Whatever happened to the glamour of being an international jet setter and when did flying become as banal as taking a bus?
The golden age of flying in the 1960’s, so elegantly portrayed by Leonardo de Caprio’s faux Pan Am pilot in ‘Catch Me if You Can’ has been sadly superseded by George Clooney’s character in the movie ‘Up in the Air’. It paints an altogether more realistic (and stark) picture of how aviation for both the business community and vacation seeker has evolved into a truly mundane mode of transport.
The imperfect experience often starts well before you even arrive at the airport itself. The hidden charges on flights that initially appear to be a bargain can quickly rack up if you are not diligent in your choices. Those pesky ‘optional’ extras such as card payment handling fees, baggage check-in costs and charges for sporting equipment can turn your initially cheap flight into a rather more expensive one.
Then what about transport to the airport? Taxi firms know you have limited options and shamelessly hike their rates for airport runs by as much as 100%. Thinking of taking your own car? Well you better check out those airport parking prices first. I recently checked out the cost of parking for 7 days at a UK airport and even with the claimed 50% discount by booking online the cost was effectively the same price as the return fare of my airline ticket.
You finally get to the airport itself… and that’s when the real fun begins. Firstly, there is the sheer delight of the check-in procedure. The experience of their long meandering queues to simply drop off your bags make you feel like cattle being lined up to be slaughtered. That joy is then multiplied with the equally lengthy queue at immigration and a brief (and often surly) exchange with the border staff.
And as if that were not sufficient, to complete the holy trinity of ebullience we enter the Twilight Zone of the security line. Now don’t get me wrong, I fully accept it’s something we all have to endure these days but that said, it still doesn’t make the experience any more palatable. Unpacking your laptop, liquids and gels is tiresome enough but having to take off half your apparel is even more annoying. And of course, there is always one idiot who tries to flout the rules (as if they have not been made sufficiently clear for at least a decade) resulting in another pointless argument with the security personnel as to why their 125ml bottle of ‘Old Spice’ should be allowed through because they have already used some of it.
If you are lucky enough not to be delayed (and according to latest figures, roughly 1 in 5 flights are) then you will make to the check-in gate to be confronted by a plague of ants jostling to get on board before anyone else. Some airlines try to operate some kind of system with young families or disabled people going first, then frequent flyers etc. And that’s all fine and dandy until the irksome queue jumpers (who clearly have no embarrassment gene) attempt to push in. You’d expect that these infuriating line dodgers would be turned away when they get to the point where their tickets are checked but most of the time it appears that the staff can’t be bothered making a fuss and let them through much to the chagrin of those who try to abide by the rules.
So with stress levels already bordering on Defcon 1, you finally get to your seat only to find that there is no room in the overhead bins for your trolley case and it will have to be checked into the hold after all (so your cunning plan to travel light and make a quick get away when you arrive has already been foiled). Assuming you are in economy, you then have to cope with the ‘sardine principle’ of both pitch and seat width. Anyone who is taller or wider than the average will suffer more than most but everyone will be at the mercy of the inconsiderate passenger who opts to recline without permission, particularly when you have just placed a piping hot cup of coffee on your tray table. Even the IATA (International Air Transport Association) have recognised that this is becoming a real issue with a “clear, general upward trend in instances of unruly and disruptive behaviour on board aircraft” related specifically to passengers fighting over limited seat space.
Still, it could be worse. A radical new seating design which dispenses with cushioned seats and tray tables entirely is being considered by some airline manufacturers. The seats (pictured below) resemble something akin to a bicycle saddle but I can’t see them catching on anytime soon unless you are a member of the pro peloton.
Assuming you didn’t bring anything to eat and drink then you are increasingly being asked to pay exorbitant prices for a salty snack and / or sugary beverage. And if you fancy imbibing to get you through the flight then be warned that you can be charged up to $15 for the equivalent of a small glass of wine. And even if your meals are included in the price of your ticket, you may not exactly be enamoured with what you are served. One disgruntled Virgin passenger outlined his feelings in an email direct to Richard Branson where he described his dinner on a flight from Mumbai to London…
“On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird”
Yum, sounds appetising (but at least Mr B personally called the traveler to apologise – well played).
If the food doesn’t appeal to you, then I guess you can at least avoid it. However, the simple act of breathing is a tad more difficult to dispense with. A disturbing Daily Telegraph investigation into the quality of cabin air on most modern jets has revealed worrying evidence of toxic fumes contaminating aircraft which could result in longer term health issues. In a further investigation, a German television network claimed that 28 out of 31 swab samples secretly collected from the cabins of passenger aircrafts contained high levels of tricresyl phosphate, a substance commonly found in jet oil. Not altogether unsurprising but it does take a more sinister turn when you consider that several medical experts have claimed that exposure to this particular toxin can lead to a variety of maladies including migraines, respiratory problems and neurological illnesses. Certainly a lot more worrying than the usual noxious cabin odours that we have all had to contend with at some stage in our travel experiences… oh and incidentally if you were the one who dropped that air bomb on a Singapore Airlines flight to Shanghai last June then I suggest you should see a doctor.
Which brings me neatly to the other, erm, fascinating habits of your fellow passengers. Beyond their aforementioned gaseous exchanges there are numerous examples of their unnecessary public sneezing, scratching, sniffing and snoring exploits. But the most disgusting example? A British Airways flight, 30 minutes into a journey from Heathrow to Dubai when the Captain announced that due to an issue related to (and I quote) ‘liquid faecal excrement’ the plane would have to return to London. Apparently the planes crew had examined the problem (who ever said the life of an air steward/stewardess was easy?) and determined that the flight had to be aborted. Lord only knows what they found that was so bad that they had to turn back. Just guessing but it may have been the same guy who was on my SQ flight to Shanghai…
I could continue with a myriad of additional examples but I’m interested to hear if you have any pet peeves that you would add to the list of reasons why we have fallen out of love with air travel?