“If anyone wonders why the airlines are not doing well, it is because flying has been made such an unpleasant and degrading experience.”
— Keith Henson, American author
We shuffle forward grimly in the harsh fluorescent light, carrying our plastic trays. We are subdued, and barefoot. There is no laughter.
“I shouldn’t have to do this!” mutters the elderly man ahead of me, who has horribly gnarled toes.
After setting off the metal detector, I am subjected to a full-body pat-down by a stern-faced woman in uniform who does not make eye contact.
I don’t care. I’m used to it and have nothing to hide.
Not even my 100 ml containers of gels and liquids. They are fully on display in a clear, Ziploc bag.
Welcome to the modern age of air travel, where you are treated like a potential terrorist until proven otherwise.
Now, I don’t mind the pat-downs and the body scans, both of which I endured this week in the span of a three-day business trip. I don’t mind exposing my lipgloss and moisturizer to public scrutiny and I don’t mind emptying the contents of my pockets.
I don’t even mind going barefoot through security, though I am dubious about how hygienic that is.
Airport security has been tightened for the greater good.
What I do mind is bad service and a complete disregard for customer satisfaction and comfort.
Times have changed
When did we go from the days when you were welcomed aboard and felt the magic of being transported to someplace new, to feeling like the lowest-paying passengers on an overloaded cattle boat?
Rates have gone up and service has gone down.
Think about it: you make your own reservation, select your own seat, print your own boarding pass and hoist your own suitcase onto the conveyor belt — and, in some cases, pay for that privilege. It cost $25 for a single bag when I flew with United last week.
You pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket, only to be crammed into an aging plane the size of a paper towel roll, where even short people can whack their heads off the ceiling and there’s barely room at your feet to place your purse.
The only difference between first class and the rest of us was that they were offered a plastic glass of orange juice or water before takeoff and we weren’t. Their seats were just as ratty as ours, and they had had to go through the farce of queuing up behind a velvet rope and standing on a special piece of carpet at the gate for “priority” boarding.
In fact, there are so many “executive class,” “Star Alliance” and other special passengers, I’m surprised they don’t just announce at the end, “and now you losers in economy can board.”
At my boarding gate last week — where I had arrived promptly at 6 a.m. for an 8 a.m. international flight — we were told there might be a slight delay as the captain was en route.
Then there was another delay, but the captain was on her way.
Then they confessed they didn’t actually know where the captain was. Another delay.
Then another. And another.
By then, passengers had been sitting around for hours — afraid to leave the gate in case the captain showed up. Put a bunch of harried, time-strapped people together in close quarters and tensions can get revved up.
One man spontaneously launched into a soliloquy on the value of a strong work ethic.
“What do they mean, the captain is not here yet? Did he wake up with a temperature of 104 Fahrenheit? Is he stuck in traffic? In other industries, such people would be held accountable.”
Nearby, a woman with an attitude problem was talking heatedly into her cellphone within earshot of us all. “Don’t you go putting pressure on me when you’re the one who caused this! How can I answer your question when you won’t answer mine? I’ve been sitting here for hours and now this stupid woman keeps telling us the plane is delayed again.”
Charming. I was dying to see the title of the book she was reading. “How to Win Enemies and Alienate People,” probably.
Next to me, a man was chastising his toddler.
“Stop whining. Why are you poking your mother in the eye? Would you like someone to poke you in the eye? Then why are you doing it? Sit down. Sit. Take your punishment. Your punishment is sitting. Stop whining. Stop asking questions for which you’ve already been given the answer. Sit down.”
By now I had little hope of making my connecting flight. I was in line at customer service to make alternate arrangements when we were finally called to board.
The captain had arrived!
Well, not that captain. It turns out that our captain was never en route. There was a crew shortage and they had to find a replacement.
Once we were all packed onto the plane, there was no apology for the misinformation we were given or the hours we had wasted.
In Toronto, I practically ran through the airport to make my connecting flight, which — surprise! — boarded late.
We were further delayed on the tarmac by the arrival of late baggage.
And during the food service, by the time the flight attendant reached the back of the plane, most of the “café menu” had been depleted.
The friendly skies, indeed.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor.
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