Flying was once a sophisticated way to travel. But, says Richard Paris, economy-class journeys are more and more resembling the overnight coach from London to Glasgow
DO TODAY'S air travellers receive any better service than was meted out in the past to the impoverished emigrants who crossed oceans in the bowels of dirty steamers?

When I put this question to the general managers of three long haul airlines in London, they baulked at the very suggestion. But you do not have to be very old to know that flying is not what it used to be for the 75 per cent of the travelling public who always travel in economy class.

Advertising budgets and marketing efforts are now overwhelmingly directed at the first and business class traveller. In-flight neck massages and pyjamas; telephones and fax machines; limousine collection and delivery; executive lounges with health centres - these are just some of the innovations at the top end of the market. For these travellers, the seats get ever wider, the pitch ever greater, the meals ever grander.

Yet before the arrival of wide body jets in the 1970s, airlines were almost as anxious to earn the respect of economy passengers as they were for the big spenders at the front. When the captain asked if there was "anything any of our crew can do make your flight more comfortable..." one sensed that he was addressing everyone on board. Nervous or novice flyers were always given special attention, regardless of how much they paid for their ticket; and, generally, air travel was considered a glamorous form of transport.

The gradual deterioration of standards was probably inevitable with the introduction of charter flights, which heralded an era when air travel was not just the fastest way to get to a large number of destinations but also the least expensive. Nonetheless, an even sharper decline has been noticeable in more recent years, mainly since the deregulation of the scheduled airline industry.

The fact that in 1997 it is possible for airlines to make a profit by charging as little as pounds 99 for a seat on a flight from London to New York or Miami is enticing but let us not pretend that for this sum one is going to experience "a taste of paradise" as one carrier would have us believe. Many long distance flights are no more comfortable than travel by coach and they can be much worse. After all, how many of us would spend an entire night (and perhaps a day as well) in a motor vehicle, crammed nine, 10 even 11 abreast in high density seating, if we could possibly avoid it? Who has not noticed that when you attempt to recline the seat, the person sitting behind kicks you straight again?

Today's nervous or frightened passengers can expect little sympathy from harassed cabin crews, who feel that their duties have been fulfilled when they have served and then cleared up as many as 900 meals and twice as many drinks on a long flight. Faulty in-flight entertainment systems, lavatories which don't function or are not cleaned, and overcooked, tasteless food are three regular complaints which are met with indifference by most carriers.

Moreover, such is the commercial pressure on airlines today that there is no time or space for anyone with special needs sitting in the aft. God help the economy class passenger with a weak bladder. A more humiliating fate awaits anyone who becomes seriously ill at 35,000 feet. When a passenger sitting next to me collapsed on my shoulder and finally died, the crew of the packed Boeing 727 tried to administer oxygen while his hysterical wife looked on, helpless and bereft, in front of a gaping audience. There is often simply nowhere to move anyone for a moment of privacy in extremis.

On the ground, we are expected to check in earlier and earlier - at least two, sometimes three hours before departure, while delays have become so normal that apologies are reduced to mere formalities. A major disruption to a flight, such as a diversion to another city - perhaps in another country - is always an ordeal, but while those in first and business class are rushed directly to luxury hotels, the human cargo at the back will usually be left for hours in an overheated and overcrowded airport lounge.

Cabin crews, fearful of the demands of hundreds of passengers on very long flights, dole out the alcoholic drinks and turn up the cabin temperature in the hope that their charges will be anaesthetised into comatose docility, if not fitful slumber. But this unacknowledged course of action has started to backfire, with a dramatic rise in episodes of violent behaviour from inebriated, restless passengers, adding another layer of tension to the misery that awaits the budget traveller.

What of the future? With aircraft carrying 900-1000 passengers to be introduced early in the next millennium, excursion fares will certainly be kept low but the downside should not be underestimated: the tedium and squalor is likely to get worse, especially as the message from most airlines seems to be that the only solution for grumbling passengers is to pay for an upgrade.