Ask Me Again Why I Thought Flying Was Fun

When it comes to flying, the two most dangerous things about it are also the most thrilling: takeoffs and landings. At least that’s what most pilots will tell you – and probably a lot of passengers, too. But from where I sit, on the plane that is, it’s all dangerous nowadays and not the least bit thrilling anymore. It’s about endurance. Enduring the complaints of fellow passengers, about planning how you’ll get to the nearest exit if something bad does happen, and about having enough time left to call someone you love one last time. With seats both smaller and closer together than ever before – and with one airline planning to eliminate yet more of what little room there is – it’s not likely you’d be able to get out in a timely way no matter what the circumstance.

It’s a risk, and an even bigger one if you’re not in an exit row, but one that people continue to take hoping if someone’s number is chosen, it won’t be theirs.

We recently traveled to the south of France for a Viking Cruise with close friends. When we boarded the plane, we took a good look at the pilots’ faces, scanning for signs of depression, anger, fidgetiness (yes, I know it’s not a real word) – anything that might signal a problem. It’s hard to put one’s trust, or one’s life, in someone else’s hands. How can anyone not think about things like this these days?

To keep people flying, the airlines are into gimmicks that reinforce that feeling of being “special” in an era when people have embraced narcissism in a big way, this generation’s mantra being “It’s all about Me. Me. Me. Me.”

As we boarded one of the six flights it took to get to France and back, Delta and its affiliates (Air France and KLM) made a big deal of distinguishing between Premier Passengers, Sky Priority Passengers, Premium Plus, Sky Team, and Sky Team Elite, to name only a few. Every airline has its own nomenclature, all of it aimed at encouraging the flying public to spend more trying to get a seat that affords at least some measure of comfort, which both overtly and subliminally enhances the passengers’ status and – no surprise here – puts more dollars in the airlines’ coffers. Like Jerry McGuire said, “Show Me the Money” and that’s what the airlines expect you to do.

First let me say, I have no problem with first-class seats, even if I can’t afford to rent space in one. But here’s the thing – airline personnel tell people to hurry up, get their luggage stowed, and secure themselves in their seats so we can all get on our way. I think we all know that it’s a rare thing to pull away from the gate on time anyway, but worse is it’s the airline’s own policy that impedes that kind of easy progress in the first place. When you board front to back, that’s when people decide to rummage through their bags looking for a book or ipod to entertain themselves. That’s when they take off their jackets and wad them up to stuff in the overhead bin; they rearrange their things, talk, and stand in everyone’s way because they don’t want to sit down yet. This makes everyone, still lined up trying to get by, even slower. I have a question for all those laggards: why wait until you’re clogging up the aisle to do this? Why don’t you think ahead? Prepare? Facilitate the process rather than impede it?

The process is compromised because the airlines want people who pay more to feel “special” and be recognized by all the cheap fliers as such – as if getting real food, comfy seats, being as dramatically separated from the herd of sheep by curtains like those used in hospitals won’t achieve that. And if that isn’t enough to bolster their egos, obsequious flight attendants pander to them. People in those seats pay more for the privilege of boarding first or getting a strip of square cloth draped over their seatbacks which identifies them as special. It’s not necessary. We – all of us – are assigned specifically numbered seats, so what else could the purpose be but to allow the person in them to claim bragging rights? Why not just draw arrows – “A Special Person Occupies this Special Seat.”

And here’s another thing. Not one of our six flights required anyone with carry-on luggage to place said luggage in the measured example they use to qualify its acceptance in the passenger cabin. Not one. And you should have seen some of them – huge, HUGE, rendering the contraption used to demonstrate their worthiness for carryon travel totally meaningless. It’s ignored most of the time.

Bill and I sat across the aisle from each other on one flight. We boarded, stowed our carry-ons quickly, and sat down as those behind us threaded their way through, doing the same when one guy came down the aisle bumping into people in front and in back of him. He was travelling alone and lumbering down the aisle ineptly trying to maneuver a large – too large, had anyone bothered to check – gym bag that could easily have held several two-by-fours in addition to everything else. It was cumbersome and unwieldy, causing him problems as he navigated his way to his seat, its contents shifting and spilling onto the narrow floor. Bill picked them up and returned them to him and watched as he then sat down next to the window in the row in front of Bill.

But before sitting down, he tried to stow his bag in the bin that extended over his row and Bill’s. There wasn’t quite enough room for something that size, and he became flustered, tried to force it in, and, frustrated, decided it was good enough. He took his seat whereupon the bag began to slide out (it was made of nylon) and grazed Bill’s head as it tumbled out. It wasn’t zipped closed all the way and a myriad of items tumbled into Bill’s hands and onto the floor. Bill helped pick them up but the guy shoved them back in in the same fashion as before, not bothering to zip it up this time either. I couldn’t help wondering what on earth he was thinking, but obviously – he wasn’t, though after some significant squishing of item and several irate comments from those still trying to board behind him, he got the bin to close – who says the hand isn’t quicker than the eye!

And what about the passengers? Any little thing is liable to set someone off, and who knows what might happen then. In this case, there were only a few audible groans, but more and more the news leads with a story about “Air Rage” – the first cousin of “Road Rage” – as more planes are being diverted to the nearest airport so the offending passenger can be deplaned. This, at everyone else’s inconvenience and all because someone couldn’t control him- or herself.

Then there was this, too. The air controllers in France had gone on strike at 5:00am the morning we were to return home. So far, 40% of the flights were affected but ours was not one of them. Yet. Viking representatives would be at the airport to help us through the mess we might be facing and, if necessary, with alternative arrangements. Isn’t that wonderful? There were “No problems with {our} flight from Lyon to Amsterdam” until shortly after Viking said we were “good to go” and cut us loose. Then it was announced our flight was delayed and making our connection to Atlanta, and then the one home, became iffy.

Whenever we fly, Bill is faced with a seatback in front of him that winds up 6 inches from his face and remains there throughout the flight, regardless of how long or short the duration. There is only one way to make this fair for everyone – ALL seats on ALL planes should be fixed so they can’t recline more than 2 inches, tops. (Exceptions do apply for special passengers, of course, as they pay more, obviating the in-your-face problems reclining seats pose for cattle-class passengers.) That way no one person is singled out for torture and unable to move because empty seats are essentially a thing of the past on most flights.
There were two or three empty seats in our cabin, so Bill and I switched seats because Bill’s wrath is not something anyone wants to experience – and I’d really hate to see the pilot land to remove him from the plane. We’ve seen enough examples of Sky Rage on the evening news to know how well that works out.

Even our friends, Joe and Mary Jane, weren’t immune from problems. They had been assigned A and C seats which left an empty one, B, in the middle that was quickly filled by a rather grumpy, and entitled, young man. Our friends are tall people with long legs, so their suffering was already acute before the man between them cramped them further. Mary Jane, in the window seat, offered to switch with him so she wouldn’t disrupt his sleep when she had to stretch her legs now and then. But he testily declined, covering himself with a blanket (which one doesn’t have to pay for on overseas flights) and proceeded to nod off, spreading out as much as he could, spilling over into every nook and cranny on either side of him like a blob in an old horror movie, and then some. He wanted to get “comfortable” he said as he nodded off. As if there were such a thing to be had in this part of the plane. Ya gotta give credit to this generation for being more “me-centered” than any generation that has come before them.

Here is one of the qualities I love about Mary Jane – the first time she got up, she went in search of an empty seat to which she promptly directed the blob, suggesting he would not now be disturbed by her periodically waking him up and asking him to move. She brooks no interference – love that woman!

But the airlines don’t make anything easy, do they?

When we finally arrived in Atlanta, the moving gate, which attaches to the fuselage allowing passengers to deplane, could not be attached to ours. Why? Who knows? I can only presume they knew we were arriving. There was a two-foot gap that could not be bridged, unless you were skilled at broad-jumping. It took an additional 45 minutes to bring in another one and even that had to be chained to the airplane so we could get off. Why? Again, no clue. And it was here we, now in serious danger of missing our connection, had to collect our luggage and get through a long line at customs. Delays, Delays!

Atlanta. We’d been traveling for hours and hours by this time and doing our best to be positive and cheerful. Right. Another line and another round of security, which Bill did not handle well. He became rather vocal in his complaints about the screening procedures. We really had no time for this but, given we had paid for the privilege of acquiring Known Travellers Numbers (run by the TSA, probably the biggest strike against it), Bill was angry they refused to put it to use here, claiming they didn’t have that capability in Atlanta. They took our money readily enough but hadn’t advised us this only applied to certain airports. Wonderful. Atlanta is a major international hub; one would think this system would be put into place here, if nowhere else. I think we’re owed a refund.

And though our bags had gone through security in Europe and never left the plane until we got here, they sent us through another screening, selecting some bags to be “examined more thoroughly.” In our haste to make the next flight and gather all the luggage we had to account for, we didn’t realize until we were halfway to our gate that Mary Jane’s carry-on bag was missing. It had been set aside for inspection and forgotten as we rushed to catch our flight.

At last arriving our gate, our worst fears were realized: the counter was devoid of personnel and the door had been locked and closed – Yep, the same door they NEVER open once it’s been closed and locked. Mary Jane started pounding on it to get someone, anyone’s attention. My first thought? She’s going to attract security, be handcuffed, and be taken away. So while she was busy there, I went in search of help across the way at another Delta counter, which was still open, as Bill tried to catch his breath. Joe took Mary Jane’s place at the door when she moved to the big windows and tried waving her arms to get the attention of anyone out by the plan. All I could see was Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate pounding on the window of the church yelling “Elaine, Elaine” as he watched the woman he loved kiss the man she was married off to. He, like us, had arrived two minutes too late.

The woman I explained our plight to was kind enough to make the call that, if you can believe it, got that door unlocked and allowed us to board. I’ve never seen that happen, but it was late in the evening and maybe they just took pity on us. Either that or they weren’t enough people around to really worry about making that extraordinary exception at that hour. And after another half hour’s wait on the plane, at that gate, we were on our way home. Our bags, however, did not make it, as promised, flying in by themselves the following morning.

Fun? Hardly. Flying has become a means to an end, something we must endure if we hope to get where we want to go.

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