- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

fMustn’t grumble, mustn’t complain. A lot of us were brought up to believe that, but that was before airline travel turned into the equivalent of transporting sardines in a can. As the country looks forward to the long Fourth of July weekend, a backyard celebration with hamburgers, speeches and fireworks sounds like a great restorative for victims of today’s travel industry.

If the airlines keep losing passengers today — by 7 percent in 2003 compared to last year, according to industry figures — it may in the end have less to do with international terrorism than with simple creature comforts and minimal regard for human dignity. In the end, though, it will not be government regulation, such as a passengers’ bill of rights, that will achieve a more humane state of affairs, but passengers voting with their feet.

Having shown up for your international flight two to three hours early, often at ungodly hours of the day, it is now not unusual to find a line of 80 people waiting to check in ahead of you.

I would be the last to quibble with reasonable safety precautions. But taking off your shoes and having perfect strangers demand permission to grope you if any item of metal in your clothing sets off the red lights — women are the primary victims of this particular indignity — somehow doesn’t seem to fit the bill. Something as harmless as a plastic cup with water aroused deep suspicions during my family’s most recent flight.

Once wedged into your economy-class seat, physical comfort is a thing of the distant past. The seats seem to be designed for 10-year olds, small ones at that. Seeking extra leg room if you are among the males of the species can have unintended and severe consequences. Virgin Atlantic, for instance, has come up with a cunning countermove. They have installed giant metal boxes under each aisle seat in the middle section, housing the technology of an invaluable “entertainment system.” You know, those post-card sized screens in the back of the seat 10 inches in front of your nose. As a consequence, aisle seats on Virgin Atlantic now have considerably less leg room than any other airline.

But don’t worry about being basically immobilized. On longer flights, airlines now show “exercise” videos to diminish your chances of developing “travellers thrombosis” — or, more likely, suing the airline if you do. British Airlines’ in-flight magazine hilariously advises passengers, “Do not undertake any activities that are contrary to your doctor’s advice.” How many doctors would really warn you against wiggling your toes and rolling your head, which is almost all you can do in your captivity?

Just to make sure that you don’t outgrow your diminutive seat, the airlines have helpfully cut down on their food portions. On a recent flight with the Dutch airline KLM, the pre-meal snack consisted of 13 tiny salty nibbles (no nuts, of course); the bite-sized piece of cheese had lost its bisquit; the salad cannot have been four ounces; and the entree looked more like a starter. And though recommendations on how to fight jet-lag repeatedly tell passengers to stay away from alcohol and caffeine, the former are constantly served, while decaf is served with great delay and varying degrees of ill-will on request.

As for airport shopping, forget it. There is nowhere for a weary traveller to pick up a clean shirt, underwear or socks that do not carry ludicrously expensive designer labels. Or you may want to pick up a present for, say, your mother-in-law.

There you would be out of luck if you are looking for anything that does not fall into the categories of make-up, cheap key-rings, navel-exposing tops for teenagers, pearl necklaces or $195 Ferregamo sweaters (price on sale) from one of the “Fashion” stores. Toy stores are the only reasonably appealing airport shops, in fact, as though people only buy souveniers for their children, not their mothers (There could be some truth in that).

A few “unfashion” stores could do brisk business if they had things people actually want to buy at prices that don’t make you laugh hysterically (Wal-Mart managers, are you listening?). Of course, such stores would not conform to the entirely self-contradictory image of the modern traveller, luxury on the one hand, sardine-level comforts on the other. Airports today are far more like bus terminals than gathering places for the beautiful people. You might as well open a jewelry store in a Greyhound terminal.

Sorry about the grumble. It did feel good, though. What would feel even better would be treatment like a human being, but what am I thinking. I must have been daydreaming between my head-rolls and toe-wiggles.

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