plane speaking

WAS THERE EVER A GOLDEN AGE OF FLYING WITH STEWARDESSES IN WHITE GLOVES AND TEA IN PORCELAIN CUPS? WAS THERE REALLY SUCH A THING AS THE JET SET? AND IF SO, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO IT?

Flying – like Morris dancing or smoking crack cocaine – is an experience best avoided; a seemingly incongruous threesome, perhaps, until you remember how many times you’ve walked out of an airport having been led a merry dance or left with dilated pupils, high blood pressure, muscle twitches, abdominal cramps and a disquieting urge to punch someone senseless. Yes well, precisely.

In fact you don’t even need a boarding pass; just leave your car in the short-stay car park at Edinburgh Airport for sixteen minutes and feel the facial tremors and the nausea kick in when the ticket machine tells you you’ve just spent a princely £5.90. This is the same Edinburgh Airport which, according to ‘The Herald’, is owned by an offshore company registered in the Cayman Islands and which, in its last accounts, made a pre-tax profit of £22.8 million and paid its Chief Executive, Gordon Dewar, a £547,000 salary and a £31,000 pension contribution.

Dangerous subject to get me on, airport parking. An Airbus 380 – apparently – gets four hours’ free stabling on the apron at Manchester Airport but if you or I left the family Ford Focus in the multi-storey car park for that long, it’d cost us £18.00. Luton Airport – as shit a facility as you’ll find anywhere in commercial aviation – charges £3.00 for the privilege of simply dropping off a loved one – the so-called ‘kiss and drop’ levy – and if you exceed your waiting time, the ticket is charged at a – limitless – pound a minute. There used to be a law against this sort of thing. It was called ‘Highway Robbery’.

So leave the car behind and take the train, I hear you muttering. What, like the shiny, new Heathrow Express which covers the 12 miles a crow would fly from London Paddington at a cost of £22 for a single, off-peak ticket in bog-standard class. The mathematicians will tell you that this works out at £1.83 per mile. They’ll also tell you that if British Airways levied fares at the same rate, a return ticket from LHR to JFK, New York in World Traveller – that’s the back of the bus to you and me – would cost £12,612.36 precisely.

Which, I suppose, goes to show that – relatively – flying is one of life’s great bargains. And indeed, it is, given how far you can go for so little. But the ancillary rip-offs are little short of a crime. Luton Airport – again – sells you plastic bags at security into which you can put the 35ml travel-sized deodorant you’ve just bought for £1.99 at WH Smith when a 150ml bottle on the High Street would cost you £1. And if the mathematicians are still with us, that’s a mark up of more than 750%.

Shall I go on? Research by the Post Office reckons that travellers changing money at airports lose an average – an average – of £12.56 per transaction. Belfast International Airport used to charge – and may still do so for all I know – for using a designated smoking area. Bottles of water bought anywhere in Departures can cost you £2.50 a pop only to get confiscated five minutes later in Security and, of course, should you mislay your boarding pass, ‘Ryanair’ will print you out another one for £15, which, frankly, isn’t a charge but a fine.

And then there are the hidden extras. If you’re flying economy to Argentina, the Government here will charge you £73 in APD (Air Passenger Duty) to board the plane in London and the Government there will charge you US$41 in Departure Taxes to fly back again from Buenos Aires. And this is before we start talking about such goodies as excess baggage levies or Heathrow’s Passenger Service Charge – it’s £29.59 per person – or the so-called ‘Breathing Tax’ at Venezuela’s Maiquetia International Airport, a £12 pop to cover the cost of a recently-installed air purification system.

There is no shame in this business. Desperate to bump up the profits in their Duty Free Shops, airports now oblige passengers to walk through the middle of them, so when you leave Security at – for example – Edinburgh Airport, you’re forced to troop up and down a long hairpin of heroin-chic models, walls of ‘Toblerone’ and platoons of whiskey before arriving at the departure gates which, in themselves, are little more than shopping malls with wings. As far as the airline industry is concerned, you’re a sheep to be fleeced or a cow to be milked; in short, it’s a livestock culture.

Take Security where lemon-faced uniforms herd you into pens – the assumption being you’re too stupid to work out for yourself which queue to join – and ball-breaking drill sergeants of both sexes march up and down behind the conveyor belts yelling, ‘laptops, I-pads, liquids, gels, toothpastes out of your bags; all jackets and coats in the trays.’ I’ve no idea what it’s like to be remanded to Brixton Prison but it can’t be that far removed from the screening process at Heathrow Airport. Put it this way, the last time I passed through Security and one of the staff said to me, ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ they put up a pyramid in Egypt.

But I’ll forego a little human warmth if we could just have some consistency. Why do I take off my shoes at one airport but not at another? Why is the plastic bag for my aforementioned liquids, gels and toothpaste perfectly acceptable at Heathrow yet ‘too big’ in Glasgow? How is it one travelling companion – inadvertently – smuggles a penknife through the scanner and another is effectively ordered to remove the rivets from his jeans? And why are you treating me like I’ve just stepped off the bus into boot camp when it was your screw-up in September 2001 that begot this charade in the first place?

Passport control? Don’t even get me started. I accept it’s not much of a job but get out of the booth, will you, and walk among us? And maybe spare us a pleasantry or two? Or just stock the desks with a proportionate number of staff. There’s little to beat landing at CDG in Paris at eleven o’clock at night alongside three other flights to find just one ‘kepi’ on duty at the border. Indeed, if you’ve ever wondered why the Germans find it so easy to invade France, now you know.

And even when you reach the gate they’re still nickel and diming you. You pay for the pleasure of ‘priority boarding’, you’re fleeced for the ‘right’ to choose your own seat and if ‘Ryanair’ follows through on its blue sky thinking, you’ll soon be charged to take a dump. Even ‘British Airways’ – the Radio Four of airline travel – is now charging for food and drink in the name of ‘better choice’. Really? You want to offer me a choice? Okay, my first choice is to be given a free gin and tonic on my flight to Dublin – like I used to – rather than pay you five quid for it. My second choice is for you to stop insulting my intelligence.

Effectively, of course, airlines have two ways of stinging you. The first is as above; to charge you for things you used to get for free or to remove them altogether. ‘American Airlines’ reportedly saved $100,000 by taking the olives out of their salads although they left them in for the dry martinis in Club Class. The second – allied to the first – is to provide a service that’s so crap you’ll cheerfully pay through the nose – priority-boarding, seat at the front, free peanuts in a lounge – to mitigate the unalloyed misery. Timothy Wu is a Professor at Columbia University and in a piece in the ‘New Yorker’ entitled ‘Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer’, he described this policy not just as ‘calculated misery’ but as the cornerstone of their business model.

It’s a case study, he says, in consumer psychology in which the customer actually pays more for less and still thinks he’s getting a good deal. Not surprisingly, the industry loves it. Recent figures show that America’s commercial airlines made a collective profit of $5.5 billion in a single quarter at a time when customer complaints were up 20%; in other words, the more people hate you, the more money you make. ‘Ryanair’ – once described as ‘an international byword for consumer trauma’ – has made a small fortune out of this mantra, the O’Leary view being that if the flight’s cheap enough, no one apart from serial whiners, tree-huggers and social climbers gives a stuff how wide the seat is or whether there’s a free cup of tea.

So essentially it’s our fault. Why? Because we shop for flights in just one dimension – price – which in turn means the airlines have to come up with leaner, meaner fares and claw back the difference by ‘up-charging’ for everything else. The only suspicion is whether the industry – increasingly centralised into vast consortia – colludes to distort the market but if it does – and the Department of Justice in the USA has its gumshoes on the case – good luck trying to prove it.

And in defence of the airlines – I cannot believe I just typed that – it’s the passengers who’re the bane of the flying experience. Yes, I know, it’s the carriers who, even when we’re at 28,000 feet and trying to sleep through the suffering, still try to flog us an eclectic mix of eau de toilette, scratch cards and bacon sandwiches before browbeating us into donating to whichever charity they’ve chosen to try to improve their Corporate Social Responsibility rating but as Sartre – irrefutably – said, ‘hell is other people’. He must have been a One World Frequent Flyer.

Where do we start? How about with the guy in the seat behind you who can’t get to his feet without grabbing hold of your headrest and yanking it clean off its hinges? Or, on a similar theme, the people going to the toilet who ‘pole-plant’ from headrest to headrest as they bounce down the aisle, whiplashing everyone sitting in columns ‘C’ and ‘D’? Or the people who snore. Or – even worse – the people who snore and drool? Or who honk to high heaven? And let’s not forget – how could we – the consumptives, the wheezers, the sneezers, the sniffers, the twitchers, the nail-biters, the cuticle pickers, the knuckle crackers and the people who hawk into the safety card and then put it back in the seat pocket. No, really, that actually happened.

Flying these days – as someone even older than me once described it – is about as comfortable as touring America in the 1970s in a Greyhound Bus; in fact it’s worse, given the seats nowadays are flimsier, narrower and more tightly spaced. Put it this way, packed in like pigs in a pen there is simply no room for inconsideration yet, invariably, empathy is in short supply. I can barely open my laptop on the tray-table so when you recline your seat without warning to give me an uninterrupted view of your dandruff and you almost snap the screen clean off my MacBook Air, don’t look too surprised when I get a little agitated. Yes, twat on the flight to Paris last month, I’m talking to you.

Armrest hoggers? Jesus, if looks could kill. People who’re sitting behind you and push past you to get off first? May your first-born wake up tomorrow morning covered in boils. Mind you a punishment has not yet been invented for the deadbeats who’re late at the gate and then cram half their life’s possessions into the overhead bin – putting a terminal crease in your Fedora hat – before sitting down eight rows away. Stateside these are known as ‘Overhead Bin Violations’ and – in any sane society – they would be made a capital offence.

Caterwauling infants, I can understand – I feel like crying too – but feral children should be put in the hold along with their so-called parents and the last-minute lamebrain who just put a dent in my Fedora hat. You’re a foot nudist? You want to shake off your shoes and socks so you can ‘air out those puppies’? Fine but expect to be slapped very hard and locked in the toilet for the remainder of the flight along with the guy next-door who has trenchant opinions on Scottish independence. Don’t talk to me, all right? I don’t want to talk. I hate people who want to talk. I’m reading a book and I’m trying to pretend I’m not here.

Why exactly do people launch themselves from their seats and start heaving their bags past your face the minute the plane parks? Conversely why do they instantly jostle into a five-mile queue the moment they’re invited to board? Pavlov would have been mesmirised. Likewise what about those lost souls who switch on their mobile phones as soon as the seat-belt sign goes off and start shouting to their loved ones: ‘Hey, we just landed. … Can you hear me? … Hello? … Yes, I’m on the plane … Can you hear me, now? … We just landed …’ God help me, the other day I sat next to a man who conducted an invisible orchestra all the way to Belfast while not listening to any music. The flake nearly took my tomato juice clean off my tray-table.

You could argue, of course, that if you treat passengers like livestock you shouldn’t be amazed if they behave like animals. And certainly you do wonder – in the penny-pinching world we now fly in – just how healthy planes really are. I’m not talking about jet lag, or DVT or the side effects of – effectively – sitting in a veal crate where it’s impossible to straighten your legs let alone cross them; I’m talking about – for example – air quality.

I used to moan about spending seven hours inhaling recycled farts but the evidence now is that cabin air drawn from the aircraft’s engines is toxic, causing headaches and drowsiness. German TV investigators recently took 31 secret swab samples from various passenger planes and found that 28 of them contained high levels of something called tricresyl phosphate, commonly found in jet oil and widely linked to respiratory problems and neurological illnesses.

Are you sure you want to hear all this? A study done in the US in 2009 found that one in seven water samples taken from aircraft did not meet hygiene standards. Some were infected with e.coli – a leading cause of food poisoning – and in many cases the water used to make tea and coffee wasn’t heated to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria. Another study found that 60% of tray-tables on three major American airlines had traces of the MRSA superbug, supposedly a higher incidence than was found in similar tests on the New York subway. The toilets? Literally, don’t even go there, certainly not at the end of a long-haul flight.

But whichever part of the plane you’re discussing, the impression you’re left with is a business that doesn’t give – excuse the pun – a flying £*!% about its customers. There are – minimum – six doors on an aircraft. Why do we only use one to get on and off? Could you imagine doing that on a train? Alternatively you’re ‘deplaned’ – ghastly word – in the pouring rain onto a slippery set of steps and into a bus full of sardines when your coat’s in your suitcase in the hold. Or the one time you get an aisle seat, every member of the cabin crew will have an arse like an ox and dislocate your shoulder each time they flounce down the plane. Or you’ll arrive twenty minutes ahead of schedule – a rarity given 75% of flights are late – to find the ‘Aer Lingus’ flight to Stockholm is blocking your gate and has a flat tyre.

There are people I know who enjoy flying, which only makes you wonder how miserable the rest of their lives must be. One aging acquaintance – I swear – carries paper clips in his pockets to make sure he gets frisked in Security, presumably because – these days – it’s the only sex he gets. And, I suppose, if you can ‘chauffeur’ to the airport, check-in to Business Class, take the Fast Track through Security, flop out in The Lounge, toast your priority embarkation with a free glass of shampoo, tuck into your four-course meal on your linen tablecloth and sleep – flat out – all the way to Hong Kong in your complimentary pajamas then, yes, you can see what Frank Sinatra was on about.

But in seat 26B amid the dregs of Tiffany’s hen party on the last flight out of Dublin to London Stansted in a cabin painted custard yellow and patrolled by a crew of nineteen-year-old Latvians in cardboard suits flogging cold coffee that’s sharper than a serpent’s tooth, the wistful thought of Ol’ Blue Eyes and his ‘one man band in llama-land who’ll toot his flute for you’ takes on a bitter and twisted irony.

Overall, though, I think it’s the details than piss me off the most. Dweebs with no spatial awareness who block the natural flow of a departure hall; losers who don’t get the ‘Stand Right, Walk Left’ concept and then get chippy when you – quite reasonably – hip check them over the moving handrail; flight announcements with absolutely no punctuation; pilots who point out famous landmarks on the other side of plane; bookshops that don’t sell hardbacks; paninis that taste like remoulded tyres; fruit scones that are just pebbles and dust; departure gates and trains – the sodding Heathrow Express again – where there is no escape from George Alagiah and my own personal teeth-grinder, ‘this is the last and final call for those travelling on Flight 4369 to Budapest …’ It used to be a toss up between that and ‘in the event of a landing on water …’ but the sheer stupidity of inviting you to do something for the last and final time takes some beating.

So, there we are; and we didn’t even mention lost luggage, hi-jackings, overbooked flights, the punitive cost of switching your ticket or the surly, supercilious staff on the Air France desk at the infernal Orly Airport. Here’s a thought, though. If you could head back to the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in December 1903 and explain to the Wright Brothers what would become of their flying machine, what do you think they’d think? ‘Hey, a hundred years on – Orville, Wilbur – your amazing invention will work in much the same way as a passenger liner does now; knobs paying a mint in first class and living the life of Riley while every other poor sod slums it in steerage.’ I’m not sure any of us would – or should – think that was progress.

10 FEBRUARY 2017

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