Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Travel Blog: A Rant in Three Acts

The last time we met I was in DC, watching my SIL marry my new BIL.  Today I'm flying back to Vancouver.  On United.
            What is it about a fully booked flight that reduces passengers and crew to bumbling physical ineptitude?  
            In an aisle seat on a half-empty flight you can snooze from takeoff to landing, unbothered and unbumped.  In the same seat on a full plane, people known coast-to-coast for their dexterity and grace will fall against your shoulders, drop bags on your head, step on your feet and drive beverage carts into your elbows.             I'm convinced it's a run-on effectA run-on effect of the comprehensive, system-wide incoherence that effects the entire bloody airline industry every time a plane is full.
            First of all, the airline charges for checked baggage.  Through the nose.  (Even for international connections, the stinkers.)
            Being charged for the privilege of clean underwear at your destination is enough to rattle anyone.  Discombobulated and lighter of pocket, you have to check your expensive suitcase yourself via a ticket machine,  a system which neither saves time nor confusion - certainly not once you learn that you've still got to queue up to leave your bag - and not with a person who has training and experience in checking bags and making up tickets, because she has been dumped in favor of a person with no understanding of the very concepts of  'bag' and 'connection' - which is an awful shame, because she's the only chance you have of trouble-shooting your multiple-connection ticket after the machine rejected it, firmly and emphatically, three times in a row and the wandering airline rep pretended he couldn't see you any more.
            Then you have to go through security.  I won't even mention that.  It's not the airline's fault.
            On the other side of security, you are tired and cross and want to find your gate so that you can sit down and close your eyes for a few moments, but instead, you need to got and and buy a sandwich before your flight boards; once you're airborne and captive, you'll be charged $7 for a straw filled with hummus, three dorito crackers and a fun-size packet of freeze-dried chickpeas.  Only payable by your credit card, which is no fun at all if you're traveling on an Australian card - the fees are worth more than the hummus. (Which has congealed in unexpected and un-hummus-like ways on the cardboard box your snak-pak came in, and is giving you disturbing second thoughts about your digestion.)
            But the fun really starts at the boarding gate.  The airline's policy of charging for baggage has been met by an not-entirely unpredictable response - passengers lug on board 'hand-luggage' the size and weight of compact European cars.  Strangely, this logical re-alignment of the situation seems to have left the airlines flummoxed.  There is no enforcement of hand-carry size limits, and if you have a seat near the back of the plane you're in real trouble.  The flight boards from the front (please don't ask) and by the time the plane is half boarded the flight attendants are on the intercom, utterly failing to be apologetic, and grumpily announcing that everyone at the back needs to check their hand luggage at the gate because all the overhead slots are full!
            And then there's the legroom issue.  Thanks to the to newly minted concept of Economy Plus class, if you're over five feet two inches tall, you seriously have to consider paying through the nose for the sort of space that used to be industry standard - and still is industry standard, I imagine, in a universe where we're expected to be able to evacuate the plane in less than an hour.             On board this particular flight, we'd used up all our budget on our suitcases and were flying curled up in the fetal position.  The seat pockets in the seats pressing my knees into my chest were stuffed with fliers announcing an upcoming merger between United and Delta.  Smiling white men with sober and reliable ties told us that the future was beer and skittles and flying cream-cakes and pillows of glory.
            And at this point, one gets faintly cross.  These same sober and reliable ties have recently re-cast as paid privelages my luggage, fun-size dorito packs, legroom, and any day now, I expect, the emergency oxygen. 
            I don’t know why they're wasting PR dollars on the merger.  The only thing you can be sure about is that it won't result in anything even vaguely of benefit to the paying passenger.

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