Monday, December 31, 2007

Holiday Travels (Part I)

(author’s note: this was mostly written on my trip to Rhode Island for Christmas, but finished from my Boulder apartment a week later…)

I read the New York Times Travel section almost daily. It has become part of my lunch-time routine, having (temporarily, I hope) surpassed looking up the latest journal articles on atmospheric chemistry. That, I now deal with in that late-afternoon slump that plagues all post-docs.

But the ability of the NYTimes to crystallize interesting social commentary, new-worthy items, beautiful photographs and good grammar is unparallelled. Due to upcoming travels, I am of course obsessively interested in any mention of Brazil or the Amazon. And due to the sheer amount of flying I seem to do, I am also intrigued by the various articles on the trials-and-tribulations of travellers. There have been a growing number of rants in opinion articles and reader commentary about poor airline service and delayed flights. I'm currently sitting in Chicago airport waiting for a flight that is delayed by over two hours, and, while I get to sit in the luxury of the United lounge, I still had to pay an outrageous sum for a plain tuna sandwich. So the poor people who's flights were not just delayed but outright cancelled have my sympathy.

But, here's where this is going: I noticed a blog-post on the Times by a flight attendant - almost a response to the irate commentary about poor airline service. The FA pointed out that his job was a difficult one, balancing customer courtesy, safety in the face of a post-9/11 world and dealing with the ever-unreasonable demands for more carry-on luggage space. He reminded readers that most other service industries have the luxury of showing an unpleasant customer out the door, but, due to some pesky legalities, that's not possible for airlines. And he reminded readers that everyone can have a bad day or need a few moments of personal time, and unfortunately that's not a luxury for flight attendants. As I read the article, I had to sympathize with the Flight Attendants. It's not their problem that airlines no longer serve meals to Economy class, or that the snacks they hand out are unhealthy and vile, or that the aircraft was delayed and that there's turbulence in the air.

But there was dissent, debate and many, many reader commentaries. It seems that generally people want the service of Singapore Airlines Business Class for Southwest prices. They're fed up with being told that they can't go to the bathroom during mid-flight turbulence, that they don't get meals on short-haul flights (but, really, I remember the airline food from ten years ago. I can't imagine craving the indistinguishable soggy white mess that was either chicken or ravioli and no one could tell which is which.)

So here's my two cents. You get what you pay for - and for an extra $30, you can have extra legroom, and for an extra $300+, you can have an excellent meal and near-horizontality. I agree, the lack of in-flight services on some airlines (like making one pay for headphones) can be obnoxious, but in general, there isn't much anyone I typically talk to (gate agents, flight attendants) can do about it. So why make their lives miserable by berating them?

Economy class travel is pretty phenomenal – it’s cheap (and, from someone with a growing conscience about her carbon footprint, perhaps a little too cheap and easy). And the service is there to keep us safe and sound, not in five-star luxury. That’s for Business Class on Singapore Airlines (or so I hear). Case in point: on my flight back to Colorado from Rhode Island yesterday, the lady four seats over from me stopped breathing. Her neighbour called the Flight Attendants, who couldn’t have been more prompt in getting competent medical attention, and informing the pilot who immediately made arrangements for landing. Within no more than 15 minutes, we had landed in Omaha, NB (a city I don’t really intend to visit again – at least from what I saw in our VERY rapid landing), and shortly thereafter paramedics were on the scene. And we were delayed by no more than 45 minutes in total. Impressive. While some travelers actually had the gall to complain, my thought was that there could have been no better handling of the situation.

In this era of entitlement, we seem to expect the glamorous standards of the 1930's air travel, complete with cocktails and lounging chairs, but for the price of a cut-rate airline. In thinking about my impending 36+ hour trip from Denver to Manaus in January, I did a little web searching. And accidentally came up with a brilliant image: a 1920's poster advertising a trip from the US to Brazil on Pan Am Airlines. The giant slogan over the picture of the twin-engine plane circling the Christ-Redeemer statue: "Only Five Days To Rio". That put things in perspective for me...

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