Tuesday, February 13th, 2007 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/fly-the-blag
arly in my thirties I spent 18 months working for Israeli billing software company Amdocs, and even when I had to take long-haul flights just days apart, I still loved it—the work was boring but that was the price I gladly paid for the fabulous flights. Speeding in a smooth big Mercedes taxi from home in Tel Aviv to Ben-Gurion Airport through the dewy morning, still dark; striding through the terminal at Hong Kong Airport, the green mountains visible through the huge glass windows on either side—the whole experience of flying has maintained its glamour for me, despite the indignities of queuing and the anxieties of running late for the airport.
I love the possibilities for cameraderie at airports. People who are travelling are much more amenable to talking than they are during their routine lives, and generally have more interesting stories. Flying can be a very gregarious few hours.
And if I’m not feeling gregarious, once I’m on the plane I find I’m almost spoilt for choice recreationally. For a start, I can look out the window and glory in the privilege of seeing our fair world from above. (Is it fair to judge people by whether they are window or aisle choosers? Window people see the world as half full, are still up for wonder and awe, while aisle people are more concerned with what ails them, with how easily they can get to the toilet.) An attractive woman brings me my choice of drink. (Again, can you judge someone based on whether or not they choose Bloody Marys when flying?) Then a meal, all packed up in cosy containers, and usually darn tasty as well, despite how people like to complain about airplane food. I can read my book guilt-free, as there’s precious little else I can do. Or I can watch one of the movies they’ve generously laid on for my entertainment. Or I can sit straight up, look straight ahead, close my eyes and think, perhaps to doze, marvelling when I remember that I am in a metal tube up in the sky. Open my eyes. A look down below. Switzerland and the Alps? India and the Himalayas? Forgive me, but I truly am in heaven! How nice if they could just keep flying me around up here, rather than landing me where I’m supposed to be going.
Of course, sometimes you don’t get a window seat. Sometimes you get an oversized or foul-smelling seatmate. Sometimes you’re crowded between two people. And not everyone is as short as me, so they feel more cramped in an airplane seat than I do. And not everyone has the habit of switching to slipper socks, feeling right at home and unsquashed up in the sky. Nonetheless, more often than not, the seating arrangement does work out okay.
Ever since I can remember flying has been one of the joys of my life. I remember as a child in the early- to mid-70s flying down from Glasgow to Birmingham with my parents, mesmerized for much of the flight by the propellors. I knew they were whirring and I tried to catch their motion. How disappointed I was with the introduction of jets—what was I supposed to look at the entire trip?
What spawned this eulogy to flying is an article on Ryanair in BusinessWeek: ‘Wal-Mart With Wings’. I’ve flown Ryanair once and hope I’m not lured by a low fare into flying Ryanair again. Today we look back with reverence at the early years of commercial aviation, when only the rich could afford it and the cultural norms were set: pretty hostesses, uniforms, etc. Obviously, it’s great that flying is now affordable to so many more people (despite its new status as environmental no-no) but I fear that together with that democratization will come a lowering, that future generations will be awed by current levels of service. Gee, grandpa, you mean they just brought you food and drink on airplanes back then, and it didn’t cost you nothing? And you could look out a real window?
On a commercial flight there’s little room for moving about, so in order not to feel like a crated sardine, any feasible level of service should be encouraged. The problem is, I think, that Europeans, despite their high standards of living, do not really have hugely high internal standards when faced with what looks like authority. They enjoy the munificence of their economies certainly, the dozens of brands of honey at their local supermarkets, but at the same time are quite willing to undergo inhumane conditions. I don’t know at what depth they say enough’s enough—if at all. In Rome, one of the cradles of Western civilization, a place that prides itself on bestowing dignity upon the individual, people climb aboard buses to the point that when the doors open they must hold on otherwise they’ll spill out. This includes elderly people, whom I’ve seen missing their stops because they simply couldn’t get to the exit, the bus was so jam-packed.
And in Britain, in a phenomenon I’ve read about but not seen, people queue up all night then get into fistfights for their place in line outside after-Christmas sales just to pick up a few bargains after their own holiday gift-giving season! English writer Julian Baggini wrote recently that the English are a working-class people with middle-class money, but I think this may apply to Europe in general. Whereas the two countries I know best, Israel and the US, have relatively short histories so that the middle class has always been the norm, in Europe the middle class is a relatively new phenomenon: for centuries there have been only the few gentry and the teeming masses of poor. Maybe it’s a daft notion, but I’m speculating that this background lets Europeans allow these indignities to be heaped upon them. As one analyst in the BusinessWeek article notes, it’s unlikely that Americans will accept an airline that makes them pay for their Coca Cola. Not that Americans mind paying for a Coca Cola. It’s just that there’s a minimal level of decorum and hospitality expected when captive in the air. Despite their reputation for being money-obsessed, they would rather pay a bit more up front than suffer the indignity of having to cough up for every little transaction throughout a process. There is no widely-used UK expression, so far as I know, for being “nickeled and dimed”.
Ryanair kills the joy of air travel. Usually when you fly you feel privileged, that this is a special place to be, that you are a somebody. The fact that many airlines are national carriers adds to this: the prestige of the nationstate is at stake. But when you fly Ryanair, the second nature in the cabin is stronger than the first nature of being on a new Boeing 737 speeding through the air. That second nature is a general feeling that you are a nobody, that you are only where you are right now because you couldn’t afford anything better, and that the staff are there because they couldn’t get hired by a better-paying airline. That atmosphere infects the entire experience, from pulling up at the city’s least-liked airport to being told snarkily by the cabin staff that they are there “also for your comfort but primarily for your safety.” The whole experience of flying Ryanair was so luridly lumpen that it made me question whether I really needed to bother going to my destination in the first place. [Update: ‘Ryanair forces boy with broken leg to stand all the way from Italy’]
Even their website is determinedly ugly, so ugly that it appears to be deliberate [Update 2016 Sep 5: It isn’t anymore]. Given how profitable Ryanair appears to be, I am fearful that for air travel, and by the trickle-down effect everything else, this may be the future.