Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Ills of air travel

Air travel has now descended to a point where one can only say it has become a squalid experience.

I am old enough to remember when people dressed to travel. It was big deal - even in economy.

Now, one can't say that air travel is cheap. It is not. But it certainly is popular, despite the fact that it also is hell. Has become hell.
It has become an animal scrum.

I truly believe that most people are really nice - and interesting. But put them in the miserable airport holding pens waiting to get on planes and they are all the enemy. They sit about looking suspiciously at their fellow passengers, readying themselves for a ruthless ritual of queue-push and trample they to get to onto the plane. As if it's going to leave without them. When called in to board first (after the elite travellers, wheelchairs and babies), because you're one of the poor bloody sods allocated seats in the arse end of the plane, you suddenly find access to the departure gate blocked by a cram of scowling people. You have to squeeze between these sods with the better seats because they simply don't want to let you get on ahead of them. They want to be first on so they can hold up all progress down the plane by fussing around in the aisles while trying to jam ten tons of handluggage into the overhead lockers. The logic of loading the rear passengers first seems to strike some nerve of outrage in the modern traveller. So they push their way on among the tail-seaters and there they are, blocking the aisles in elaborate displays of aerial luggage juggling.

The airlines have their passengers where they want them - absolutely under their power. Well, let's not say the airlines as such. Whatever service or product one mentions these days is in busy answering to voracious shareholders and boards which forever seek higher and higher profits. There is no such thing as enough profit. Only "more". Hence, the interminable cut-backs and compromises.

I've become very sad and disillusioned by Qantas in recent years. A lifetime of passionate loyalty to the "national carrier" has been eroded into, well, straight-out aversion. I feel badly treated. Disrespected.
It is a very long time now since I had a civilized seat allocation from Qantas. It does not matter how early I book and pay - a year ahead! I am still victim to some perverse check-in seat allocation which will put me exactly where I hate to be, bumping around in the tail of the plane. Yes, I know it's the safest place. But it is not the most comfortable. I happen to hate it.
Yet, somehow, there is never any other seat to be had - even if I check in four hours ahead. Told that I can only get seat allocation at check-in, I al told at check-in that all the seats already have been allocated. Am I the only person who can only get seat-allocation at check-in. Qantas told me last time I inquired that I simply did not have enough Frequent Flyer points to merit a good seat allocation. I am only a Bronze flyer. Therefore worthless.
So, this time I chose Singapore Airlines.
Uh-oh. Arriving early at Adelaide airport to get seat allocations, where was I seated? Right at the back of the tail. Again!
And on the next leg to Frankfurt? Well, not quite in the back rows - but in the centre block of the tail section. This was another experience altogether - very odd. It seems the air stewards just can't see you there as they roam the aisles with their trays of drinks or snacks.

On both legs, the aircraft were filled to capacity. Indeed, I heard one check-in queuer in Adelaide mention that the airline had phoned to offer Business class seating if she would reschedule for the following day - the plane was overbooked.
Out of Singapore, Singapore Airlines turned into the Star Alliance flight which meant that it was also taking Lufthanser passengers and those of several other airlines. Needless to say, it was packed to the gunwhales, so to speak.
And there is the barrel over which the airlines have us. Volume is all. Sardine travelling at all costs, sorry, I mean profits.
So it comes to pass that the passengers are just a hapless form of product - willing to accept the myriad inadequacies, most of them with no idea that it was ever otherwise.

And, here comes the crunch, they travel packed in together against all rules of personal space, cheek to jowl with strangers in proximity they would tolerate in no other circumstance. They are fed a thin supply of oxygen to make them docile and drowsy. And, in sharing this meagre air, they share generously the myriad germs being introduced amongst them. Yes, I sat beside a sore-throat and coughing Malaysian accountant on the first leg and across the aisle from a French woman with an incessantly sneezing, nose-blowing streaming cold on the second leg. An ugh of ambient illness. And, that is not counting the chorus of sneezing, hooting and coughing from the rest of the section. Bugs and viruses from everywhere poured into an an aerial petrie dish.
I give myself three days before I find come down with my share of these illnesses. It is the dividend of every long-distance air trip.

Not only do we pay a lot of money to travel, it costs us.
Yes, a squalid business it is.
It is time for some organised air rage.


alex said...

The Major opened it, and Hargraves walked in http://www.blogger.com with his hands full of the morning papers--too full of his triumph to notice anything unusual in the Major's demeanor...

BethB said...

Here, here!! Squalid business indeed! A little piece of hell on earth (well, on and above the earth). A friend and I flew from Washington DC to London in January. The coughing and hacking on the giant metal petrie dish owned by British Airways managed to invade the immune system of my friend -- a young 21 year old getting ready to enjoy her first trip ever to Europe. By the third day in London, she was well on her way to the land of sick. She forged ahead as best she could but feeling lousy definitely put a damper on her excitement. We flew to Rome the next day, and by then it had turned into a major respiratory nightmare. The night before we flew back to DC via London, you guessed it, I took on the bug and tried my best on the 16 hour journey not to infect anyone else -- landing in DC with a fever of 104. I hate flying. I love traveling. You can't do one without the other. The airlines certainly do have us at their mercy. Having been an "elite" flyer for several years, the culture shock of returning to the lowly bottom level of the frequent flyer totem pole was nothing short of amazing. Suddenly flight delays caused by weather became "Sorry, but three's nothing we can do to get you to your destination before [several days later]" as opposed to my "elite" days when the next flight would be booked and upgraded for me before I even knew there had been a delay or cancellation. Every person who buys a ticket for an airline should be an "elite" flyer. What ever happened to customer service? Sign me up for the organized air rage effort!
Beth (your friend in Virginia)

Samela said...

Ah, Beth, I appreciate your comment. It only gets worse. I'll blog the horrors of changing planes in Montreal the moment I get a chance.

Milly Moo said...

Spare a thought for my husband, Love Chunks who endured a similar ordeal toing and froing from Adelaide to Washington October last year - he reckoned that someone with a serious bowel problem was farting constantly on the long haul flight. It was getting to be so unbearable that he seriously debated actually standing up and screaming out: WHOVER IT IS WHO'S FARTING, STOP IT NOW OR I'LL KILL YOU! Wisely, he didn't

Kimmy said...

Keep up the good work.