Leading Article: A need for civility at the back of the aircraft

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THINGS are looking up for people who fly the world on business. Aboard British Airways' night flights, first-class seats are made up like beds with quilts and pillows; on arrival at Heathrow, passengers have their clothes pressed and their faxes sent while they relax in the shower. Travellers in Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class are whisked to and from the airport by limousine, and can call on the services of an in-flight masseur.

Spare a thought, though, for those of us who can afford only hundreds, rather than thousands, to cross a continent or an ocean. Economy class is a misnomer: Richard Branson was closer to the mark in wishing to call Virgin's lowest class 'Riff-Raff'. (He was talked out of the idea by wiser heads before the airline's first flight.)

The food at the back of the average aircraft cabin is still nowhere near as good as a Marks & Spencer sandwich. The announcements are repetitive and intrusive, and the seat in front always seems less than a knee-length away. There are innumerable queues: at check-in, at immigration, at customs, at the gate - even, for heaven's sake, at the aircraft door. No number of video channels or seat-back television screens can compensate for these discomforts.

Governments are partly to blame for the enduring incivility of cheap air travel. They site airports out of town, but fail to provide reliable public transport for reaching them. They demand cumbersome formalities of immigration and customs - and refuse to look for efficient ways to carry them out.

But the airlines themselves share the fault. So far, they have allowed only travellers in first and business class to benefit from the priority lines and hi-tech systems that allow US immigration to be cleared on board or before departure. Business travellers will certainly pay generously to avoid the humiliations inflicted on the rest of us. But the airlines are wrong if they believe that people who pay for air tickets from their own pockets merely want to be entertained. They should look for ways to make low-cost travel less unpleasant.