Note: This is a repost from June 2013. Since I posted this essay three years ago, the flying experience has gotten even worse! Hardly a day passes now without some unpleasant airplane incident going viral and hitting the headlines.
The doctor who was dragged off an overbooked flight and injured after refusing to give up his seat.
Parents of a toddler wanting to hold onto his separate seat kicked off flight.
“Chaos erupts at Fort Lauderdale Airport when Spirit Airlines cancels flights.”
And today – “Passengers get into fistfight aboard Southwest flight.”
To be fair, passengers are not always well-behaved and flight crews do not have an easy job. But how responsible are the airlines for creating such stressful experiences? Should the airlines be regulated, as they were here until 1978? After that, several airlines competed for customers. Flying was fun! In the last decade or so, our 10 major airlines have merged or decreased to four. And the four are not fans of making anything fun.
“I feel like shrieking,” I said to the woman next to me on the airplane. She was squirming even more than I was, squished in between me at the window and her husband on the aisle. “But, don’t worry, I won’t.”
We were three hours into our 5½-hour flight, which was an hour late taking off. We sat at the gate and then on the rainy runway at JFK Airport behind dozens of other jets before we were cleared for takeoff. The pilot kept saying, “Another 20 minutes, another 20 minutes …” while cell phones came out and people made calls to change their pick-up times.
She and I had exhausted almost all activities: reading, napping, checking phones and computers, looking out the window, watching a movie (she with headphones, me without, but I was desperate), getting up and bumping down the aisle to the teeny bathroom, drinking, eating.
Eating used to take more time on these flights. Now that many airlines no longer serve free meals, at least in less than first class, there is not the fun of opening the little packages and trying to figure out what the globs are and gobbling them anyway. On my flight going east a few days earlier, I didn’t catch the flight attendant in time to order anything. (It takes them forever to get down the aisle, but if you look away for a few seconds, they are gone.) And my two connecting flights were so close together I didn’t have time to pick up anything at the airport, like a $10 granola bar.
This time, I was smarter and quicker in the airplane and I scored a $10 turkey sandwich with potato chips. I hadn’t eaten in about 12 hours and it was one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted in my life. I tried not to wolf it down, instead savoring every bite for the taste … and the filling of time.
The woman next to me whipped out something from her tote that looked and smelled delicious and I wondered where she got it, but I kept quiet, licking the salt and potato chip crumbs from the bag. Sometimes I prefer not to talk to my seatmates. Suffering in silence beats an onslaught of personal drama or incompatible political or religious philosophies. It’s the luck of the draw – or the airline’s software program.
I once sat next to The Bug Man, as his hat said. I asked what he did, thinking he might be an exterminator. Turns out he was an entomologist (bug scientist) and a well-known bug wrangler who works in Hollywood overseeing movies with bugs and insects (such as “Arachnophobia”). He was interesting and single! (But with rooms full of bugs at home, he said, not appealing to me, a bug phobe.) Later, I saw him interviewed on television and wondered why he didn’t fly first class.
Joking with the woman next to me broke the silence and we soon were off and running (mentally, not physically), sharing our love of yoga and how much we were looking forward to getting back to it. She had been away for five weeks, visiting her son in Spain and her daughter in New York. We discussed our work, children, cats. It was a pleasant conversation and before I knew it, the San Diego skyline appeared underneath us and we were swooping in for a landing.
I’ve always loved flying, especially the take-offs and landings. I’ve never had a fear of flying, but now I’m starting to dread it. In the past, I’ve flown to Australia and Europe with less discomfort and inconvenience than I’ve endured recently on shorter trips. These have included cancelled flights, delayed flights, arbitrarily reassigned seats and airport connections and lost luggage. And it gets worse each year as the airlines think of new ways to torture us.
If the airlines are cutting back to be competitive, why aren’t they offering better service, not worse? Fewer flights perhaps, but at least on time and maybe a little meal?
I cannot image a restaurant or store doing business this way and keeping customers. “You have a reservation for 7? Too bad. We won’t be serving dinner until 8:30. You wanted the booth by the window? Too bad. All we have left is the table by the back wall. You want to leave? Too bad. We locked the door and you can’t leave until we say so.”
How many of us would come back? If we want to travel quickly, do we have a choice? Would a covered wagon be better? I’m beginning to think so. There might by dysentery and wild Indians, but at least we could lie down and get comfortable for awhile, gnaw on buffalo jerky.