Not-so-friendly skies

Air travel is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it for the impatient. Or for those of us who like peace and quiet, or prefer to stick to schedules, or despise lines, or who love personal space.

The number of airplane flights I’ve taken this year has confirmed what others have long been telling me: the skies are not friendly, no matter how many packets of Biscoff cookies the flight attendants hand out (although they are delicious).

The racket begins on-line, before you’ve even selected a seat or scrambled for overhead compartment space. Researching airfare is a miserable experience, confusing for those with no experience booking, frustrating for those of us with plenty of it. Prices change on an hourly basis, if not faster, and while I have more knowledge about fares and trends than the average traveller, having been a travel agent for several years, I still emerge from the ticket booking experience feeling like the airlines are playing me. Despite training in airline trends and booking thousands of flights, I’ve found very little rhyme or reason to the pricing structure. Few other industries get away with such lack of transparency.

The introduction of a new, lower, and even more debasing tier of “basic economy” must be the most uncomfortable yet. As if coach hasn’t gone far enough downhill over the years between eliminating meals and charging for baggage, this new class of fare, which doesn’t allow for carry-on baggage or seat selection, is nickel and diming people into steerage, more or less.

Then there’s that not-so-small issue of seat size and leg space. As people have grown taller and wider, everything else in a plane has shifted in the opposite direction. According to a 2017 report in The Wall Street Journal, most airlines offered 34 inches of leg room back in 2003. In years since, as fleets have been replaced and “upgraded,” that number has decreased: JetBlue and Southwest, both low-fare airlines, provide 32 inches of leg room in economy class, which is more space than any of the legacy airlines like Delta and United. Most expect you to stuff your legs into 30 or 31 inches, with Spirit Airlines at 28, a challenge for anyone who is of average height or taller.

A few inches doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re a fan of bread and pasta and you’re jammed in next to a stranger on a four-hour flight, those few inches are sorely missed.

I’d be remiss in placing all the blame for problems in air travel on the wingtips of the airlines, though. Passengers must accept their share of responsibility, as well. And I’m not talking just about crazy travelers who make a scene or have too much to drink; a lot of travel incivility tends to be run-of-the mill transgressions that underscore how we’ve lost our manners and common sense.

Everyone has been on a flight with someone who kicks the seat in front of them or adjusts the window shade to let the light stream in, and some of us have had the bad luck of being near a rambunctious or insubordinate child whose parents can’t or won’t prevent them from wreaking havoc on the rest of the passengers. There was even a story, not long ago, where a woman used the cool overhead air to dry her unmentionables – imagine!

This one takes the cake for me, though. On my friend’s recent flight to Palm Springs, the guy in the row in front of them slipped off his flip-flops and plopped his bare feet up on a partition for the people around him to get a good whiff. (Bare feet in flight, by the way, is the pet peeve of more than 90 per cent of air travelers, according to a recent Expedia survey. With the way I feel about feet, a stunt like that would have placed me squarely in the “lost self control” category and I probably would have been the one detained at the airport.)

I suppose everyone could tell a wince-inducing example, but oh well, at the end of the day, a short burst of discomfort usually ends in deplaning for a great adventure. We’ll just have to keep working on gaming the airline reservation algorithm and figuring out how to laugh about our memorable flight experiences.