Friday, March 26, 2010

We're all better off grounded

The British Airways cabin crew trying to disrupt people’s flights over the coming days and weeks are just another nail in the coffin of the aviation industry.

If you aren’t caught by a strike at home, there’s every chance you’ll be hit by an air traffic controllers’ dispute in France or a baggage-handlers’ go-slow in Spain.

And you can pretty much guarantee your plane won’t take off or arrive anywhere close to the scheduled times.

While we protest mightily if a train is half an hour late, we sit in stunned acquiescence as airlines fail to tell us what’s going on for hours on end and dump us at our destinations at midnight rather than mid-day.

That’s always assuming they actually take us to the place we want to go.

It’s quite normal to expect to return to Birmingham Airport but actually land at Luton or for the flight to Madeira to be diverted to Tenerife where there is no-one to find you accommodation let alone tell you how they intend to get you to your destination.

Air travel is an abomination.

Last time I went through airport security I was frisked, quizzed, humiliated and hounded no fewer than eight times by “security”.

Every time I fly, I swear it’s the very last time. The whole process is a slow, painful, dreary exercise which makes travelling abroad the last resort.

From the moment you arrive at an airport and try to park the car on some grossly over-priced wasteland before breaking your arms manhandling your cases onto a random “shuttle bus”, you enter the 24 circles of Hell.

You are ordered to arrive two or even three hours before the departure time. That’s so you can queue.

First off it’s the check-in desk – or, in some places, the first security scanning desk – where you hang around for hours while officious little girls who speak little English ask inane questions like “Did you pack your own baggage?”

What would they say if I said, “No, my wife packed it”? Would they rip it apart in search of bombs? Would they take me to one side and strip-search me? Would they ban me altogether from the flight? Obviously I wouldn’t dare risk a joke with these harridans.

I once resisted a surcharge imposed because my single case was too heavy though, as it contained clothes for two people, it was way below our combined allowance.

After being threatened with arrest I was forced to go and buy a new case, rearrange the luggage, and go to the back of the queue. It might have been cheaper to cough up in the first place.

Then there’s security, immigration and passport control. They are often quite pleasant people who are only doing their job. We all want safe flights. But it’s more queues.

You have to remove most of your clothes – including your shoes, which means remembering to put on socks without holes.

They rifle through your hand luggage throwing out any bottled water you may have because the airport wants to sell its their own at excessive prices once you’ve made it into the shopping mall known as the departure lounge.

Here, you while away the hours waiting for your flight to be called. There’s nowhere comfortable to sit unless you go to one of the many food and drink outlets and blow the holiday money on a couple of cappuccinos and a croissant.

Finally you get to departure gate 273 by traipsing down endless corridors where the travelators don’t work. And you sit. Usually on the floor because the 100 seats available for the 350 passengers are all taken.

At this point you might pluck up the courage to ask one of the BA staff why the flight is two hours late so far and when they think they might deign to take off.

They order you, in not very polite terms, to go away and mind your own business. As soon as they have some information to impart, they will let you know.

Finally you queue again to have your boarding card and ticket checked. At length, you’re allowed onto the plane.

The cabin crew look on disdainfully as you turn right into the cheap seats and struggle to squeeze yourself in beside the fat bloke in the aisle seat who is your companion for the next four hours.

You can’t sleep because the seats are too uncomfortable so you let yourself graze on the disgusting food all the time knowing the plastic trays themselves would be more nutritious.

And all of this takes place as you check out your fellow passengers to identify the terrorist and remember those stories, real and fictional, about planes plunging from the skies.

A strike is the best service BA could offer its customers. That way, we can book to go somewhere exotic and enjoy a fantasy holiday without enduring the grim reality of having to go through with it.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. Obviously he’d never flown.

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