Children, listen up. It wasn’t always like this. Older people have a funny habit of seeing the past as a “golden age” of some kind. “Why, when I was your age….” And then, here it comes.
Often this rosy view of the good old days is false but sometimes it’s true. Air travel is one of those sometimes. But if you are under 20 years of age, all that you have ever known is our current nightmare.
For example, did you know that there used to be two classes, “first class” and “coach”? Coach then was what first class is today. You got a wide seat, some good food and the flight attendants were nice to you. There was no equivalent to today’s coach, that configuration being reserved for government planes transporting war criminals, serial killers and sex fiends to various penal institutions.
And in those happy times, when you got on the plane, usually after arriving at the airport about fifteen minutes before your flight was to leave, everyone boarded together. We were a true classless society, even if some of them went to sit in first class and got extra cookies and a glass of wine.
Today the whole boarding process is designed to humiliate the 90 percent of the passengers who are not in the platinum, gold, elite, one world top-flight people category. In our precious metals-inflating society, even silver isn’t good enough anymore. Silver is like a base metal, something like pig iron that will land you in “zone three” with the real losers.
Because all flights are “full” today, and, more often than not, oversold big time, someone usually has to be thrown overboard. As a result, the desperate folks in zone three are often fear crazed that they will be that someone. Like employers who have convinced American workers that they are lucky to have a job, the airlines have convinced us that we are lucky to have a seat. So shut up and be happy just to get on the plane.
In the past, you could say that “you got what you paid for.” That has changed, partly because you don’t know what you are going to pay in the end. Buying a car used to be an adventure in price obfuscation and bait and switch tactics, but it was a model of transparency compared to modern American air travel.
It starts with buying your ticket and goes straight downhill from there. My current favorite was a flight I saw from New York to St. Thomas for $1,238 that took 21 hours with “intermediate” stops in, I believe, Khartoum, Sudan and Tierra del Fuego.
Then the “add-ons” start. Did you know that they used to check bags for free? Yup, it’s true. It was part of flying on the plane. Now, Bam: fee. Then, just yesterday, my suitcase was one pound overweight. Bam: fee. Then, would you like a seat with 2 inches more legroom so that you will be able to walk upright when you reach your “final destination”? Bam: fee. Then, would you like to get on the plane, not only ahead of the zone three losers, but right alongside the platinum elite? Bam: fee.
(There is a hint here that you could use the boarding opportunity to rub shoulders with the platinum elite and do some networking. But in most cases these are just sub-prime zone-three types with a lot of miles. Don’t bother. The real platinum elite is on that corporate jet that is ahead of us in line for takeoff.)
In some airports, you can pay another fee to take the express line through the security check, which doesn’t seem right to me.
Then there is the food, which used to be both real food and free. Today, in first class, you may get real food. But, except on overseas flights, even it is inferior to what the little people used to get in coach. Now you have to pay for unhealthy junk food in coach.
Having taken care of your fees, you get to your seat. Here come the announcements. I flew on what the flight attendants proudly told us was now the “world’s biggest airline.” Obviously it was made enormous to benefit us, the flying public, rather than the shareholders and top management.
My favorite recent announcement was that “for security reasons,” the little people in coach could not use the first class toilet in the front of the plane. I struggled to figure out what the security threat from desegregated rest rooms could be and could not come up with a satisfactory answer.
As the airlines have gotten bigger and consolidated, so have the passengers. The only thing that hasn’t gotten bigger is the seat. So there you are in the ninth circle of hell, the middle seat in coach, sandwiched between the 390 pound woman who thinks that five diet Cokes are the pathway to a svelte future and the guy on the aisle who has decided that control of the armrest will prove that he is the macho-man that he always wanted to be. This is the “just shoot me” stage of your flight, that moment when you pray that your book can be good enough to blot out the reality of what is happening.
Once settled, more announcements. Here’s a question: do you think that anyone has ever used their seat cushion as a “flotation device” and lived to tell the tale? But it has gotten worse. The announcements never end anymore.
It is all part of our transformation from having a market economy to being a market society, in which every space and every moment must be devoted to selling something. So the flight attendant, after a lengthy promo, goes down the aisle barking “40,000 miles, a trip back to the islands” as she hawks a new credit card. Her enthusiasm was so great that I became convinced that she had to be working on commission. Or, just maybe, in our brave new world, she was told she could keep her job if she signed up “x” number of people for the new miracle card.
As she approached my aisle, and I heard “40,000 miles” for the tenth time, an exact count since I was in row 11, I started to wonder if it would be a violation of TSA or Homeland Security rules if I tripped her, stomped on her and then tore up all of the sales brochures for the card. I decided I couldn’t take a chance.
Has any customer-based industry ever fallen so far, so fast and made such an all-out effort to alienate and foster hatred among its customers? The only real competitors are television/telecommunications (trash and bad service, 24/7), banks (finding a new way to screw you every week), pharmaceuticals (your erectile dysfunction, that could be a problem of blood flow, solve it on the wings of Lunesta) or health insurance (a claim? You expect us to pay a claim?)
But the airlines have to be given the first-place trophy for badness. We should give them credit, though, for one thing. At least they don’t make any bones about treating you like a nuisance and trying to shake every last nickel out of you. Even the dimmest among us know that being platinum elite high-class is a load of crap. If you are flying commercial, there is only one class: sub-prime.
The sad thing is that we have gotten used to it. And for younger people, it is all they have ever known. Put in your ear buds and try to tune out. Like many others, this is one of those things that we should not have gotten used to.