(First published in the Nelson Mail and on stuff.co.nz, May 30.)
God, how I loathe flying. Everything about it irritates me.
This realisation struck me forcefully as I sat in a crowded Sydney Airport waiting for a connecting flight home after a 14-hour trip from Los Angeles.
I like to think of myself as an amiable-enough sort of bloke most of the time, but when I’m travelling I become a cranky misanthrope. Cooped up in oppressively close proximity with my fellow human beings, I develop a strange aversion to them and become sharply aware of their quirks and foibles.
I find myself muttering under my breath at people who take too long at the check-in counter or try to stuff too much into the overhead baggage locker.
I harrumph over gimmicky, infantile in-flight safety videos that go on for far too long – I’m with Bob Jones here – and I bristle at bossy flight attendants, although most try to be personable and helpful.
I resent being bombarded with clutter – blankets, headphones, pillows, plastic cups – that there’s no room for, and I curse the ever-more rigorous airport security screening procedures.
Most of all I seethe when dopey or inconsiderate passengers hold everyone up. At LAX, hundreds of us sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because someone had checked in their suitcases but failed to take their seat, which meant their bags had to be found and unloaded.
I regard the modern airport as a vision of hell, the more so when I’m stuck in one for hours because my flight is held up, as it so often is. Delays are endemic in international travel, and airlines are very good at avoiding responsibility for the consequences. Just watch the ground staff magically disappear when there’s a departure lounge full of disgruntled travellers wondering where the hell their plane is.
Other airport irritants include scruffy backpackers – a 21st century global contagion – who spread themselves across several seats or sprawl across the floor, obstructing others. In my curmudgeonly state of mind I imagine many of them are travelling on round-the-world fares paid for by over-indulgent parents.
In Sydney I observed another phenomenon of modern travel: I was surrounded by zombies, all blankly fixated by their “devices” in what appeared to be a case of mass Facebook hypnosis. I’m not just talking about millennials here: “senior” women too were mesmerised by their phones and tablets. Not for the first time, I wondered what could be so riveting as to demand their total attention.
In the toilets, I had to listen to men noisily hoicking. Why do males apparently feel the need to do this when women don’t? And what is it about airport toilets that triggers this nauseating habit – or do these slobs do the same at home?
To get to the departure lounge, I had to pass through duty-free outlets where I was assailed by hucksters – polite, attractive hucksters, but hucksters nonetheless – trying to sell me perfume and liquor that I can buy cheaper elsewhere.
Fliers once had the option of bypassing duty-free. Now they have no choice. It’s a racket, pure and simple, but there was no shortage of buyers. Somehow the idea has been implanted in travellers’ heads that duty-free shopping is always cheaper than elsewhere. This has enabled airport companies and duty-free operators to enter a very lucrative conspiracy aimed at exploiting the gullible.
The flight from LAX to Sydney had been arduous, as long-haul air travel always is for me. Some people happily pass the time watching movies, but something strange happens to my brain when I board an aircraft. Though I rarely sleep, I lose all interest in watching movies or listening to music, and even reading palls after a time.
On this occasion I forced myself to watch a movie and chose to see Dunkirk for the second time – a dumb choice. All movies are greatly diminished on those tiny screens and tinny earphones, but Dunkirk – which depends heavily on its spectacular cinematography and sound effects – more than most.
The rest of the time I did what I invariably end up doing on long-haul flights: I gritted my teeth and imagined that by sheer force of will, I could somehow make the time pass more quickly. In the process I almost lost the will to live.
My wife and I had paid extra for exit-row seats, which at least meant I could stretch out. I don’t think I could have lasted the flight squeezed into a standard seat, which these days seems designed for people with the bodies of teenage Olympic gymnasts.
At least I’m relatively thin. How large people manage is beyond me, to say nothing of the miserable wretches who have to sit beside them. And how the hell do obese passengers get on in the aircraft dunnies, where there’s barely enough room even for people of normal size?
I recently read that airlines earn nearly one-third of their revenue from the 5 percent of passengers who fly business class, which kind of puts everything in perspective. Corporate travellers and the rich must be kept happy – the rest of us not so much.
What it all boils down to is this: airlines have made flying a whole lot cheaper by packing more and more people in, but there’s a trade-off in terms of comfort and enjoyment. Only a mug could believe that flying is still the pleasurable and exotic experience that it once was.
It has become an ordeal, pure and simple. If I could take a train across the Pacific I’d do it, even if the trip took a week.