March 26, 2009

The Friendly Skies

“Airplanes stay up in the air only because people believe – against reason – that they can fly: without the collective delusion sustaining them, they would instantly plummet to earth.”

A couple of weeks ago I flew from Vancouver to Toronto for my mother’s 80th birthday. I felt this was a special enough occasion to warrant spending too much money and being treated with complete disdain while wedged into a tiny seat with leg room ample enough for a toddler (though it would appear that even toddlers have issues with leg room on airplanes, hence the need to constantly kick the seat in front of them). When did airplane travel become something to be dreaded more that a trip to the dentist for three root canals?

Am I the only one who remembers the excitement of a vacation that involved airplane travel? It meant that we were going too far to drive so it was bound to be more exotic than the usual visit to cousin Bernice in Detroit. It meant we didn’t have to load up the car with suitcases, coolers, lawn chairs, pillows and blankets (because the hotel/motel/family/friends didn’t have pillows and blankets that we could use?), the dog – and make frequent stops for pee breaks, coffee breaks and “Ooh look, Storybook Gardens. We really must take embarrassing photos of Lianne that will haunt her for the rest of her life”. It meant getting up and walking around without being told to quit squirming, talking to strange and interesting people from all over the world, using tiny utensils and even tinier salt and pepper shakers to season a surprisingly palatable meal. It meant watching a movie on a little monitor anchored into the ceiling at a distance that was either just too far, or way to close to really be enjoyed, but not caring. We were in an airplane for god sake. Watching a movie! The stewardesses were all young, slim, sweet and pretty and the stewards were all, well, um…stewards. Their primary function was to ensure each and every one of us had the most enjoyable and positive experience imaginable. CP Airline’s slogans were “Civilized Air Travel” and “Our World Revolves around You”. It was and it did. It was a golden era (sigh).

But those days, like the days of car bumpers being able to withstand being bumped into, have long since vanished. Air travel today is neither enjoyable nor palatable. Just getting through security at the airport has become a thing of unbelievable frustration. You must now take off our clothes, drink a barium cocktail then pass through a full body x-ray machine. On the other side of the archway you then stand naked, spread-eagle, awaiting the cavity search while being scanned with a handheld metal detector. Meanwhile your personal belongings are being torn apart by a rabid beagle looking for that tube of lip gloss that wasn’t in your one clear, closed and resealable plastic bag with a capacity of no more than 1 litre, the approximate dimensions of which are to be 15 cm by 23 cm or 20 cm by 18 cm . (One bag per passenger please.) Once given the grunt of approval, you must then attempt to put on your clothes, repack your luggage, find your laptop and appear calm and collected as the airport security person is trying to yank the grey bin out from underneath your possessions while muttering that you are holding up the line. And this is considered a normal experience. Don’t even think about trying to clear security if you are 5 years old and on the Do Not Fly list.

Dressed (hopefully in your own clothes, but by now any will do), you try to find your gate, whose location is always in direct correlation to how soon your flight departs (3 hours till departure, it will be the first gate. Departing in 5 minutes, it will be at the opposite end of the terminal, behind the snack counter, under a tarp).

Once on board the plane you are in the hands of the flight crew. Proceed with caution. They may have just come off of a turn-around flight and be grumpy, tired and hungry. (In this case, efficiency is your best option. Have all necessary documents in hand, and a smile fixed to your face. Do not speak unless spoken to.) Or they may have worked in the service industry for 30 years and be grumpy, tired and hungry. (In this case retirement is their best option.)

Since stewardesses and stewards became flight attendants, that’s exactly what they do. They attend to the flight. The overhead compartments are attended to. The emergency exits are attended to. The safety instructions (now in the form of an in-flight video) are also attended to. The galley is attended to (in fact it’s like your kitchen at home – the place where the crewmember party inevitably ends up). But few are concerned about attending to the passenger. Air Canada’s new slogan should be “We’re Not Happy Till you’re Not Happy”, though “The Freedom to fly your own Way” does contain clues as to the level of service they are prepared to offer. (Several years ago I flew on Air Canada’s budget airline Zip – and that’s what I got.) Occasionally you are treated to a flight attendant who, as you enter the plane looks you in the eyes, smiles and welcomes you on board. But ask her for help stowing your carry-on bag in the stuffed overhead compartment (because you are 80 and not as tall as you used to be), a blanket (you are sitting by the emergency exit and there is a cool -50°C breeze blowing in around the door) and a drink of water (because you had to discard all beverages before being allowed through security) and watch the happy gleam in her eyes turn to something a wee bit more sinister. You will be pegged as “troublesome” and will be shun by all the flight attendants. (I believe this is why some people drink too much on airplanes – sometimes bad attention is better than no attention at all.)

Add to this the kicking child previously mentioned, the woman in front of you who feels that just because her seat reclines then she must recline, the 6 ½ foot tall man behind you whose knees are coming through the back of your seat (which you have politely not reclined), the movie playing is Fearless (which does happen to have what I believe is the best plane crash scene ever!), and you are sitting by the emergency exit and have been instructed by the flight attendant that the lives of everyone onboard depend on you being able to remember the instructions that were on the in-flight video (which she won’t repeat because you should have been paying attention), and flying has become something to be avoided if at all possible. We still want to see the world and need to travel for business and visiting far flung relatives, but the collective delusion surrounding air travel is crumbling. Too much hassle, too expensive, too little service. People are rediscovering the joys of train travel, and do I dare admit the good ol’ road trip.

Have you not noticed planes falling from the skies these days? For no apparent reason? I shudder as to the possible reason why.


Anonymous said...

I LOVE it!
Very witty and smart.
Thanks for great writing.

Dan Johnson said...

Amen to that! Excellent writing~"We're not happy till you're not happy...Hah!

Stephanie said...

Oh hun, you do great blogging!