As long as there have been planes in my life, there have always been a few inalienable rights I have taken for granted as an air traveler: My soda will be free, pillows will be present, and the interior climate of the plane will usually be twenty degrees cooler than wherever we just took off from, because Lord knows it’s beastly hot outside when you’re 3000 feet above ground, and that much closer to the sun.
Well, newsflash: These rights have been taken from us, and no one has bothered to inform the flying public. Sure, there’s been news galore about changes outside of the airlines’ control: new security measures, oil prices, FAA-imposed fee increases, etc. But none of these things are as tactile to your travel experience as the combination of a freezing cold body, a sore back, and as little as one free pretzel to save you from starvation while trapped on a tarmac.
I first noticed the airlines” sneaky changes in Fall of ’04, when I boarded a certain troubled, low-cost airline and found the plane completely pillow- and blanket-less. Surely, they were hidden in some secret VIP compartment for only the most needy, cold, tired, or whiningly persistent passengers, I thought. Until I asked. Nope, the stewardess said, she had nothing. NOTHING?! Not even pillows for the whiny people?! Well, it was Crapola Airlines, I reasoned.
Surely, this was a one-time fluke. Not quite. The next flight I had on Crapola, not only were there zero pillows and blankets on-board, this time they made an announcement, saying they were, “No longer allowed” to carry them. “No longer allowed?!” Had the germaphobe activists finally gotten to airline management about the cesspool of contagious viruses living in these used, reused, and reused-again items? Did the TSA think these objects could somehow be dangerous accessories for terrorists in mid-flight attacks? “Mayday! Mayday! We’re being taken over by “pillow fight!”? Or was this indeed one more cost-cutting measure meant to somehow save the airline? To which, I can only say, “Come on!” What’s next? My seat itself? Why not just have us all sit on the floor, cattle-style, with no luggage whatsoever except for that which you can wear on your body? I mean, if cheap-ass, paper pillows and decade-old, thread-bare blankets are too expensive for you to bear the cost of, why not offer passengers the option of renting or buying them on a flight, just like headphones or liquor?
The deprivations I suffered on these flights were a mystery to me, but I decided to write them off as one more reason never to fly Crapola Airlines ever again.
Then I flew one of the “major” airlines.
What d’ya know? Not only were there no pillows or blankets on-board there, either, they also ran out of Coke, my overhead light didn’t work, and the in-flight programming not only did NOT include a movie (the flight was long enough, they could have shown TWO movies and still had time leftover), it was amongst the worst “entertainment” I have ever been forced to watch.
What on earth was going on in the collective consciousness of the airline operators lately, I wondered? I decided to ask an insider: a flight attendant friend who worked for a lower-cost, but not bottom-of-the-barrel, airline. “Why?,” I begged her. “Why?!!” She leaned into me, looked around, and whispered in a low voice that, indeed, the pillow and blanket “vanishing” could be chalked up to cost-cutting measures–for her airline, at least. I couldn’t help but wonder, then, how one, newer, low-cost airline could afford personal TV’s in every leather seat and be making money, whereas other airlines charge for everything from food to booking via the telephone, and are in bankruptcy. Was it a conspiracy of the “old jets” club?
I decided to make a list of the other changes I had recently noticed to my flying comfort “frills”. What I realized is there haven’t been so many changes to flight lifestyle all at once since onboard smoking became almost universally banned more than a decade ago. Among the more recent changes have been:
* Pillows and blankets -Did I mention they’ve disappeared yet?
* Temperature -Apparently, A-C=$$
* Numbers of flights -With airlines consolidating flights, gone are the days of empty seats that often allowed you to spread out over two, or, if you were really lucky, three seats, instead of being stuck in one, cramped middle one.
* Food – You want food, you now get to pay $10 for a the healthy “4C Lunch” option, which includes Cheetos, cheese crackers, cheese, and chocolate, but don’t expect a beverage to be offered to you anywhere close to the time you’re actually eating it. And food you need utensils for? Someday, I’ll talk about a fork on a flight like my grandmother speaks of the Model-T.
* Snacks – Pretzels are cheaper than nuts and even cheaper than pretzels is a side of nothing served with your lucky-to-get-it-if-we-haven’t-already-run-out-of-it free beverage that will, surely, soon be going the way of the fork.
* Upkeep – Overhead lights out. Seats which refuse to recline. Non-working headphone jacks. Seat pockets with garbage still in them. Floors with puke still staining them. Upkeep takes time, and, depending on the flaw, money, too. One uncomfortable passenger is much cheaper to deal with than an entire plane being down for the count for a day or two or more for non-safety-threatening repairs.
* Mobility – Remember when those seatbelt signs above were considered by passengers to be more of a decorative lighting fixture, like a disco ball? Yeah. You disobey that light now, and risk jail time and an emergency landing in Wichita for the entire plane, all because you just HAD to get up and get that lipstick out of your suitcase when the seatbelt sign was on.
* Viewing screens – Sure, there’s more of them now, but darn it if I don’t miss the single, large-screens each cabin used to have. With the tiny screens above every three rows or so now, I’m usually too close or too far to the screen, or it’s got too much glare, for me to ever be able to see anything clearly unless I constantly switch my view between two different, mediocre-level screens which, together, somehow equal a somewhat cohesive picture.
* Fees – Booking fees. Gas charges. Increased taxes. Heck, now some airlines charge you just for having the audacity to book a flight over the phone. Airline prices may seem to have gotten cheaper, in theory, but I never cease to be amazed when my $158 RT seemingly cheap-o ticket actually turns out to be $230 by the time I fully process it, just due to the new fees airlines and the FAA have tacked on.
* E-Tickets -You might think electronic tickets are one aspect of traveling which have improved your overall flying experience. Used to be, you lost your hard ticket, you were SOL for your flight, whereas now you can check-in for your flight from the comfort of your own home, with nary a line necessary, prior to security. However, by switching entirely to computer-based travel, airline employees have now lost the ability to do much of anything manually. That means when the system goes down, chaos quickly ensues, and even though you might be near the front of a check-in line, it still might take them an hour to figure out how to check you in for your now-departed flight, and you may have to search through a football-field-length pile of suitcases for your luggage once you get to the other side. I’ve seen it.
* Headphones – This is the only area that I have actually seen a general airline-wide improvement on, cost and comfort-wise. Used to be, you’d have to pay for the luxury of ill-fitting audio enablers, and have to turn them in at the end of the flight. Now, they’re smaller, more comfortable, and, often, free. Furthermore, the plugs have largely changed so that you can use your own headphones or, if you do have to buy them on the plane, you can take them with you and use them again on other flights.
So, in light of all these recent changes, how can we, the cost-conscious, comfort-driven traveler, continue to fly in ease? Fly First or Business-Class? Forget it. The airline world is becoming, more than ever, a world of haves-and-have-nots. Sure, you can have a free periodical and bottomless coffee for your one-hour commuter flight, but you’ll be paying $300 more for the privilege of flying in Business (not even First) Class for it. For most travelers, they’d rather spend that money elsewhere and suffer through the Coach experience. If you’re of that mindset, I have a few tips to help you survive the sardine sandwich, all of which fall under the umbrella of one golden travel rule:
RELY ONLY ON YOURSELF. Relying on flight attendants for your comfort in the air is, nowadays, about as reliable as relying on your ex-boyfriend to remember your birthday. Don’t lug five tons of unnecessary stuff with you, but come prepared to kill time and sit comfortably for at least twice as long as you think you might have to, one-way. We can’t bring water anymore, but do bring at least the following:
* Food – Just in case that “Bistro” lunch isn’t free, and food is either not offered, or costs more than you have in your wallet. I tend to carry healthy snacks that don’t have to be refrigerated so that, if I don’t eat them during the flight, they can be snacked on anytime later in my trip. Nuts, a protein bar, and piece of fruit, while a little bulky, usually make me quite happy when my tummy is growling.
* A Sweater – A warm, but not too bulky, cardigan one. Make it easily accessible -I tend to stuff mine in an outer pocket of my bag or tie it around my waist. If it gets tucked into my carry-on, forget it’s near to impossible to dig it out of the bag mid-flight.
* The 3 Sleep Essentials -Pillow. Plugs. Mask.
* Forget the bulky, but cushy, u-shaped pillows you see folks carrying these days. Get a blow-up neck pillow that collapses to nothing – it’s much easier to deal with than dragging something which takes up all the free space in your shoulder bag.
* Bring earplugs. You may not wear them, but if you get stuck next to a screaming baby for 4 hours, you will thank yourself. They’re much smaller and more comfortable than wearing the airline’s headphones.
* Lastly, bring an eye-mask. Try to find one that has straps, instead of strings, and fits around your ears, rather than cuts into them. For especially long flights during which daylight keeps creeping under your eyelids, these can really help you get in some precious zzz’s.
* Reading Material – When you take your seat, always make sure you have an in-flight magazine there. And always bring a second form of reading material, for when you’ve finished with that – a paperback book, a different magazine – nothing too heavy, bulky, or brain-necessitating. When you’re stuck in line for an hour, a breezy read you can carry in one hand really helps pass the time.
* Electronics – Again, steer clear of bringing bulky electronics, but music, a DVD for your laptop, and a fully charged battery can save your life when the airline’s accessories have totally failed you.
With this advice, the only pinch you’ll hopefully feel during your next flight will be that of the armrest pinching your body when stuffed into those too-tiny seats in Coach. Those, I can’t do anything about. But, if you can find an extra pillow to place in the spot, it just might help! Oh, forget it. Like that’ll ever be possible!
About Susan Michelle
A former hollywood producer Susan Michelle has since chucked mainstream Tinsel Town for more authentic pastures around the globe as the “face: of the fashion-forward Compass travel lifestyle brand. With skinny arms and 43′ legs, Susan is always cold and cramped on planes, but still considers them her favorite place to be in the world. She blames her love of airplanes on her Mother, a twenty-year airline employee who always brought the family along on travel adventures.