Does anyone actually enjoy flying any more? I know I don’t. I realised recently, while anxiously repacking my tiny carry-on case with its cache of toiletries dribbled into miniature bottles, that travelling with an airline now feels a bit like going on holiday with a friend who — just beneath the surface — actually hates you. With every trip, it seems, airlines grow angrier and stingier, stripping away any remaining perks and then making us stump up to buy them all back. Their profits have grown fat on the commerce of small differentiations, micro-transactions around fragile scraps of sanity and time. On the budget airline easyJet, for example, you are allowed one piece of cabin baggage, but no handbag. That is unless, of course, you have splashed out on easyJet Plus (annual membership £199) which will graciously permit said handbag — and its precious cargo of passports, boarding cards, money and keys — to travel by your side. This membership will also green-light speedy boarding — or at least speedier-than-thou boarding — which at a certain crucial point will allow its owner to stroll past a gaggle of stalled travellers who are still huddled in a queue, hot and bickering. In effect, it buys you five minutes and a frisson.
Those of us who clicked quickly past the paid-for extras while booking, however, will later discover that the separation of a woman from her handbag creates a psychic disturbance — even if that handbag is nearby, having been forcefully compressed into a highly resistant piece of carry-on luggage. No matter: this disturbance will be just one among many that began at home with the repeated malfunctioning of the printer needed to print out the boarding cards, and continued through the dreary, but necessary, slog through airport security, right up until the apologetic squeeze into the seat and the tight scramble for stray cash for a tepid butty from the stewardess’s clanking trolley.
Indeed, given the prevailing atmosphere of low-level punishment, it is only remarkable that remaining pockets of civility are so often to be found among the stoic flight attendants. But one is not always safe even on board, as Dr David Dao discovered earlier this year in the US, when security officers dragged him protesting from a United Airlines seat which he had booked and paid for. The airline had overbooked and urgently needed to make space, but Dr Dao was reluctant to depart as he had patients to see upon arrival. In the course of encouraging Dr Dao off the plane, the airline’s representatives left him with concussion, a broken nose and two missing teeth. Some wag suggested a new slogan: ‘Board as a doctor, leave as a patient.’
Years ago, when the first blasts of contempt for the travelling public emerged from the person of Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, it almost seemed a refreshing novelty. His justification for callousness — ‘Shall we give you a refund on a non-refundable ticket because your granny died unexpectedly? No! Go away!’ — was the alluringly low price for the tickets on offer, and the range of flights to neglected destinations. O’Leary’s philosophy was ‘sell ’em cheap, make ’em pay for privileges.’
At least with O’Leary the derision for passengers was part of a clear bargain: insult for cash. But British Airways, which for so long presented itself as the gentleman of the skies, took a sidelong look at the tactics of the Ryanair upstart and liked what it saw. For a few years now even Ryanair has been struggling to be more agreeable to its customers, but British Airways has been quietly, systematically, shredding its courtesies, introducing payments for seat selection and confiscating those lingering talismans of a merrier age, the free drinks and snacks on short-haul flights. Unfortunately, BA also appeared to be scrimping on its IT system, which suffered that truly spectacular ‘outage’ over the last May bank holiday weekend. An estimated 75,000 BA passengers were affected — the airline even provided some of them with yoga mats, presumably to help them practise their deep breathing while they came to terms with the conflagration of their holiday plans. Although this international PR disaster should be cause for lasting embarrassment, I’m not sure that it will: IAG, the company that owns BA, has just reported a handsome surge in profits.
It wasn’t always like this. The memory is growing hazier now, but I can just about remember when airports were repositories of glamour, wafting the musk of possibility. In the 1970s, advertisements for men’s fashions and women’s perfume were set in airports, as though transit was the most exciting place in which to be. Cabin staff, male and female, had a whiff of roguery to them, and the discretion to slide a whole bunch of those miniature bottles of spirits into the hands of favoured passengers. Even on the little flight from Belfast to London, fussing with the niceties of the complimentary hot meal kept us busy for a large part of the flight. It felt as if airlines liked us then, you see. They wanted to make us happy. Well, they don’t any more.
While it’s probably cheaper to fly now, all told, it’s also much more miserable. While booking, I don’t much want to spend ages clicking through a thousand tiny costly options, incrementally increasing my comfort level to drag me up to a place that was once considered normal. I know this is technically choice, which we’re supposed to thrill to in all its endless permutations, but isn’t there room for one airline that simply offers prices that are reasonable, not rock-bottom, and promises to make travel much more agreeable for all its passengers?
One day some bright spark will seize on this idea. It will revolutionise the airline industry.