Monday, December 6, 2010

Freakin' Flier Blues

As I was boarding a transatlantic flight from the UK last week, it struck me how the airlines are doing their utmost to provide each passenger a customized flight. But not in a good way.

Back in the day everyone seated on the same plane was assured a relatively homogenous experience; linen napkins in first class and paper napkins in economy, of course, but we were all getting a meal and the same movie.

These days, aside from the fact that we're all on the same big metal bird together, passengers have radically different experiences during the flight. Depending on which options you choose (each with a separate price tag) you could be flying the Concorde, or riding a Turkish bus.

It starts when you buy your ticket. You don't just buy a ticket. You have to decide whether you also want to buy legroom, which is extra. You can also choose to breeze through the security rub and tug for an extra fee, or just crawl through like the rest of us. Lastly, you can check your bag in person, but that's going to cost you extra, and God help you if you bring more than one suitcase.

Once you get to the gate and - I must say, this is my absolute favorite demonstration of the pay-for-privilege mentality of modern flying - there are some passengers who board the plane after stepping on a 2 foot by 3 foot red carpet. For the rest of us, we board on a blue carpet, placed at the identical angle as the red one, but removed from it by about 18 inches. Can't you just feel the love? Don't sully our red carpet with your economy-class flying footwear, please.

Of course,  First Class Fliers, Premieres, Gold Members, 100k Fliers, Upper Classes, and God's Gifts all get to cross that red carpet long before the rest of us. By the time we come on board, the first class and business class fliers are reclined in seats sipping mimosas, their stockinged feet stretched out a full four feet away from them. Eye contact is awkward and to be avoided, on both sides, as the hoi polloi starts the trek towards the back of the plane, peering down the aisle to see where that toddler who flipped a garbage can in the waiting area is going to sit. Meanwhile flight attendants are hand feeding grapes to the passengers in Upper Class. You almost think you hear a lute.

Eventually you reach a section that is clearly NOT business class, where people are wrestling their bags and balling up coats as they stand in their small seat space and you think, "Oh well."And then - wait for it -   you realize this is Economy PLUS, where people have paid extra so they won't get blood clots in their legs while they fly. You, my friend, are even further on, where the cramped space of  Economy Plus that you just turned up your nose at is cavernous by comparison.

And so it goes for the rest of the flight. While they're eating off Limoges china in first class, you're shelling out $5 for a box lunch and $7 for a tiny bottle of red wine from Iowa. Forgot your headphones? No problem, as long as your credit card is still out. I haven't yet had to pay for a pillow, though I know some airlines are charging for them; how do you price a synthetic brick?

But still, it's a safe flight, only half of the Movies on Demand are from Disney, and your seatmate doesn't snore too loudly as she dozes. As the plane begins its descent you think, well, considering I paid a fraction of what they did up front, maybe I'm the smart one on this flight.

That's when the airline turns the knife one last time, with the speech about preparing the cabin for landing. They don't mention waking up the guy in front of you who has reclined his seat into your lap as though you are preparing to shave him, but it's implied. "Ladies and Gentlemen, if you are in Economy Class, please fold up your tray table and put your chairs in the upright position."

"However, if you are in Business or First class, please: stow your footrests, and retract your seat from its horizontal to its seated position. Put the HDTV screen back into the armrest, and don't forget to tip your masseuse. Your butler will bring you your coat and shoes, as well as stock tips. Did you get enough caviar?" Anyway, that's what I heard, but my ears were popping during the descent.

Have they really started charging us extra for cabin pressurization?


  1. You shouldn't knock Turkish buses. At the cost of $12, I took one from Istanbul to Munich in 1985. The seats were comfy, the windows ample, and the shocks had less than 600,000 miles on them.

    On the other side of the ledger, it was 118 degrees, and every passenger was chain smoking unfiltered black tobacco. The windows did not open, and my fellow riders refused to allow even a tiny crack in the ceiling air vents.

    Southern Europeans appear to be seized by some mass delusion that exposure to even the slightest "draft" will result in viral meningitis--or at least a hideous case of pneumonia.

    Oh yes, and the bus had to be pushed to achieve a running start each time we stopped for gas or sundries. When it was time push, the same cry would arise from the assembled throng; "AMEEERICAAAN!"

  2. Welcome to my life! But i've come to see it as adult daycare in the sky. As long as i have my blankie and a bottle of red,i'm happy as a clam. And as long as Blackberries don't have reception up there, I don't care what class I'm in. I'm happily inaccessible. Shira

  3. Well, Werner, that's what you get for being 8 feet tall. People will demand you get things off high shelves for them, ask you to spot their friends in crowds, and encourage you to push their buses.

    Sheebs it is true that once you have kids (especially if you have three of them) the mere premise of sitting alone for a few hours, with no one talking at you, puts a rosy sheen on just about anything...even economy class!

  4. This is why I like Southwest -- everyone is the same (I guess I am a socialist). It's the same reason that I like General Admission concerts; everyone ends up where they want to be. When I think about how much time and effort (and cost) goes into distinguishing the classes from one another, I realize what a huge waste it all is.


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