Air travel used to be exciting and glamorous. The first time I ever flew was with my family in the 1960s, and the distinctive Caravelle aircraft seemed roomy and magical. We were served a full meal, and because we accidentally landed in business class, even shrimp cocktail for an appetizer.
Those days are long gone. More and more, traveling by plane resembles a trip by Greyhound bus, albeit much less comfortable. On a recent flight, I struggled to pull my tiny wheeled suitcase down the narrow aisle of the cabin while holding my handbag out in front of me lest it bang into any seated passengers as I made my way to my seat.
Air carriers are trying to do more with much less – that is, much less elbow room, seat space, and leg room, not to mention the dinky, claustrophobic lavatory one has to claw her way toward when nature calls. Most airlines no longer provide meals, which are not really missed, as the quality of airplane food had begun to rival hospital food in terms of terribleness.
I guess these changes were inevitable as airlines started to compete for the business of ordinary Americans. The resulting fare wars have created an economic situation that forces airlines to pack us in like sardines.
That doesn’t mean, though, that travelers should be treated poorly. Yet recent news stories have indicated that flight attendants and other airline personnel have become increasingly intolerant of their customers. Stories of families with crying toddlers or an autistic child being tossed off of flights, passengers forced to sit for hours on the tarmac without so much as a drink of water, and even the racial profiling of flying nuns have made air travel seem positively hostile.
My husband likes to recall a nighttime overseas flight he took with a colleague on a major carrier that shall remain nameless. His friend was exhausted, so he threw a blanket over himself, reclined his seat (in business class) and promptly fell asleep. When the flight attendant came through, she apparently needed him to do something, such as move his seat up or buckle his seatbelt. But instead of quietly asking him to do so, she shouted in his ear, “Sir, what do you think you’re doing?”, violently waking him up. My husband’s response was to say in a loud voice, “Yeah, Dan. What do you think this is – United?” The passengers in the cabin howled with laughter. Dan didn’t sleep for the rest of the flight to Europe.
This is the treatment modern passengers get when we fly. Instead of being treated like valued customers, we are herded like cattle and are at the mercy of apparently cranky and overworked employees who did not go into the airline business to be of service to people.
Isn’t it bad enough that we have been subjected to long lines at the security checkpoint, where we walk the dirty floors in our stockinged feet and get x-rayed before collecting our scrutinized belongings? Aren’t the mingling smells of cuisine from every culture that are now brought on board by hungry passengers enough of a sensory overload?
I realize that many passengers can sorely test the patience of any human being. Trying to get people into their seats and attempting to get them to share limited storage space can be trying. But flight attendants are in the service business. Their job is to be friendly and helpful in all circumstances.
The romance of flying may be a distant memory, but a little kind helpfulness in the sardine can is not too much to ask for.