Thursday, October 13, 2011

Flying Economy: The New Steerage

So, I have once again decided that I dislike flying. This is nothing new. I’ve blogged about it before. In my novel, Emmy Goes to Hell, I set the entry method to get to Hell at an airport for a reason. I’ve been back from my trip for about 5 days now yet still I’m slightly irked about the steady decline of airline service since I first flew in the 1980’s.

Back then, flying was a treat. It was something exotic. For a kid like me, it was an adventure. They would give out free alcohol to the adults. There were a lot of snacks. The food, never great, was decent and there was a fair amount of it. Airline stewards and stewardesses treated you as though you were a human being. Luggage was something that you could bring and check in and forget about. There was room to sit in a seat with enough space to reach forward and shove something under the seat.

Cut to now. I know airlines have huge budget issues. I know they take huge losses every year. It still doesn’t make it easier to fly and feel a little like you’re a member of a cattle herd.

When I flew to the UK, I had a coach seat because, well, I’m a normal human who simply can’t afford to fly First Class. In the olden days (even up to five years ago), Coach and Economy were the same thing.

Nowadays, there’s not just Economy and Economy Plus. Yes, even the bottom dwellers can get kicked lower.

If you’ve ever seen Titanic you may remember the difference in treatment between the First Class travelers and those in steerage. In between, there were the ordinary people who didn’t have luxury cabins but also weren’t down with the rats in steerage either. Until recently, flying Economy was more like being in this middle section- it was definitely not luxurious but it was functional.

Things have changed now. Steerage class is back. There may not be any rats unless you count the fact that you often feel like you’re treated a bit like one. Economy is the new steerage.

Let me explain. Somewhere in the midst of the airlines starting to struggle for revenue, some bright soul took a look at the layout of the seats in Economy and decided that people did not, in fact, need much legroom and thus added several more rows of seats. This resulted in a traveling experience that made you feel like a sardine. There is little room to lean forward and put your carry-on under the seat without accidentally whacking your heard on the seat in front of you. Merely crossing your legs becomes a bit difficult and I don’t even have very big legs. Bringing down the tray table for an average-sized person is ok- it rests just short of actually hitting you in the abdomen. For larger folks, it often rests on the abdomen.

And then there’s the issue of the reclining seats. Somewhere in this brainchild of taking away the leg-room, they decided that reclining seats should stay. Thus, when the person in front of you reclines their seat, there goes what little room you had left. Even if you put the tray table back up, getting out of your seat to go to the bathroom is rather a difficult thing. There is simply not enough room to squeeze between your seat and the recliner in front of you without feeling like you’re breaking out of a pod of some kind. I was going to use a birthing analogy but decided that would be a little disgusting.

As if this is not humiliating enough, when you get on a plane, they make it perfectly clear that steerage folk (i.e. Economy travelers) are absolutely forbidden to use the bathrooms set aside for the Business Travelers AND the First Class travelers. You must use the bathrooms delegated to your ‘class.’ It’s bad enough that to get to the steerage seats, you have to walk through the cabins of the elite. You see those individual, spaced out little pods where the First Class traveler can fly in comfort, drinking free champagne and getting better food. Even the Business Class is far above steerage- spacy, comfortable seats that provide privacy and comfort. And free champagne.

I’ve never understood that, honestly. Steerage folk can’t even buy champagne on a plane. It’s not offered. We get the choice of red or white wine or a bottle of beer for $7 each. Newsflash: For the most part, those people in First Class are either rich, didn’t pay for their ticket or travel so often they get upgraded and thus, didn’t pay for the upgrade. They can afford to buy the bloody champagne and wine they’re given for free. Also, in their little Pods o’ Flying Comfort, they don’t really need the added tranquilizer for an overnight flight because THEY ARE COMFORTABLE.

Meanwhile, back in steerage, trying to sleep is rather difficult due to the reclined chair in front of you, the fact that you pretty much have to sit with your arms pinned to your sides so you don’t accidentally invade your fellow steerage passenger’s space. Seriously, try sitting with your elbows out a little- you end up bumping your next-door neighbour on one side and, if you’re on the aisle, getting in the way of the drink cart.

To add insult to injury, as I mentioned before, they’ve added Economy Plus. Yes, for a mere $100+, you, too, can buy a little extra space in which you might actually get to put your legs out and have them be semi-straight.

That’s all you get for your $100- the extra leg room. Thus, by First Class standards, it’s still steerage. However, to the Economy Plus traveller, it still affords a little superiority over the less fortunate in Economy who are currently sitting with their knees by their ears, trying to figure out why their video screen keeps going black.

After flying to the UK in an Economy seat, I came to the conclusion that it was one step away from being strapped in the cargo hold as luggage. It’s not that much less comfortable, I’m sure. Sometimes when I was doing aerobic contortions trying to get my bag from under the seat while the person in front of me had reclined and the attendants forgot to pick up the rubbish from our dinner plates, I thought longingly of the days when there was space to do that without pulling a muscle. I couldn’t really sleep because I was so uncomfortable- a glass of wine usually helps but at $7 a glass, it’s a little steep.

So, even though I was furious about having to do so, I paid for the Economy Plus seat on the way back. Since my ticket was paid for by my company in the first place, it was a little easier. Sadly, it was worth it. While I didn’t get a free drink and was delegated to going all the way to the back of the plane to use the bathroom, being able to sit somewhat comfortably was worth it.

I resent having to pay $100 for the freedom to cross and uncross my legs but, sadly, I can see why people do it. Also, I felt like I could look back at the lower class in plain old Economy and gloat.

Until I remember that they were probably $100 richer than me because they hadn’t caved to the Lure of Economy Plus.

I’m a sucker…what can I say. I’m a willing victim of the airlines’ attempt to exort every last dollar out of me merely because I wanted to land in Chicago without feeling like I was a cro-magnon cavewoman, bent over and never able to stand up straight again.

I’d love to hope that some day airline travel will be a luxurious experience again but I’m a realist: I say let’s be glad that we can still go to the bathroom on the plane without depositing a coin and that we aren’t put in the cargo hold because the way things are going, it’s only a matter of time.

Also, they still give you some semblance of free food on those international flights. Note: ALWAYS go with the pasta. It may taste like Chef Boyardee but it’s still better than black, gelatinous beef and dried, blobby chicken.

I suppose, for now, we should be thankful for what we have. Us steerage folks may as well appreciate the small perks such as having a seat at all and being fed and watered. It would be nicer if we weren’t herded through the upper class cabins like cattle, shuffling as we avoid getting whacked in the head by someone shoving their luggage in the overhead while watching them calmly and serenely settle into their individual chairs, drinking free champagne and clearly ready for comfort. When we finally reach the Economy Plus section and realize, sadly, that even that isn’t where we belong, it’s just plain pathetic.

Unless, of course, you pay the $100. Then you belong.

Otherwise…you’re just steerage. Ah well, at least there are no rats.

Happy Friday!

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