Saturday, February 2, 2008

I hate flying.

I really do. It didn’t used to be so; once a ‘normal’ year for me would consist of several hundred flight legs as I travelled around the globe on business, travel I generally enjoyed. But that was before 9/11, before $90-a-barrel oil, and before airlines’ cost-cutting accountants started viewing customers as the problem rather than part of the solution.

For example, last week the spousal unit and I were in Cuba for some sun and fun; a week bookended by several hours in the care of the travel company’s charter airline.

I passed on the airline’s generous offer to allow me to reserve and book our seats ahead of time for a mere $60, but my expectations of service were, it turns out, appropriately set at that point.

So here we are, on the date of departure, driving to the airport at 2:30 AM, to be there the requisite 3 hours ahead of time. It’s -25C in Ottawa. While 3 hours does seem a bit excessive, when we get into the airport it becomes obvious that the few agents working at that ungodly hour will need most of those hours to book seats for all 200+ of us; something that could have (and should have) been done days before when we weren’t all so sleep-deprived.

Ever so slowly we inch forward until we finally get to the front of the line, are appropriately interrogated, have all our stuff weighed and carry-on bags measured for adherence, get our seats assigned and boarding passes issued. Security is a breeze, and then we just have to kill another hour or so until boarding. Except at 5 AM, nothing in the Ottawa departure lounge is open except the Duty Free. Even Tim Horton’s is closed, with about 50 people standing in line gazing wistfully at the empty coffee makers and doughnut racks behind the shuttered gates.

Eventually we board. The plane is full – not an empty seat anywhere. And then we sit at the gate for two mind- and bum-numbing hours while they “re-boot” a wonky display computer in the cockpit. “It’s one of three redundant systems,” the pilot tells us, “so don’t worry”. Two hours in that middle, claustrophobia-inducing seat built for 120-pound, 5-footers. Who designs those things anyway? If you’re over 5 feet tall, your knees are tight against the magazine pocket in front and your tailbone is jammed up on that ridge at the back of the seat, resulting in a bruising that will take the full week of your vacation to dissipate, only to be re-aggravated on the homeward trip. The designers should be forced to use their seats as office chairs – then we’d get something comfortable.

Okay. The computer is finally fixed and we can leave. (Or so they said – they may just have got tired of messing with it. Perhaps it’s Vista-powered, in which case they’ll never get it working right anyway, and they do have two others, so ... but I digress.) Everyone cheers as we trundle down the runway on our way to 50-degree warmer climes – just a few short hours, and one awful meal, away.

Now we really are a captive audience. First the cabin crew tries to sell us snacks, and things like blankets and pillows and headphones to listen to the crummy movie that’s playing on the 7-inch screen 8 rows ahead. This stuff used to all come with your ticket, now it’s just a way to make a few extra bucks and piss me off in the process. I’m going to be in that sardine can for hours, and my comfort is worth something to me. Raise the ticket price by $10 if you must, but give me a pillow and a cheap pair of headphones and make me think you care about me and not just my wallet.

An hour or so after take-off they come by with drinks. As usual it is all free except what we really want by then – a good stiff drink. Some folks pay for booze. It’s always 9 o’clock somewhere, right? Make mine a double.

Finally we get the meal. By now it’s 10 AM and we are all starving because you can’t bring food through security and nothing was open, remember? So we’ll eat anything ... well almost anything. The orange juice and fruit bar are okay, but not too many folks are able to stomach the egg and turkey sausage on an English muffin. Not only does it taste awful, I actually keep the food label so that later I can try to figure out how much damage to my metabolism it would have caused had I actually eaten it. Carbonates, phosphates, triglycerides, acids; they are all there. It is actually a relief to see whole eggs on the list, for I thought sure they must just be another ‘edible oil product’, designed to fool us into thinking we were actually eating food. A lot of the sandwiches go into the trash with one bite missing.

But then they run out of the fruit bars. It’s not like people sneak in at night and lay down a few more rows of seats that get mysteriously filled by un-booked passengers. They know how many people are going to be on the flight. Number of passengers = number of fruit bars. Should be easy. But still they manage to run out so some of us get nothing edible but a plastic cup of OJ during the entire 6 hours we're in the care of this so-called airline.

After breakfast it’s yet another shill, this time for duty-free goods, and then we are offered a complementary mixed beverage “to start your vacations off on the right foot”. For many of us it’s already too late, but then they hit a home run when they run out of those too.

The wild applause upon landing is not for the crew and airline, but rather relief for our imminent escape from this mini-Alcatraz. Seven days to go, and then we have this to look forward to all over again. Get me out of here! Now!

So here’s a hint to airline marketing teams. If you really want me to choose your airline when I have a choice, convince me that every officer and senior executive at the vice-president level and above ALWAYS lines up to check in at the economy counter, endures economy-class seating, and eats economy meals. Then give us back the little goodies that previously made airline travel bearable. I’ll gladly pay a bit more for that, and I know I’m not alone.

No comments: