Saturday, April 18, 2015

When getting there was half the fun

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, April 8.)

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when air travel was an adventure.
My first trip outside New Zealand was to Melbourne in 1972. The plane was a Lockheed Electra, the last turbo-prop aircraft to fly the Tasman.

Air travel was expensive then. It took me months to save for the trip.
There was a sense of occasion; I wore a suit and tie. You dressed up to fly in those days. Now it’s track pants and jandals.

Back then, the term jet-setter was used to denote the glamour and excitement of international air travel. I felt I had been admitted to this exclusive circle even though the Electra was driven by conventional internal combustion engines.
I marvelled at the quality of the in-flight meals and made the most of the free booze. I felt pampered and sophisticated.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when flying ceased to have that delicious allure, but I think things began to turn sour in the 1990s.
What happened, of course, is that flying became just another form of mass transportation – as exciting as catching a bus to Woodville, and only marginally more luxurious.

Low fares put air travel within reach of just about everyone. While this demonstrated capitalism’s wondrous ability to make available to the masses what had previously been the preserve of the rich, it would be pointless to pretend it didn’t have its drawbacks.
One is that airlines have screwed down their costs to the point where nothing is complimentary any more, at least on short-haul international flights. Even the in-flight entertainment is ingeniously contrived so that nothing remotely worth watching is free.

In place of the simple old hierarchy of first-class and economy, there’s now a more complex division between those passengers who buy “the works” – baggage check-in, food and liquor, movies – and the untouchables like me, with their carry-on bags and home-made sandwiches in clingwrap.
One inevitable consequence of the tiered fares is that supposed limits on carry-on baggage, which no one ever took seriously anyway, are now treated with total contempt.

Airlines solemnly warn that the number and size of on-board bags is strictly policed, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it. People struggle aboard with vast amounts of luggage and there’s a fierce contest for locker space. It doesn’t pay to board late unless you’re encumbered with nothing larger than an iPhone.
But of course the most important factor in keeping fares low is squeezing more people in. Accordingly, leg room has been reduced to the point where passengers of my height spend the three-and-something hours to Sydney or Melbourne with their knees up around their ears.

Of course all this can be justified by those cheap fares, but Air New Zealand finds other ways to torment you that have nothing to do with keeping costs down.
Those supposedly quirky safety videos, for example. These seem to go on longer every time I fly. They have assumed Cecil B DeMille proportions.

They’re supposed to show the world how cute and witty and original we are, but they make me want to scream and lunge for the exit. Besides, I can’t help thinking they’re counter-productive, since the safety message risks getting buried under all the celebrity appearances and visual gimmickry.
And is it just my imagination, or have in-flight announcements become more frequent and intrusive? Every few minutes there’s a raucous interruption over the intercom, invariably delivered by a voice that would make fingernails on a blackboard sound euphonious.

Speaking of which, I wonder why we still need so many flight attendants. The only contact most passengers have with them is when they’re boarding, at which point the attendant looks at your boarding pass and helpfully tells you your seat number, presumably on the assumption that you can’t read it yourself.
And while we’re on the subject of useless information, can anyone explain why tradition demands that the pilot always announces the altitude you’ll be climbing to? I mean, who cares? Just get us there.

I could go on. I could talk about the frustration of the long queues at security and immigration. When I flew out of Sydney a few weeks ago, we queued for more than 40 minutes at passport control. I was told it was a relatively quiet day. Thanks, Al Qaeda.
It also irritates me that every time you arrive at or leave an international airport, your route now takes you through a duty-free store in the hope you’ll be seduced by the overpriced designer-label goods on display. Who’s dumb enough to buy this stuff, when cheaper equivalents are generally available downtown or online?

No, flying these days is an ordeal; there’s no disguising it. Passengers are just so many units to be processed.
No one pretends anymore that getting there is half the fun. The drug company that develops a pill to knock you out for the duration of your flight will make zillions.

1 comment:

Apteryx00 said...


One technical point. The Lockheed Electra was powered by jet engines turning propellers (turbo-prop), as you said, and not by internal combustion (piston) engines.

Flying is a lot less glamorous now, but exponentially more affordable. I know which I'd rather have.