A (nasty) open letter to the airlines

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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 owrong with air travel airplane-head-onut 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 An airplane seat diagram from the Seatguru websitechoose 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 Belize airport shotin 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 wrong with air travel airport-shanghaigauntlet 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.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

25 Comments

  1. I agree with you about Shanghai! I’m a 66 year old woman and I’ve never been subjected to a security check like that one! In fact, all Chinese airports treat you with extreme suspicion.

  2. Amen to all the above. Flying is very frustrating, often unnecessarily so. I’m 6″2″ so I automatically always pay a premium on all international and domestic flights for a seat with extra legroom. I flew on Air Canada Rouge from Budapest to Toronto recently and did this, so had sufficient legroom. Our friends, though, didn’t and were cramped like sardines on this 9 hour flight, which is totally unacceptable on a long international flight. Air Canada should be ashamed.

    • Thanks for your input, Bob. Too bad you have to pay to get enough leg room these days. A lot of people have complaints about Air Canada, though on this subject, it is far from the only offender.

  3. I am Gluten Free and getting something decent to eat on board is a real problem as most of the “menus” do not offer any fruit or vegetable options – just fats and carbs. Yes I do take my own GF bars and purchase bottled water once I am through security but often there is not much on offer to take on the plane.

    I also have issues with noise. It helps to purchase the in flight movies – that saved me on a recent flight with two screaming two year old children on board three seats behind me. They were restless most of the flight and literally screamed and yelled the whole time their mother was at the washroom.

    I guess my other peeve is the variation of sizes of what is allowable carry on. I pack what I can’t live without when I arrive at my destination – hoping my checked bag makes it.

    • You bring up some good points, Beth, especially the screaming children. On one flight I saw a poor young woman get seated right beside a two-year-old who screamed nonstop for half an hour — she bore it well, but it was cruel and unusual punishment. I wonder about having a designated children’s area. Re the gluten-free food, can you order a special gluten-free meal when you book your flight? I know you can order vegetarian and some other alternative meals.

  4. Just think, all these flying complaints would disappear if people would stop flying, then the airlines would have to attract people to fly again. It’s the old marketing ploy, if planes fly empty, there soon would be improvement. As far as flying back from third world countries in the middle of the night, I’ve flown to the Amazon from Miami in the middle of the night so it goes both ways.

    • You may have hit the nail on the head, Ivan. People love to travel these days, so the airlines can get away with this stuff — where else are you going to go? Somehow, I don’t see a boycott coming, especially with a cold winter coming on.

  5. My big concern is one you mentioned, big passengers! If you can’t fit into your seat with the arm rest down, you should buy 2 seats or a first class ticket. Seats are cramped for leg room as it is, but to have some stranger sitting on half of my seat pushing me into the wall or the aisle makes me cringe, and I paid the same price. Sure the airlines are making the seats smaller and we have no control over that, but we do have control over how gluttonous we are. And I use the word gluttonous instead of obese because in 90 % of cases it is a behaviour, not a medical issue which causes this.

    • I hear you, Alice. You paid for a few square feet of space, you should be able to use it without someone’s bulk taking up a chunk of it. This is a problem the airlines are mostly ignoring — the elephant in the room, so to speak. Penalizing overweight passengers becomes a human rights issue, so it’s a tricky thing to tackle. They have a standard for the size of carry-on luggage, so maybe they should have a maximum size for passengers before they have to buy a premium seat — like Bob (below), who pays for extra leg room.

      • Paul, I actually suggested a measurement device, (if you can’t walk through it you can’t buy a regular seat) to West Jet when I was particularly irate over this issue. I got the whole human rights answer, but no response to the issue of MY rights!
        I did however receive a credit for half the fare. That took the sizzle out of my anger. I think the best way to make the point is to complain politely but repeatedly until the airlines make changes. We can grumble all we want , but until it hits their bottom line no change will happen.

    • Good question, Marie. You can inject moisture into your hot-air heating system at home — why can’t you do it on a plane? I’m sure the dehydration worsens the effects of sitting on a plane for a long time.

  6. Marianne Lewsey on

    Bravo Paul, my sentiments towards the airlines exactly. We are going to Costa Rica in February. And I am already bracing myself for the ordeal.
    I want to take this opportunity to tell you how much I enjoy your travel reviews. And I brag about you all the time. “Paul is my cousin, he is such a talented writer, you must read his blog,” and then I pass it along.
    I hope you are safely home by now and will have a wonderful Christmas with Janet and family.
    Keep on writing,
    Marianne

    • Thanks for commenting, Marianne. I am home safe and sound, though a little dazed. And thanks for your kind words. I put a lot of time into the site, so it’s good to know people appreciate it. Hope you have a great Christmas, too, and a great trip to Costa Rica. It’s a great place to escape winter.

  7. Great points all! Makes me NOT want to travel any great distance for any great length of time in the future ’cause it sure isn’t getting better – it’s horrendous sometimes!

    • I agree, Pam, but if you want to travel, it’s pretty much an unavoidable irritation. Sometimes I long for the old days of sailing ships. And other times I long for the day when they come up with technology that makes all this bearable.

  8. My complaint is small seats. I had to sit in an aisle seat from Phoenix to Vallarta with two sisters beside me, one needed a seat belt extension, and I was hanging into the aisle … very uncomfortable flight. The sisters each ate a family size bag of chips and cheeriest, bought and ate a $5 tin of almonds and of course washed it down with Diet Coke. On the first leg from Calgary to Phoenix two elderly sisters had so much strong perfume on I nearly passed out. I used to fly on charters but the drunks could get really obnoxious … some people drink so much free alcohol you’d think they were dying of thirst in the desert ….. my best trip was on My motorcycle !!!!

    • More good points, Allan. The airlines are bad enough without the antics of the people who fly these days. It gets even worse when you fly some of the Asian airlines. On one flight an old lady lay down and went to sleep with her bare feet sticking out into the aisle. These flights let you appreciate what they mean by “pressing the flesh”.

  9. I love all of your write-ups, Paul, and this one really struck home. Another thing that makes me crazy is: you cannot enter the departure gate area without showing your passport and boarding pass, so how many more times do they have to check them? I almost got arrested in JFK because, after showing my documents to one inspector I walked straight past the next one, about three yards away, assuming that they were working together. But no! The second one was on a different operation. Being groped because there was a metal fastener on my bra or I accidentally left a dime in my pocket, oh, how I hate the whole process. So glad I only travel once or twice a year. I don’t know how you stand it.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Vera. Yes, the redundancy may help make things slightly safer, but it’s a real drag for the long-suffering passenger. All you can really do is resign yourself to 20 minutes of aggravation and get a drink on board. The really irritating this is that they’ll harass senior citizens, people who have a one-in-a-million chance of being a terrorist or a smuggler. There gas never been a white, 65-year-old Canadian terrorist, and likely never will be.

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