24th june 2015: THE JOY OF TRAVEL
I don’t know if I have a rose tinted memory of air travel, but I remember it to be somewhat prestigious. You would arrive at the airport early enough to check in your bags and get through security before frequenting the duty free shops, were normally expensive, or rare, items could be purchased at cut prices. Once you’d done your shopping you would get on the plane in an orderly fashion, and in summer be greeted by an ice cream and copy of the day’s paper, or an ‘OK!’ magazine. After finding your seat you would stow your small carry on in the overhead compartment and prepare for the first element of entertainment: the safety demonstration. Once the plane had took off, the air hostess would frequent the cabin selling (or sometimes giving) out drinks in a leisurely and friendly manner, in addition to the free headsets for the films entertainment (entertainment number 2). If you were lucky enough, which most people my age will have been at some point, you would be invited in to the cockpit to look out the window and marvel at the controls (entertainment number 3). All before the plane was brought down smoothly and people relaxingly got off the plane to carry on their journey or start their holiday.
Even as I wrote that I thought I was reading a book or remembering a film in which a celebrity jet-sets to their next film premier – but I’m sure that’s what it was like. However you look at it, international travel was never as bad as it is now, and should we really be expected to put up with.
Instead of looking forward to flights, I now dread the prospect of being stuck in a tiny space, uncomfortable, practically sat on top of a stranger, whilst air hostess fly past with the drinks trolley only to return with an empty duty free cart, and people stare at TV’s the size of small sheds hanging from roof of the plane. I never buy the headphones or adapters as I think it is a waste of money as you can’t really enjoy a TV screen smaller than your iPad when it’s some feet away, especially when the picture quality is so poor a new release can look like a dated 70’s classic.
I’ll admit one thing – long haul is slightly better, but only if you book the right seats – and by book, I mean pay a fee for someone to put you in a seat. Flying to the USA last year I pre-booked two seats on their own near the back of the plane – the seats had more room and the fact that the toilets where down some stairs meant that no-one was queuing with their crotch at your eye-line and it also meant the toilets were not an experience in contortionism. On a number of occasions during the 10 hour flight, I actually nodded off.
Fast-forward 12 months to a short haul flight back from Greece and the flight was delayed 45 minutes; the airport was the size of a bus shelter; the air hostess proceed to tell the large family that were in aisle 17 that they were actually in aisle 7, meaning once they had stowed their bags, the actually incumbents of aisle 7 arrived and everybody had to move again; after boarding the plane, the temperature became unbearable (hotter than at any point on the holiday) as we sat on the runway waiting – only to be told that the marvels of modern technology meant the air conditioning could not be switched on until the engines were switched on; after take-off the front of the plane were informed that there was no ice available for drinks, and at the back of the plane that there was no hot water for warm drinks (anyone wanting a hot drink should have sat in row 7 were the air hostess treated the row to a cup of hot tea as she misjudged the small amount of space she had – followed by cries of “it’s my first day”; not what you want to hear as trust these people with your safety at 30,000 feet); the duty free cart was rolled out only to discover that the most popular items had sold out on the outbound journey; and to finish the journey and holiday, the minute the wheels touch terra-firma everyone is up out there seat, crotches in faces, to get their oversized bags out of the overhead compartment so they can stand and hold them for 15 more minutes while the plane finds a gate. By the time you’ve had the plane journey back from a holiday you need another one.
Some of the undesirable secondary impacts of plane travel air because of what can only be described as “Britishness” – I have to be first on and I have to be first off, and if something isn’t right, everyone has to know about it. However, I think with some airlines, the most you should expect is that the plane actually completes the journey; there is complete disregard to the passengers comfort or their experience; any other positives of the journey are a bonus. That would be fair enough if the price you paid affected your experience – but it doesn’t. Prices fluctuate massively over time before a flight meaning that two people sat next to each other can have paid a price difference of over £100 for flights alone, but the two flight experiences are exactly the same. To further extenuate this point – the flight described above was with a reputable travel operator – for the same journey, one friend flew with EasyJet for a lower fare, and another with a foreign airline, again for a lower fare – both friends had a much more pleasant experience for less money. The package holiday operators have very much turned in to the budget airlines for the transport element of the holiday: pile them on – the more people on the plane, the less trips, the less fuel, the lower the cost, the higher the profit margin. This is wrong.
“Why don’t you travel first class” I hear you say. Well, there is a huge price difference between economy class and first class that the majority of people just cannot afford, and also, a lot of routes within Europe do not offer a first class option – just the steerage class. So what is the solution?
The solution I propose is to increase the price of flights. The reason holiday operators cram people on to planes is to get as many people on for a little fuel as possible (1 plane with 400 people on will cost significantly less than 2 planes each with 200 people on) – and this is what leads to the cramming and uncomfortable-ness. I for one would be happy to pay a slightly higher fee (and I don’t mean the fee you pay for extra leg-room (which in effect makes you master of the emergency exit – doing the air hostess job for them)) if it meant that they tool a third of all the seats off a plane. Imagine if every third row was removed from a plane, how much leg-room you would have? How much easier it would be for the air hostess to serve drinks? The more accessible the duty free products would be? Whilst we are at it, I would remove all the additional charges which can currently be incurred and roll them all up in to this one additional cost – there would be no charge to check in, no charge to book a seat and no charge to get on the plane first – these are all costs that don’t actually cost the airline anything to arrange, but can end up costing the traveller more and more money. Airline food used to be for every passenger – now you must pre-book a meal which at best is bearable and which costs around £10 for less than what you would put in a packed lunch.
Looking at the maths: a return trip to Santorini (Greece) from Manchester costs £346.98; let’s say there’s 40 rows on a plane, each with 6 seats (total of 240 passengers) – so that’s a total fee for all passengers of £83,275.20. Take away a 3rd of all passengers, leaving us with 160 making the journey. To achieve the cost of £83,275.20, each passenger would have to pay £520.47, an increase of £173.49, but remember that includes all your extras, and also presumes the same amount of luggage as a full flight, so in theory the cost would be less than this. For a flight a four hours or more, I’d be willing to pay this for a better experience.
I’m not looking for massive changes, or even reductions in prices, just to make travel more enjoyable, and to take it back to the 20th century when there was an element of prestige and the sky really was the limit.