"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fly Economy Class–Are You Kidding??

My first serious long-haul international flight – the first of hundreds over a 45 period of travel to Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Europe – was on Air India.  There were so few people on the flight that I had my choice not only of seats, but of rows.  I could choose practically any row and have all four seats to myself.  I could flip up the arm rests, adjust the fluffy pillows, cover up with a light wool blanket, and sleep the whole way.  Of course in the late 60s there was no such thing as a non-stop flight, and we landed in Frankfurt, Tel Aviv, Teheran, Dubai, and finally Bombay.  There were quite a few passengers on the last leg – Indians returning from the Gulf oil fields – but all in all it was not an unpleasant trip. The stewardesses were beautiful, the curries hot and spicy, the service impeccable, and the song-and-dance Bollywood films a fluffy introduction to the country where I was to spend the next five years.

Hot, airless departure lounges, long lines for check-in and security, cramped steerage seats, shitty food; mosquito-infested, hot, dripping, and crowded African arrival halls; fighting for purchase at baggage carousels; shake-downs at customs; dark, sinister waits for rides into town at 3am were the main reasons for my hanging up my spurs. Not only was travel no longer fun, it was an absolutely hellish nightmare. 

Over the years, I chalked up more miles and battle ribbons than I ever could have imagined on that first easy, comfortable trip to India.  I have spent 24 hours in the Abidjan airport while tanks fought it out on the runway; then made my way by car down the brutal road to Lomé.  Because of the attempted coup, there were checkpoints all through Ivory Coast, another 24-hour wait at the Ghanaian border and another 12 waiting to enter Togo.

After a half-day wait at the Nouakchott airport, closed because of sandstorms, all air traffic was halted.  There were no planes to Dakar until the end of the week, so we drove on the beach, waiting for favorable tides, up to Nouadhibou where we could catch a mining company flight to Tenerife.  As we approached the port from the south, the sight was not encouraging:


We had come from a desolate, poor, windblown place to a wreck of a ‘commercial’ hub.  The ship graveyard was just the beginning. We spent two days finding a flight, negotiating with French half-breeds, and flying in a cabin filled with drill bits, rusted wire, and machine parts.

There were hours spent on baking airport tarmacs waiting for the air control system to come back up; endless more waiting for the President-for-Life’s plane to arrive and the military phalanx to return to its barracks.

I thought I was done for when I crossed the Atlantic in an Aeroflot Tupolev TU-154, the workhorse of the Soviet fleet, nearing the end of its already overdue lifespan. I knew enough not to take Aeroflot under normal circumstances, but this time there was no other choice.  Most of the European airlines were either on strike or grounded because of bad weather; but Aeroflot was flying.  They needed the money, said fuck it to European regulations anyway, and took off.  Something was wrong with the altimeter, I learned, and the plane plunged and leapt its way across the frozen Arctic seas.

I flew meat flights from La Paz to to the Beni, down 14,000 feet from the altiplano to the jungle airport at Trinidad.  The downward passage was so narrow through the Andes that the plane had to fly at a tilt on its descent. Landings at Kabul and Tegucigalpa were similar, and landings were precipitous drops of angled flying through the mountains.

I have waited hours in the most chaotic airports of Africa, inching my way up long check-in lines, behind Angolans, Malians, and Nigerians loaded with bags of food, ratty, rope-tied suitcases, baskets of chickens, and massive, overstuffed plastic bags; only to be turned away because my reservation had been lost.

I routinely paid a bribe of $100 to get through the Luanda yellow card health check; another $100 to rescue my computer from confiscation at customs; and another $100 to get out the door.  Leaving Angola was even worse, for the immigration police knew that for however long a foreigner spent in the country, it was a nightmare.  They could see it on our faces – the exhaustion, the stress, the heat and the crowds – and the price went up.

Travelling out of the airports of Lagos and Kinshasa was never advised and discouraged.  Even with a bevy of expeditors and their pockets full of francs and dollars, getting on the plane was running an intimidating gantlet of thieves, shake-down con men, pickpockets, corrupt officials, and petty brigands.

There was a particularly brilliant scheme cooked up at the Bamako airport.  Arriving passengers had to declare their foreign currency at customs.  Not just declare it in principle, but pull it out and count it in front of official and the thousands of gawking porters, baggage men, hangers-on, and shady travellers.  Not only were these now outed wealthy travelers asked for ‘a favor’ on their way out of the airport, but solicited again at the hotel. I was never rolled by taxi drivers because I was always met by the Jesus Christ of Africa – my company driver.

I resorted to every possible conniving trickery in the book to gain some advantage.  I would make personal appeals to the Air France Chief of Station to upgrade me. “You know what it’s like in the back of the plane”, I said referring to the squalling babies, overflowing toilets, jammed overhead bins, fat mommas, and bratty children.  “Please help me”.  More often than not, I benefitted from French racism and my own cynical exploitation of it.

I jumped two-hour lines, claimed age and infirmity, family crisis and personal tragedy to get the Holy Grail of steerage – The Upgrade. I cajoled family doctors into giving me dubious medical certificates to qualify for Business travel.  I limped and groped my way up boarding ramps to get special attention.  I had turned into an immoral, cheating, and devious person.

For years I had put up with all this because the rewards at the end of the trip were worth it.  Once in Dakar, Bamako, or Maputo – even Luanda – I had a great time of adventure, romance, excitement, good food and drink, and leisurely work.  I had fresh lake trout from Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, a passionate interlude in Moroni (I can still remember the scents of vanilla, clove, and ylang-ylang filling the room); long, civilized lunches on the beaches of Copacabana Jacmel, Samaná, and the Costa del Sol in El Salvador.

As I got older, however, and the opportunities for romance and excitement dwindled, I knew that it was time to quit.  The pain and suffering of getting to a place far outweighed the benefits of being there.

James Atlas, writing in the New York Times (7.7.13) is unhappy about the new class system of the skies. He is just as unhappy about flying Economy as I was:

As the litter piles up beneath my seat, it occurs to me that flying has become like driving — only instead of collapsing bridges and potholed roads, the hazards a traveler in economy faces are crippling back pain and plastic-wrapped ham sandwiches tossed on a tray by hassled flight attendants. It’s just another infrastructure in collapse.

He, like I, remembers the good old days:

There was a time when air travel — for everyone, regardless of class station — was synonymous with luxury. Bruce Handy captured the way things were in a nostalgic Vanity Fair essay about stewardesses (“stews”): “Their ‘look’ was as polished as the marble in a corporate lobby,” writes Mr. Handy. They wore lipstick and false eyelashes, white gloves and crisply folded hats. And they were young: the mandatory retirement age was 32. Flying in that long-vanished era, when Kennedy was Idlewild and the MetLife Building atop Grand Central was the Pan Am Building, felt special. I remember being presented with plastic wings on my first flight to Nassau, Bahamas, when I was 13.

All predictable and well and good.  Flying is a misery today while it was a luxury yesterday.  However Mr. Atlas doesn’t stop there like most of us, for he looks beyond the cheap snacks and cramped seats and finds allegory – Business and First Class are part of the new greed, the money-buys-all capitalism of the 21st century.

[In the old days] there was no caste system. You could get on a plane and be shown your seat in coach without having to mill around at the gate waiting for your “group” to be called. You weren’t a “member” of Premier, Business, Gold Circle, Executive Platinum or some other designation that indicated how often you flew and how much you put on your credit card. You were just a passenger, on your way to spend a few days with the grandparents or take the kids to Disneyland.

The capitalism-gone-wild in the air is replicated a million times more on the ground.  Every aspect of American life, Atlas reminds us, is become more divided along class and income lines. You can pay for better seats, easier access, more comfort, less waiting time, and more comfortable hospital rooms.

I am not sure why Mr. Atlas is so grumpy. For years fans have baked in the bleachers at Yankee games while big-spenders sat in shaded box seats. I have sat so far back in the cheap seats at the opera that it took a few seconds for Signore, Ascolta to reach me. Even in the Socialist, Soviet-inspired India of Indira Gandhi all trains had a First Class carriage.  Admittedly it wasn’t much by international standards, but if you could pay the extra few rupees, you at least got some space and air to breathe. I can never remember a time when money hasn’t bought privilege, and it only looks worse because there are more of us now – more people, more money, more retail, and more enterprise.  Exaggerating class divisions makes money.

It used to be black and white in air travel.  Either you flew First or Economy.  Now there are gradations in Economy.  If you pay a few dollars more, you get a few more inches of leg room or width. For a few more you get to sit near the front of the plane and not have to suffer the endless grappling with bags in the back; and for a few more you can board first, claim an overhead bin, and settle into your Premium seat.  This is no different from Orchestra, Loge, and Balcony. First class too has its upgrades. There is a Flagship First on American, reports Atlas, where for $18,000 round trip to London you get absolutely everything.

Despite his liberal homage to classlessness and equality, Atlas ends up where we all have.  Anything is better than Economy:

At the end of my tour, I walked down the aisle past business (less gadgetry, but still a lot), past economy plus (more legroom), and to the vast acreage of economy, row upon row of empty seats that, in a few hours, would be filled with squalling babies, muscled guys in Bubba Gump T-shirts, girls in flamingo-pink tank tops, obese armrest hoggers, divorce lawyers jabbering on their cellphones before takeoff, women in spectacles reading “Wolf Hall,” Hasids, Pakistanis, Japanese — the melting pot of American coach.

I couldn’t agree more.  In fact I am still so gun-shy about the horrors of 45 years of  Economy travel misery, that I will drive hundreds of miles to avoid an American airport.  Can another trip to Bucharest to eat tripe soup be worth it?

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