Posted tagged ‘air travel’

Come fly with me

January 8, 2011

I was on my first ever flight when I was seven years old, at a time when flying was still not normal for very many people. The flight took me and my family from Germany to Dublin, as we were moving to Ireland. The plane landed in a regional UK airport en route, where we were led into the small terminal building and invited to sit in armchairs, where stewards in white coats came to offer us tea and coffee. Eventually we were escorted back on to the plane. Those were the days.

I am writing this post from Los Angeles airport, where I have just struggled my way through airport security. I now feel as exhausted as if I had walked all the way back home. Flying has become a challenge, not a pleasure. The pleasure is in arriving, the journey is the price you have to pay. We understand the reasons for the security of course, but on the way the airlines have turned flying into an obstacle course, a battle of wits between the passenger and the airline regarding fares, check-in, luggage, on board restrictions, and anything else they can make difficult.

Has the age of mass air travel, combined with security considerations, turned flying into something really rather unpleasant, or have the airlines stopped trying to please the customer? I confess I now choose airlines – where there is a choice – on the basis of service and support, and not necessarily price. I no longer value price and efficiency over courtesy and consideration. I think others should act similarly: the time for travel by cattle trucks in the air should come to an end.


At the end of the runway

May 30, 2009

I had business in London today. For me London is a bit like New York – there is a sense of being in the whole world at once. The sheer diversity of the place radiates energy. But there is a catch. To get to London from here, you have to travel there. And all too often, that means Heathrow. And if London itself is one of the places I really like, Heathrow airport is possibly the place I dislike most in all the world. Everything about it is wrong, as far as I am concerned: from the excessively congested skies above it, to the chaotic lay-out, the 5-mile walks you seem to have to do to get anywhere at all within it, the near-inevitability of baggage loss every so often. And then there is that special disaster area that you have to pass through if you are travelling to or from Ireland, that outlying area of Terminal 1 connected to the terminal itself by those weird walkways which, whatever the weather, are always too hot and sticky.

And they have just managed to make it all even worse. You didn’t think that was possible? No, I mightn’t have, either, but it’s true. For some reason they have decided that they need to separate incoming and outgoing passengers. And to do this they have created separate walkways, but only to a point. In order to decontaminate the outgoing passengers from the incoming ones, they have put a regulated traffic system in place, so that suddenly, without warning, you get locked into wherever you happen to be and have to wait there while the other lot are whisked past. Well actually, not whisked, they meander past quite slowly. While you wait. And while you begin to realise that unless they let you out and on to the next area you’re going to miss your flight. But the officious looking man who is separating you from the incoming lot isn’t at all interested, and only suggests that you could have come earlier and you wouldn’t have had a problem.

I understand that some people actually make their travel arrangements deliberately so as to fly to or via Heathrow. I just cannot get into the mind of a person who would do that. They are a total mystery to me, like birdwatchers or flyfishermen. And I am not alone in my dislike.  The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic (which uses Heathrow as a hub) feels the same way.

Sometimes when in Heathrow I console myself that I won’t be there long. Like hell! Because the chances are that your flight will be delayed, and you’ll only find out when you’re already in that completely soul-less departures area they lock you into, from where you cannot emerge except into the sky. When that will be depends on air traffic control. And they like to keep you there for a while. And today there was the added entertainment of a little baby girl screaming her head off. But then again, who could blame her?

Airport blues

May 9, 2009

Today was a day of travelling. I had some business in Edinburgh in Scotland, and I so I flew out from Dublin in the morning and returned in the evening. 5.30am in Dublin airport, and it was pandemonium. The line to get through security went half way round the departures hall, so that despite my rather early arrival I seriously feared I would miss my plane. Somehow I just made it – via the by now habitual delay at the security screening area itself because something had set off the alarm, without anyone being able to work out what. Confusion on arrival at Edinburgh, because since my last visit they seem to have changed where everything is. And for my return journey late in the evening, the to-be-expected delay in the flight, probably caused by cumulative delays earlier on. Well, we still need to go places and I guess we get there, but who can seriously say nowadays that the flight itself and the lead-up to it and disengagement from it are any fun?

It was not always so. The first flight I can remember (which was indeed my first flight) was when we moved to Ireland in 1961. We boarded Aer Lingus in Düsseldorf, landed (and, as the horrible expression is nowadays, ‘deplaned’) in Manchester, before getting back on the same plane and flying on to Dublin. In Manchester we were led from the plane into the very small terminal building, where we were offered armchairs to sit in while men in white jackets brought us tea and coffee. It was extraordinarily civilised.

Nowadays airports are a curious mixture of shopping centre, bureaucratic torture chamber, long distance walking arena. The worse-for-wear survivors of hen party weekends, talking somewhat too loudly, share the space with grumpy looking businessmen, backpackers from Sweden, and people heading for Malaga wearing totally ridiculous clothes. You have this constant sense of seeing all of humanity and discovering you really don’t like any of them.

And yet, carbon footprints and all, I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when a day trip to Butlins Holiday camp was the most exotic trip many might expect to have. Globalising the world through air travel has been a big gain, and so I’ll put up with the discomforts and horrors. And if I meet you there, I’ll try to be nice.

Offline at a great height

November 30, 2008

Two days ago I was sitting in a plane on my way back to Ireland. The doors had been closed and the cabin crew were making the usual safety announcements. I imagine they were the usual ones, though if I am honest I have to admit I’ve kind of stopped listening to these. In any case, on this occasion my attention was focused on my neighbour. He was holding his mobile phone, and turning it nervously around in his hand. It was visibly not switched off. He saw me looking and said, ‘I’m waiting for a call’. I pointed out to him that he was supposed to have switched it off. He mumbled something unintelligible and continued fidgeting with the (still powered on) phone. As the plain taxied to the runway, he continued doing this, hiding it whenever he thought he would be seen by a member of the crew, and then taking it out again.

I have on the whole become sceptical whether having the phone on can really be a safety issue. If it were, cabin attendants would surely demand to see each phone to check it was off, or more more likely still we wouldn’t be allowed take it in the cabin. But nevertheless, I was astounded at my neighbour, who continued to fidget with the phone until long after take-off, at which point I lost interest.

Well, maybe good days are coming for him, as reports are circulating that airlines are hoping to be able to offer mobile services during flights. I suspect that roaming from a few miles up will be even more expensive, but I also bet that there will be plenty of willing customers. I dread the whole thing. As it is, it is becoming impossible to avoid being a victim of passive phoneitis, with loud but inane phone calls now being standard in absolutely every setting. It’s not just the disturbance, it is the sheer irritation that at any rate I feel at the thought of all these people who simply cannot switch off; well actually, they can switch off intelligence, courtesy and sophistication, but not the sheer triviality of most mobile communication.

My grandmother used to say that it is only when we stop talking that we realise we have nothing to say. And if we stay silent long enough, we can begin to communicate properly. And so I can say to any airline considering this that mobile services in the air will not entice me one little bit. Wireless internet, now that’s another matter. After all, I have standards. Double standards.

Come fly with me

November 2, 2008

The first time I ever booked a flight from Ireland to Great Britain – or to be precise, from Dublin to London Heathrow – was in December 1980. Prior to that I had always taken the ferry, but on this occasion I had little time for the trip and needed to take a plane. I still have the ticket. It tells me that the cost of the return flight was £285. In today’s money, I calculate that in real terms it would be around €1,300. And it may be worth adding that this was an economy class ticket; business class would have cost goodness know how much.

A few years later budget airlines came on the scene, and the established carriers also slashed their prices, and today you can (if you plan carefully) make the same trip for a fraction of that price. And it is not just to London. Today if I want to travel to, say, Cork or Galway, I have a real choice I can make between bus, train and airline – with the cost not hugely different between these modes. And again, if I plan well and book wisely, I can travel to New York pretty much for the price I once had to pay to get to London.

On the other hand, talk about carbon footprints, the recession, oil prices and other considerations tends to generate an air of uncertainty these days about the future of air travel as a cheap and quick option. And when we fly, it’s not the pleasant experience that some would have considered it years ago, with post-9/11 security checks, airport delays, air traffic congestion and other hazards. Some may also argue that we can now meet ‘virtually’ online so easily that some air travel for business purposes is no longer necessary.

And yet, I value the way the world has become smaller and it has become easier for us to meet other people and cultures with relative ease. And so I hope the era of accessible global travel is not over just yet. We may need to find ways of doing it with other sources of energy, and no doubt we need to address the congestion issues both on and off the ground; but it still strikes me as important that we do not lose this important part of modern life and culture, and this important way of maintaining a community spirit that embraces the whole world because all of it is accessible to us.