly realized the bags had other applications as well.

In the early days of commercial air travel, air sickness was a big worry both for airlines and for passengers. The planes were small, seat belts were rare and air quality in the cabin was often poor. Pressurized cabins didn’t become standard until the 1950’s and early air travelers often had to deal with fumes and the smell of gasoline wafting about as their plane shuddered through turbulence, Edwards writes. All in all, not a great combination for someone already nervous about being almost a mile up in the air.

Once the jet age took off in the ‘50s, air travel became smoother, with pressurized cabins regulating the air aboard the plane and the ability to fly much higher to avoid heavy turbulence. But those early, bumpy and smelly years left many travelers still afraid of getting sick on a plane. The vomit bag was a kind of security blanket for nervous and nauseous flyers, Edwards reports, helping airlines comfort their passengers by giving them a little something just in case they felt sick.

While the free perks of air travel may be slipping away and passengers may one day have to deal with staring one another in the face or wrestling over sliding seats, they can at least rest easily knowing that little bag will still be waiting in the pocket in front of them.

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