(First published in The Dominion Post, June 5.)
A FRIEND of mine recently reminisced that the first time he flew internationally, back in the 1960s, airline passengers dressed as if for a Sunday church service or a race meeting. He wore a suit and tie.I recall doing the same when I first flew to Australia in 1972. Back then, flying had an aura of glamour. There was even a special term – “jet set” – for the elite who were privileged and affluent enough to fly regularly.
How quaint that seems now. The only airline passengers wearing suits and ties these days are the haunted-looking business types you see anxiously checking their emails in the oppressive corporate ghetto known as the Koru Club. Sensible long-haul passengers wear tee-shirts, track pants and sneakers, recognising that any trip longer than four or five hours is an ordeal more easily endured in loose, comfortable clothing.Flying in the 21st century is about as exotic and exciting as catching an Island Bay bus. The modern equivalents of the jet set are safely insulated in first or business class, well away from the resentful eyes of the lumpenproletariat. The rest of us travel in the modern equivalent of steerage, the fetid lower decks where the poor were crammed together in immigrant ships.
Air travel has become just another form of mass transportation: pack the punters in like battery chooks and distract them with multiple forms of in-flight entertainment in a futile attempt to maintain the pretence that flying is still a pleasurable experience – that getting there is part of the fun, rather than the endurance test it has become.You may surmise correctly from this that I have recently been on a long plane trip. If there were an alternative way of travelling long distances, I’d happily take it, but it’s a curse inflicted on all New Zealanders that flying is something we have to do if we want to travel anywhere. It’s the price God exacts for living in His own country.
Is there any other nation on earth, I wonder, whose inhabitants have to fly for more than three hours before seeing anything other than water? Even Iceland, by comparison with New Zealand, is a mere hop away from its nearest neighbour.Yet I read recently that New Zealanders, per capita, are the most travelled people in the world. You can put this down either to masochism or to sheer, stubborn perversity.
ONE THING about long flights, mind you, is that they give you ample time to ponder some of the peculiar things airlines do.Why is it, for example, that when modern aircraft are so technologically sophisticated that they can virtually fly themselves, their PA systems are still so primitive?
On a domestic flight I took in the United States last week, the softly-spoken flight attendant might as well have used semaphore to deliver her safety briefing. No one could hear a word. At the other extreme, I’ve known captains’ voices to come over the intercom at such ear-piercing volume that passengers’ teeth fell out.I have also noted recently a propensity for airlines to refer to their passengers as “guests”, as in: “At this time [airlines always say “at this time”, never anything as prosaic as “now”] we will be boarding guests in rows 1 to 16.”
Now let’s get this straight: hotels have guests, airlines have passengers. I can only speculate that this new terminology, which sounds like the work of marketing shamans, is aimed at making us feel more valued.The word “guest” carries subtle connotations of being pampered and cocooned. “Passenger”, on the other hand, implies simply being carried passively from one point to another, much as a sheep is carted to the abattoir. This is at odds with the image of air travel that airlines wish to convey, which is one of luxury and indulgence.
And what about the issue of cabin baggage? Airlines routinely make announcements about strict limits on the number and size of carry-on bags, but I have yet to see anyone enforce them. It has become the norm for passengers to struggle onto planes toting bags that far exceed the stated allowance, then hold up everyone behind them as they try to stuff their grossly oversized belongings into the overhead storage bins.This is irritating enough in New Zealand but has reached truly farcical proportions in the US, where airlines charge extra for checked baggage. The inevitable result is that everyone tries to beat the charges by carrying all their belongings on board.
I have a recurring fantasy in which a cabin attendant – in my mind’s eye she would be a 180cm-tall blonde with icily cold blue eyes and wearing a black, SS-style leather coat – seizes one of these oversized bags and hurls it out onto the runway. And when the passenger whines in protest, she pulls out a Luger and coolly shoots him in the knee, IRA-style. That might make the baggage pests think twice.