You don’t expect much from the airlines these days. All you really want is to get wherever you are going with dignity. At one end of the spectrum you find some airlines which have really ‘sucked it up’ and do just that with Spartan no frills deals: you get a seat and the plane flies. You don’t feel cheated and you walk away with your ego intact. On the other end of the spectrum there are airlines that have chosen to share the process of ‘sucking it up’ with their passengers. While the end result will be the same – you will eventually fly with no food or drink or leg room or head rest or blanket or pillow or head set – you have to go through a prolonged period of seeing all these amenities gradually disappear. I experienced this latter interesting economical phenomenon recently which affected me deeply so much so that I feel compelled to share it. To make my long story short I will confine it to anything that happened either on the plane or very close to it. It all happened on a round trip flight from San Francisco to Boston.
As we approached the end of the jet way on our way to board, I noticed that the jet way’s tarpaulin roof was open allowing for a broadside view of the plane glistening in the early afternoon sun. I took this opportunity to perform a quick scan of the fuselage for cracks. As far as I could make out this particular side of the plane was intact. The fact that American Airlines does not paint their planes makes them easier to inspect. The shining metal also reflected a significant percentage of the solar energy hitting the plane, so they did not have to turn on air conditioning. You could feel the heat wave the minute you stepped on to the plane. It wasn’t the kind of temperature change that makes you fully aware that something is wrong, but it registers never the less. What did concern me was the fact that the pilot left the plane as I was boarding it. ‘Isn’t that the driver who just left?’ I asked the guard-dog stewardess who stood to greet everyone with a smile glued to her face. At first she had trouble understanding that someone had actually acknowledged her existence. When she managed to pull herself together she dismantled the annoying smile and said ‘He’ll be back.’ Wasn’t that someone else’s line? Why would the pilot leave? Still not too concerned, knowing that as long as we were on the ground the worst that could happen is that we would remain there I shuffled along to my seat in the ‘cattle’ class behind the sheep in front of me.
It is interesting how many names they have for the class that everyone flies but nobody wants to be in. They used to call it ‘coach’ but that went out with the railroads. Then it was ‘economy’ which also went down the tubes. Then there was ‘world traveler’ which was awfully confusing to those that only flew domestic. Finally they settled on the ‘rear of the aircraft’ which is kind of open ended, but my experience shows that it included all but the pilot’s row and two or three rows immediately adjacent to the cockpit. Personally I would prefer if they called it for what it is: the ‘mind your own business’ class or the ‘fly with no class’ class.
As you make your way down the isle it strikes you that the plane is full of people in spite of the fact that boarding is done in ‘groups’ these days. This is a new measure which significantly increases our security for reasons which are known only to those in charge of our security. I am sure that I don’t get it. I expect that groups arrange seating according to rows so that the plane is filled from front to back or visa versa. I can only guess that this is what they want you to think. The real meaning of the groups is quite different. Group ‘one’ has the good seats, that’s why they board with the first class so nobody notices that group one is always empty. Group ‘two’ is the one that gets pillows and blankets. Group ‘three’ has working power outlets. Groups ‘four’ is the cutoff group they get nothing. Group ‘five’ exists just to appease the masses of group ‘four.’
Based on my ‘group four’ membership I was assigned my usual ‘wing-side’ seat with the ‘fully-obstructed’ view. I always feel sorry for people flying in these seats for the first time desperately trying to find a body angle that allows them to get a glimpse of the outside world. Don’t you think it’s cynical that they even have a window next to these seats? I guess they left it there for star gazers and for the rare cases when the plane is flying upside down. In those rare cases the wing side seats become the best viewing platforms of the unraveling catastrophe. Not only do you get your view back, you get it with the flaming wing as a visor.
As basic fairness would have it, you would expect to be compensated for the restricted view with some extra leg room: ‘If I can’t see a damn thing I might as well stretch out and doze off”. Hah! Gotcha! You are not flying Jet Blue or South West that put exit rows over the wings. American Airlines has older planes where the exit rows are where the wings are not! ‘This is for your own security; the wing could be on fire when we leave the aircraft.’
Not having a pilot on the plane forced the crew to make routine excuses to keep the cattle from tearing up the pen. They use a recording of a man’s voice in these cases to bestow a technical aura on the problem: ‘we are in the process of wrapping up a routine maintenance procedure.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, just tell me the first baloney time estimate and let’s get on with the wait.’ ‘We should be done in five minutes.’ It didn’t seem likely that they would find another pilot so fast. Indeed, ten minutes later, when they could stall no longer the recording apologized: ‘It seems that the technical difficulty which we were experiencing.’ ‘You did not say technical difficulty in the first recording.’ ‘will require at least fifteen minutes…’ ‘Why don’t you just tell me that it will take at least half an hour to find a sober pilot?’ The recording machine must have heard the sound of opening seatbelts from the cattle pen because it quickly continued: ‘please remain (calm) in your seats’ and then as if we didn’t know that they had no clue how long this would take: ‘we will keep you informed.’ Think positive: ‘our meeting is in forty eight hours take your time’.
When things changed for the better they put on the cheery woman voice recording: ‘Good morning and welcome to our non-stop flight with [non-start] service from San Francisco’ ‘I know where we are.’ ‘to Logan Airport in Boston Massachusetts.’ ‘Lady, we really don’t need the geography lesson’ forgetting that it was a recording. Think positive maybe someone is interested? When we were in the air the new pilot chimed in and gave us all the crucial flight plan information in case he too would have to leave: ‘we will be cruising at thirty four thousand feet, ground speed… expected arrival time…’ Armed with all the necessary information I could sit back and plan the financial transactions I would have to perform during the flight.
You see, American Airlines cannot afford to feed you or entertain you. You need to bring your own change of clothes in your carry on luggage. There is running water in the lavatories ‘located for your convenience (so they only foul up the air) in the rear of the cabin (pen)’ and you are welcome to buy your food from the airline. ‘We have a choice of a ‘wrap’ or a ‘box’. The wrap went for five dollars and the box for three. The airborne financial advisor reminded the passengers that we also needed five dollars for headsets in case we did not keep the ones we purchased the last time we flew American. Confused with all the purchasing options I bought a wrap but forgot about the headset.
The wrap was cold and red which is not the right color for a wrap. I believe the airline knows that the color was problematic, so the wrap is served cut diagonally in half exposing as much of the ingredients as possible without having the wrap fall to pieces. Two red cylindrical containers with turkey and what used to be canned vegetables did not seem too appealing in the early stages of the flight, so I opted to store the goods under the seat until it was both later and darker.
Without a headset I was reduced to ‘observing’ the movie ‘Lake Six’ which is the bottom half of ‘Oceans Twelve’. I could only see the bottom half of the movie because the wing-side seat’s view of the monitors is obstructed by the ‘overhead compartments’ where one’s luggage is stowed ‘with one bag under the seat in front of you.’ As positive as I tried to be about the upside in all of this it did not amount to much. I was cramped with no leg room, and what I had left was hogged by my laptop which I could not use because group four does not have power outlets. The laptop should have been in the overhead bin but that was too small to contain it. However it was big enough to obstruct my view. I would have been able to get a somewhat better view if I could slide further down my seat but for that I needed legroom which was occupied by the laptop which I looked out the window at the wing which was not on fire and felt much better.
After the movie it was dark enough in and out of the plane to eat the chemically treated-to-last wrap. Of all the chemicals that they used I could identify iodine and salt with a high degree of certainty. They probably seed clouds with these wraps once their expiration date is overdue beyond all recognition. I ate it nevertheless knowing that there would be no food on the ground given our guaranteed late arrival.
As we were getting close to the airport the pilot was getting kind of cocky: ‘we will be on the ground in approximately seven or eight minutes.’ What is it with the airlines that they always have to use a redundant term in their sentences? If you approximate then you can just pick one number, we’ll figure it out. What really worried me though was the possibility that the pilot was not approximating he really did not know whether it’s seven or eight minutes. To put this in perspective for a plane that is moving four times faster than a car on a highway a difference of one minute means four miles. If you think you will land in seven minutes when you really need eight it means you will try to land at a height of fifteen hundred feet. I can tell you that you cannot land at that height believe me I tried. The good news is that the plane keeps going down and you get a second chance at landing. If on the other hand you need seven minutes to land but think you have a whole minute to spare then at the end of the seventh minute you will smash gloriously into the runway going one hundred miles faster than you should be. Think positive, we have a minute to spare. History proved me right.
On the flight back the pilot was so anal about time I knew everything would be all right: ‘our flying time to San Francisco’ ‘I know where I am going’ ‘will be approximately five hours and fifty nine minutes’ (I kid you not) ‘What is it with the English of air crews?’ Or was it the uncertainty regarding which one of the sixty seconds of that fifty ninth minute would be the one we touch down at? Maybe it is the one-dollar-and-ninety nine-cents pricing logic as it applies to time. It doesn’t work for pricing, it leaves you with many annoying pennies don’t do it to us with time. We have nothing to do with a minute dangling at the end of an hour we’ll waste it anyway keep it.
I had a whole row to myself so I decided to treat myself to a headset and the ‘box’. The ‘Box’ turned out to be a pack of eight beef-salami dice the size of quarters. They were wrapped in a people-tight plastic polymer used for bullet proof vests, The salami was accompanied by two bags of crackers in plural form thanks to the second cracker in each bag, two pieces of smoked cheese the kind that comes in a circular pack of eight but is then distributed evenly among four passengers, a bag of Oreos which like the crackers form a pair the minimal form of plurality, and a full sized bag of ‘Craizens’ which is a new way to brand cranberries which have seen better days.
I stared at the contents of my food trove contemplating my plan of attack. Clearly I would have to fight my way teeth-and-nails into these bags so it would be best to start the battle with the wrapping that was sure to present me with the most resistance. The wrapping of the salami was definitely the place to start. How else would they dare carry that foul meat around the world probably for months on end if it was not sealed as well as I suspected? Sure enough, the ‘tear here’ indicator tore ‘just there’ not coming anywhere near the context of the package. The next step was to try and pull apart the two sides of the package hoping that it would behave like a friendly bag of potato chips; to no avail. After a few attempts I could feel my fingers weakening and I still had the crackers and cheese to deal with. I found a knife in the ‘box’ but being a post nine-eleven plastic utensil – it disintegrated against the protective plastic sheet. I could feel the salami smiling at me the way a bird in its cage smiles at a cat. ‘I’ll have you yet’ I found myself thinking back at it which in the grand scheme of the humiliations I was going through was quite embarrassing in and of itself.
Unknown to the Salami, I had just left a hotel room which charged me for an Internet connection that did not work. As a way of getting even I took both the ‘thank you for staying with us’ plastic pens they provide you with so you can write paper letters since your Internet connection does not work. Surely I could sacrifice one of these to get at the Salami. The Salami stopped smiling when the pen came at it through the plastic. While the pen will never write again, its ball point smashed backwards into the ink cylinder, it had died an honorable death getting me within finger reach of the dubious fleshy product.
The salami at my mercy I turned my attention to the first bag of crackers. I should have waited a minute or two in order to gain better control of my muscles before attempting to open the wrapping of what turned out to be a very brittle product. The first pair of cracker disappeared in a cloud of dust between my trembling fingers, their final gasps reminding me to put my emotions aside as I went about opening my remaining bag of the only item that could be used to serve up the Salami without touching it. Well almost, you do need to assign a finger or two to make sure the Salami gets on the cracker. Pushing from the bottom end of the salami pack I prodded the eight pieces forward toward the opening the heroic pen had opened. The salami slices moved as one, determined to stay together to the end. Perhaps if they all made it into my mouth together some of them could make it to my throat without being chewed. Knowing that they cannot be digested when whole they would be reborn and live to see another passenger after the sewage recycling process was done a few weeks from now. I managed to split the group in half and with the aid of one cracker per batch did them in with no hope of resurrection.
Thinking positive I orchestrated a true Cinderella finish to my meal. After I was done with the meat cutlets I let them settle and prepared to dine on choice pickings from my platter of ‘fromage’. I nibbled at the one triangle I had selected from the identical twins that they were, pretending that there was more to it than just a piece of gummy milk product residue treated to last with chemicals similar to those used on the wrap. As I swallowed the last of my choicest cheese I waited for the imaginary waiter (myself) to bring me the chocolate dumplings (the bag of two Oreos). Filled with creams (sugar margarine) and topped with cherries (Craisens), .I washed it all down with fine ‘Port’ (Diet Coke diluted by too much ice which had long since melted) served in a crystal glass (the plastic dentures containers dentists use which the airlines serve liquids in). When the dinner was all done my dining hall turned back into the tray-table pumpkin that it was. I collected the remains of the wrappings along with the carcass of the pen and marched everything back to the galley. The stewardess eyed me suspiciously convinced that I was trying to steal a bag of pretzels like everyone else. Little did she know; how could I possibly covet a lowly product as a pretzel after the feast that I had just consumed.
We landed after exactly six hours and thirty minutes. The recording made no mention of the discrepancies between the expected and the actual time of arrival. However I think I heard the recording say ‘We know that you have a choice so why do you fly American?’