Traveling by plane

If you are anything like me, and have the privilege of flying frequently, you may also have had some of the same odd experiences and levels of “customer service” that I have had in my time. Things that most travelers are, unfortunately, forced into when flying. Things that I doubt would be accepted in any other type of business. But the airlines seem to have a club of their own.

Already when ordering your ticket, which in most cases happen by the computer at home, you are met with an almost endless row of restrictions and conditions written in small types. No cancellation rights. No right to make any changes. What so ever! That is, unless you specifically pay extra for it. Should your flight be cancelled, well, that’s just tough luck! In SOME cases you MAY be able to re-book to another flight either later the same day or the day after. However, if you are attending a meeting or have to travel onwards with yet another flight, this is really no good. Furthermore, accommodation is mostly something you will have to pay for yourself should you be needing it. 

The vast majority of delays and cancellations nowadays are explained with “technical problems” - something that the airlines all know will make almost any passenger retreat to his/her seat in the gate waiting lounge, waiting for further instructions. Needless to say, all the airlines care about is the safety of the passengers. They will not fly unless it is considered absolutely safe. So this is a hard one to judge, and thus an easy explanation to give the customers. But unless you have an insurance that will cover you in specific situations like these, you are in most cases on your own. On rare occasions I actually have seen customers make so much fuzz that the poor souls behind the counter in the transfer-service center capitulated and gave them a hotel voucher. Because of the extraordinary nature of the case, of course! In most cases, however, all you can hope for is a voucher for a sandwich and a soft drink.

Other times I have had what the airlines call a “Force Majeure” situation. Things “beyond the control of the company”. This is where extreme weather conditions are put. I am extremely happy that I have only been in this situation when traveling for a company with some understanding and flexibility, and with a company credit card in my wallet.

Well, back to the online ordering of the ticket. IF you have come as far as to print out your booking confirmation, you may want to sit down for just a minute to reflect on this: Airlines are the only companies I know of, where the products get more and more expensive the longer you wait to order. In any other type of business this simply makes no sense! I am perfectly aware that no airline wants to fly with empty seats, and in the name of proper planning they need to know exactly how many passengers will be traveling. But couldn’t this be made just a little smarter? ALL spontaneity is completely gone! You can no longer sit at home during one weekend and plan an out-of-town trip for the next. Unless you are willing to pay the official seat price (which almost no-one pay for anyway!), or you are a German businessman traveling first class with everything paid for by the company, and enough miles on your account to not even consider the cost. Sigh!  

Anyway, about three months after you have booked your flight you arrive at the airport. Over time I have learned to leave home in “good time”. Most times it has been a somewhat quick affair to check in and/or drop the luggage. Check-in can be done from home, unless you are traveling with a child. Then you will see “An error has occurred and you should seek assistance at the counter!” or simply “Online check-in is not possible!”

But now the real problems start! By security everything stops completely! This is mostly a complete nightmare! Although they perfectly well know exactly how many passengers are expected and when, you often wait 30 minutes or even longer to get through. Like cattle on the way to be milked on a farm we are all waiting to slip through.

Off goes all metallic things. The laptop in a separate tray through the scanner. Then the jacket, the belt etc etc. Nowadays any liquids will also have to be sealed in plastic bags. Should you have forgotten this at home, most airports have bags available. But in some European airports you have to pay up to 1 Euro for a bag!

Most times I get through security without any issues, and can walk straight to the nearest vendor and buy a bottled soft drink, put it in my bag and take it onboard my flight without anyone ever asking me any questions or taking any interest at all. I can also eat a meal in one of the many restaurants in the terminal and take with me the metal utensils, without anyone ever checking my bag before boarding. Perhaps airport security is only made to give passengers a sense of safety? Because as soon as the revenue in some of the airport shops could potentially suffer, then security apparently comes in second. Over time I have accumulated quite a nice collection of “carry-on metal utensils” from various airports around the world that nobody has ever asked me about. 

In the US I have once tried to be asked three times to take off my shoes. Three different stops, on my way to the departure gate. Just so that they could be scanned. You would think that once you are actually within the “secured terminal area” you should be cleared. Well, OK, it has only happened in the US.

Anyway, I get through security, through the “airport shopping paradise” and make my way all through to the gate, and sit there for a while until boarding starts. While waiting I sit there and wonder which one of my fellow passengers could be a well trained terrorist, with ability to simply kill us all with his/her bare hands. Leaving all the explosive fluids, metal subjects and “suspect shoes” at home. 

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As we finally board the plane and I get to my seat I am always surprised by how little room each passenger has. As many rows as at all possible means as many paying customers as possible. It also means as little leg room as possible. Unless you are German and happily paying extra for a business seat (or even first class by Lufthansa) and thus get all the room you will ever need. No neighbour in the next seat, a glass of Prosecco and a cold salad also included. In some German airports these travelers even have their own boarding bridge, so that they will not have to stand in line with “all the others” before departure. The downside is that in most arrival airports they do not have these special facilities and business and first class passengers will have to leave just the same way as “all the others”. I don’t know... If it were me I would ask for my money back!

My seat, usually in the very back of the plane, awaits me. And as I finally get there the overhead lockers are filled to the max. An air-hostess grab my backpack and throws it somewhere in an overhead locker in the middle of the plane, between some overcoats belonging to other passengers. In this backpack I have my book and my iPod, but I cannot get it until 45 minutes later, when we have reached our cruising altitude of 30000 feet or so, and I am finally allowed to unfasten my seatbelt. I toddle up along the aisle, only to get stock between two serving carts, manned by smiling hostesses with plenty of time, serving coffee and other refreshments and snacks at “affordable prices”. Where I am usually seated we have to pay for this. Only up in the front of the plane, by the Germans, the airline can afford to serve anything with compliments.

By some of the most vile airlines it is forbidden to enjoy any carry-on food or drinks. I am not entirely sure that this is completely legal, as a drink of water may be a human right, but I am not willing to risk being thrown off the plane. Thus I only zip from my hidden bottle of cola, that I bought in the terminal, when the hostesses are looking the other way. A few times I have bought a “hot” cup of coffee (4,50 Euro) and pretended to enjoy the lukewarm, awfully tasting liquid, while ignoring the turbulence and the increasing pressure in my ears. I stopped buying coffee, though, when the passenger in front of me, suddenly and completely without any warning, had to push his seat ALL the way back, leaving my coffee all over me, my book and my fresh (and expensive!) magazines, that I also bought in the airport terminal. Luckily I was not using neither my iPod nor my laptop at the time. 

When we land my legs are numb from lack of movement. We taxi from the runway to the very last position in the airport, where a bus is waiting to take us into the arrival area. This is usually a trip taking roughly 10 minutes, and as we pass endless rows of empty gates that are much nearer to the arrival hall and baggage claim area, I often consider trying to get an upgrade for my return. I also rub my bruised knees that are blue from the seat that hit me when the passenger in front of me pushed it back.

Finally we arrive at the arrival hall and we are rushed in to pick up our luggage. We shouldn’t have to rush though, because it usually takes another 25 minutes until it arrives. ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS top down!

FINALLY we can drag ourselves and our belongings out through the customs area and through to the pick up area to meet our loved ones or to get a taxi.

After each and every flight I have to ask myself: Why are you doing this? Unfortunately the answer is very easy: If you want to see some of this world, or work in any international position, you have to suffer for it!

/Anders

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