The travails of airline travel

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Sep 1 2013, 16:13pm hrs
At one time, boarding an international flight was literally a high; you felt you were part of an exclusive club, you had pretty air hostesses on call, service with a smile, your meals came with starched napkins and gleaming cutlery, and strolling through undiscovered airports was a pleasurable experience. Cut to the present. Terrorism has impacted everything (9/11 made it even worse). In addition, the new class of airline traveller is now a lot cruder, impatient and even downright rude, and the economic downturn has forced airlines to cut out many of the frills that one had got accustomed to. Entering any airport these days is like breaching a fortress, with multiple security checks resulting in longer queues and frayed nerves. I am constantly surprised at the large number of passengers who still flout, or are unaware of, security rules related to carrying liquids and inflammable items aboard. Thats only while you are on the ground. Once airborne and away from the police state that most airports are these days, you would imagine that, as the soft drink ad says, things get better. Think again.

First, you are no longer part of an exclusive club. Airline seats are full of people who will ask you for help in filling in their embarkation forms since they cant read or write English, snap their fingers to get the attention of the airline crew, and always complain about the cabin temperature being too high or too low. Even the more educated and affluent passengers are now pecking away at their mobile phones and tablets long after the announcement asking passengers to switch them off has been made. All the above is part of a list of most frequent complaints by airline passengers in two recent surveys, one by TripAdviser, the largest online travel site, and another called the Global Business Travel Survey. You can add them to my personal gripes, led by the switch to plastic cutlery. I once had to abandon a Chateaubriand steak because I could not slice it with the flimsy plastic knife it came with. Why have it on the menu then My second gripe is whatever happened to the pretty air hostesses On every international airline I have flown in the past few years, they have become as rare as finding an unoccupied toilet. I suspect most airlines are extending the working lives of their older cabin crew and have put a halt to new hiring.

Back to the surveys, and they do make for depressing reading, especially at 30,000 ft. Among the latest list of complaints was the recent practice of airlines charging extra for baggage, priority seats and mixing up special meal orders. There were also the usual suspectsbawling babies and adults who sneeze frequently without bothering to place a hand or a handkerchief over their mouths, and those who guzzle alcohol because its free but cant hold their drinks. At least in a restaurant, you can move away from a drunk. Not possible in a crowded plane. One complainant objected to the fact that seats are getting slimmer while passengers are getting more obese. In fact, uncomfortable seats and limited leg room topped the list of air travel grouses, underlining the fact that all airlines, faced with the downturn, are upgrading first and business class, which account for 75% of their revenue, and downgrading coach. No wonder complaints about air travel were up 33% compared to similar surveys last year with airlines trying to squeeze profits from fewer flights and fuller aircraft.

What that means is that even business-class travel has become a Darwinian struggle for leg space and breathing room. The biggest perk for veteransfrequent flyer benefitsare worth less and less as airlines give away more miles through credit cards and other arrangements. Seat upgrades are no longer so freely available for those in loyalty programmes. Additionally, airport lounges that used to be a soothing refuge from crowded airport terminals are now increasingly packed. Recently, I was at the ITC lounge at Delhis Indira Gandhi airport and was amazed to see it so crowded. Economic downturn or not, Indias noveau riche seem least affected. Heres how things have really changed. At one time, business-class passengers wore suits, or at least jackets while the younger, most causal types wore shirts and trousers and lately, jeans. At the ITC lounge, two male 30-somethings were in brightly-coloured shorts, tees and sandals, more appropriate for a day on the beach than an international flight. Another couple, also in (more sober) tees and shorts, had a backpack from which they produced enough bags of chips and assorted snacks to fill a shelf at Haldirams. What was more shocking was the fact that at least ten passengers were clutching mineral water bottles to take on board! Flying may be the safest form of travel but its getting pretty grim from what I can see.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express