I’m writing this in the cramped seat of an airplane headed from Shanghai, China to Toronto, Canada on the last leg of what I like to call “the flight from hell”. It’s partly my own fault, but the unique discomforts of a 22-hour trip like this give me a lot of time to think. And what I’m thinking about is the many things wrong with air travel today.
This flight tonight (or this morning? I’ve lost track) is part of a bargain air fare I found through YYZ Deals, a Canadian website that sleuths out cheap fares. I knew it was going to be a tough trip, but it didn’t need to be this tough. After a nasty night spent in the torture rack of a tiny airline seat with almost no leg room, followed by an equally nasty encounter with the surly security screeners in Shanghai, I’m in the mood for a critical look at how airlines treat their passengers these days.
As a frequent flyer in the past 12 months, I’ve had a good look at air travel circa 2016. There have been some good flights, true, but overall it’s not a pretty picture for those of us without the thousands of bucks it costs to fly first-class. So here’s an ill-tempered open letter to the airline industry on the many things wrong with air travel today. I call it five things the airlines should just stop doing to us.
Stop cramming us in like sardines
One of the worst – and craziest — things wrong with air travel is the way airlines are jamming more seats into the same-sized planes. How to maximize profits? Get smaller seats, and wedge them closer and closer together until they’re just barely possible to sit in.
The crazy things is that this is happening at the same time people in the Western world are getting bigger. I’m five-foot 10 and I can’t sit in them comfortably for long periods; I pity all the six-foot fivers in the generation now hitting its 20s – these seats could cripple them for life. Not to mention all the supersize-me people out there, who seem to end up sitting next to me and bulging into my personal space.
And stop squeezing the aisles
Another thing wrong with air travel is that while the economy seats are getting smaller, it seems like the aisles are also getting tighter. I usually choose an aisle seat, but that’s becoming hazardous. On the plane I’m riding for the next 14 hours, the aisles are so narrow that virtually everyone who walks by brushes against me, even though I’m not sticking out into the aisle. A 300-pound woman keeps shuffling back and forth to the washroom; her hips actually rub against me every time she goes by. Nice.
Stop installing seats no one can sleep in
Have you noticed that half the people boarding a long-distance flight are carry a little padded neck yoke? That’s because it’s impossible to get your head into a comfortable position for sleeping in today’s airline seats. These seats have some contouring, but they just don’t fit the human body; unless you’re flying first class, getting a night’s sleep in one is next to impossible. Reclining the seat helps, but not that much. And that brings up a second problem: the person behind you doesn’t need your head in his lap.
Airline seats need to be adjustable so you can fit them to the shape of your back, and put the head rest where your head actually rests on it. My suggestion: wings on the sides of the head rest, like an old-style wing chair, so you can lay your head to one side and get some support.
Stop killing my ears
This is a personal peeve, but I have problems with my ears – one ear, more accurately – when I fly. It just doesn’t handle the changing air pressure. And despite my efforts to deal with the problem, now and then, when we’re coming in to land, my eardrum goes pop! – and not in a good way. That ear pressure is part of flying. But wait: aren’t the passenger compartments supposed to be pressurized? It seems they are, but not very well. With all the research they put into improving planes, couldn’t they invent a plane that actually maintains normal air pressure?
Stop mistreating the Third World
I’ve noticed this time and again: when I fly home from places like South America, it’s almost always an overnight flight. And very often I find myself in a plane filled with those tiny, back-killer seats and little in the way of an entertainment system. One thing is for sure: there’ll be no sleep that night. Then I land in the U.S. hub and transfer to my plane for the final leg home. And suddenly I’m back in the First World, with a bigger seat, lots of leg room and a real entertainment system. If you’re going to do long-haul flights from these countries (and charge good money for them), use decent planes.
Stop charging exorbitant fees
This is one of the major things wrong with air travel today. Once upon a time, you could change your flight date if something came up, without getting gouged. Those days are over: unless you’ve bought an expensive premium-class ticket, changing your flight date costs you big-time these days. Back in January, I wanted to fly home from Ecuador a couple of days early. The airline’s penalty? $300 U.S. I stayed in Ecuador. I could have spent the rest of my stay in a luxury hotel for that.
I understand that the airline has to resell the ticket, so a penalty is justifiable. But not $300. Today’s marketplace is massive; in most cases, they can sell the seat with little trouble. And this is not to mention all the other little fees airlines hit us with, the most egregious being the $25 or so that many charge for even the first checked bag. These fees are becoming a main profit centre – sell a cheap ticket, then hit the passengers with extra fees to make up the difference. It adds up to false advertising.
And one more. This one isn’t the airlines’ fault, but it’s becoming one of the major things wrong with air travel for people who travel long distances.
Stop searching us, over and over
I recognize the need for airport security. But these days, passengers changing planes on long flights are routinely run through a second security gauntlet at the connecting airport, even though they’re not staying in that country at all. The United States is particularly bad for this, but Shanghai airport was the worst I’ve seen: long lines to have your passport checked (what for?), then a grilling by a guard over innocent items in my luggage. The first time through, they objected to my bug spray; on the way back, they took away my eyeglass repair kit.
Yes, we need to protect ourselves from terrorists and other villains. But once you’re screened, you should be ready to go. If one security check isn’t enough, then they’re not doing it properly. The fact is, some countries are just using airport layovers as a chance to go fishing and see what they can find. Even if that’s legitimate, they could probably be doing it electronically and not harassing passengers again and again.
Thanks for letting me vent my spleen on all the things wrong with air travel. While I love to travel, I’m becoming a person who hates to fly, and not because I’m afraid I’ll crash. To me, the whole process has become an ordeal. If I can just get through the day without being abused, it’s a victory. Hopefully someone in the airline business reads this and gets the message: despite all the claims of better service, what the passenger mostly gets these days is a raw deal. And it’s not the fault of the flight crews, who are for the most part pleasant and accommodating; it’s all about what happens in the executive suite.
Do you have any pet peeves about air travel? If so, leave a comment and let us know; maybe if we all yell loud enough, we can change the world.