Bryson's America: Whatever happened to good ol' airline courtesy?

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The Independent Culture
MY FATHER was a sportswriter who flew a lot for his work in the days before it was common to do so, and occasionally he would take me on one of his trips with him. It was exciting, of course, just to go away for a weekend with my dad, but at the heart of the experience was the thrill of getting on a plane and going somewhere.

Everything about the process felt special and privileged. Checking in, you would be one of a small group of well-dressed people (for in those days people actually dressed up to fly). When the flight was called, you would stroll across a broad tarmac to a gleaming silver plane, and up one of those wheeled staircases. Entering the plane was like being admitted to some special club. Just stepping aboard, you became a little more stylish and sophisticated. The seats were comfy and, for a small boy, commodious. A smiling stewardess would come and give you a little winged badge that said "Assistant Pilot" or something similarly responsible-sounding. All that romance has long since vanished. Today in America commercial planes are little more than winged buses, and the airlines, without detectable exception, regard passengers as irksome pieces of bulk freight that they consented, at some time in the remote past, to carry from place to place and now wish they hadn't.

I cannot begin to describe in a space this modest all the spirit-sapping features of modern American air travel - the routinely overbooked flights, the endless queuing, the delays, the discovery that your "direct" flight to Miami actually stops in Pittsburgh and involves a layover of 90 minutes and a change of planes, the near impossibility of finding a friendly face among the ground staff, the being treated like an idiot and a cypher.

Yet in the oddest ways airlines continue to act as if it is still 1955. Take the safety demonstration. Why after all these years do the flight attendants still put a life vest over their heads and show you how to pull the little cord that inflates it? In the history of commercial aviation no life has been saved by the provision of life vests. I am especially fascinated by the way they include a little plastic whistle on each vest. I always imagine myself plunging vertically towards the ocean at 1,200 miles an hour and thinking: "Well, thank gosh I've got this whistle."

It is no good asking what they are thinking because they are not thinking anything. I recently boarded a flight from Boston to Denver. When I opened the overhead storage compartment I found an inflated dinghy entirely filling the space.

"There's a boat in here," I breathed in amazement to a passing flight attendant.

"Yes, sir," said the flight attendant snappily. "This plane meets FAA specifications for overwater flights."

I stared at him in small wonder. "And which ocean do we cross between Boston and Denver?"

"The plane meets FAA specifications for overwater flights whether or not overwater flights are scheduledly anticipated," was his crisp reply, or something similarly inane and mangled.

"Are you telling me that if we go down in water, 150 passengers are supposed to get into a two-man dinghy?"

"No, sir, there's another flotation craft in here." He indicated the bin on the opposite side. "So two boats for 150 people? Does that strike you as just a little absurd?"

"Sir, I don't make the rules, and you are blocking the aisle."

He talked to me like this because all airline employees eventually talk to you like this if you press them a little bit, and sometimes even if you don't. I feel safe in saying that there is not an industry anywhere in the United States where the notions of service and customer satisfaction are less regarded. All too often the most innocuous move - stepping up to a counter before the check-in clerk is ready to receive you, inquiring why a flight is delayed, ending up with no place to stow your coat because your overhead locker contains an inflated boat - can lead to snappishness and rebuke.

Mind you, with the notable exception of me and a few other meek souls who believe in orderliness, most passengers in America these days deserve what they get. This is because they take on jumbo suit-bags and wheeled carry-ons that are at least twice the officially permitted size, so that the overhead bins fill up long before the flight is fully boarded. To make sure they get a bin to themselves, they board before their row is called. On any flight in America now you will find at least 20 per cent of the seats filled by people whose row numbers have not been called. I have watched this process with weary exasperation for some years, and I can tell you that it takes roughly twice as long for an American plane to get boarded and airborne as it does elsewhere. The result of this is a kind of war between airline employees and passengers, which all too often rebounds on the innocent in a way that cries out for justice.

I particularly recall an experience of a few years ago when my wife, children and I boarded a flight in Minneapolis to fly to London and discovered that we had been allocated seats in six different parts of the aircraft, up to 20 rows apart. Bemused, my wife pointed this out to a passing stewardess.

"And what do you expect me to do about it?" the stewardess replied in a tone that suggested an urgent need for a refresher course in customer relations.

"Well, we'd like some seats together, please."

The stewardess gave a hollow laugh. "There's nothing I can do now. We're boarding. Didn't you check your boarding passes?"

"Only the top one. The check-in clerk" - who was, let me interject here, a disagreeable specimen herself - "didn't tell us she was scattering us all over the plane."

"There's nothing I can do now."

"But we have small children."


"Are you telling me to put a two-year-old and a four-year-old off by themselves for an eight-hour flight across the Atlantic?" my wife asked. (This was an idea that I believed I could warm to, but I made a grave face, in solidarity.)

The stewardess gave an elaborate sigh and, with an undisguised show of resentment, asked a kindly but timid white-haired couple to swap seats, which allowed my wife and the two youngest to sit together. The rest of us would remain separated.

"Next time look at your boarding passes before you leave the terminal," the attendant snapped at my wife in parting.

"No, next time we will fly with someone else," my wife replied, and indeed ever since we have.

"And one day, I'll have a column in a newspaper and I'll write about this," I called after her in a haughty voice. Of course, I didn't say any such thing, and it would be a terrible abuse of my position to tell you that it was Northwest Airlines that treated us in this shabby way, so I won't.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99