As much as I hate to admit it, and believe me, I really do hate to admit it, I am getting on a bit. During my life I have traveled to many places around the world both on business and for pleasure.
Unfortunately, sometimes it is hard to see the pleasure in the actual traveling part these days. It’s nice to get where I’m going but the bit between leaving home and arriving at my destination seems to have lost much of the enjoyment it once had.
Actually I tried very hard to make flying my career. I applied to become both an airline pilot and a pilot in the air force when I left school. I passed all the aptitude tests but then failed the medicals because of a slight deficiency at one frequency in one ear. But I did learn to fly later in life though. I also applied to become cabin crew 6 times and failed to get in – who knows why. They wouldn’t tell you in those days.
Well I didn’t intend for this article to develop into such a rant but it did in the end. Sorry about that. It was simply meant to be my reflections on over 40 years of traveling by air.
If you want to read my thoughts on how air travel has changed then please carry on ….
So how has air travel changed?
It is odd that although today’s air travel is quicker, and usually comes with all sorts of on-board entertainment systems, it seems no more enjoyable than it was 40 odd years ago. In fact, I think it is less so. Air travel in the 1970s was certainly looked on as being glamorous but that is no longer the case.
Back in the 70s I genuinely found the whole business of flying exciting. And I don’t just mean the actual flying part, even the checking in and waiting somehow seemed exciting too. Perhaps that is because I was younger, less cynical, more tolerant and flying was something new to experience. Although that is true to some extent, I do think that the whole experience has somehow been made more mundane than it was. It is more like catching a bus now.
Getting To The Airport
Even the part from leaving home to boarding the flight was generally much better and less stressful back then.
For a start there was definitely much less traffic so you didn’t have to leave home quite so early in case of traffic hold ups.
If you were being given a ride to the airport you could be dropped off right outside the terminal door with your baggage. You weren’t forced to walk the last quarter of a mile, dragging your baggage, because of security measures – and the person dropping you off didn’t have to pay for the privilege either.
Once inside the terminal, because there were fewer flights, and the aircraft generally couldn’t hold half the population of a small country, you didn’t have to queue for 30 minutes or perhaps even an hour to check in.
As a matter of fact, you weren’t told you had to check-in 2 hours or more before flight departure when I first started flying either.
And back then I wasn’t asked the most irritating and stupid of all possible questions:
“Did you pack your bag yourself?”
How ridiculous! No, actually a nice chap from the middle east, who lives over the road, knocked on my door and very kindly offered to pack it for me.
Of course I packed it myself!
Even if my wife had packed it (which is never anyway as it happens) I wouldn’t tell them otherwise there would be even more delays while they searched it – just in case my English, Salvation Army member wife had suddenly become radicalized and had placed some kind of explosive device in it. Well you never know do you I suppose – there are times when she would probably want to rid herself of me.
Back in the day, after you had checked your bags in, to go through to the departure lounge simply involved walking past a small desk, with an immigration officer at it, and showing him/her your passport and boarding card. And that was it. No stress at all really. Of course, this was airport security long before 9/11.
But now, the bit that absolutely winds me up the most — the draconian airport security check. It almost always seems to be staffed by the autocratic offspring of traffic wardens – although I shouldn’t say that really as my son did that job at Heathrow for a few years.
When I finally walk the 5 miles back and forth through the queue system and arrive near the security desks, x-ray machines and metal detectors I hear the endless “Remove your belts, remove you shoes, remove your belts, remove laptops and electrical equipment blah, blah, blah.” Every time I go though I keep telling myself “I am not going to get annoyed! I am not going to get annoyed!” and almost every time I fail miserably. The whole experience is degrading and humiliating quite frankly.
By the time I get to the front I am fed up and normally feeling in an utterly dismal and sarcastic mood. I have probably been up since long before dawn, a time no sane person should ever have to experience in my opinion, and I am now dying for a cup of coffee and some breakfast.
My humor level has typically reached defcon 4 by now, bordering on level 5. So I am not amused when they take away my little pair of nail clippers I have had for years because I mistakenly left them in my hand luggage instead of putting them in my hold bag. Do they honestly think someone is going to be able to get away with hijacking an aircraft with a pair of nail clippers? Airport security after 9/11 has certainly gone over the top in my opinion.
Finally, I reach the departure lounge. In the past this just meant that you could now head straight for the coffee shop or whatever. Not nowadays. The ordeal is not over yet. I am now forced to run the gauntlet of the “shopping experience”, trying to make me part with my hard-earned money, as I follow the yellow brick road zigzagging through perfumes, handbags, sunglasses and other crap I have no interest in. I just want that coffee, if there is actually time before I have to go to the gate of course, after all the hassle I have had getting this far.
I head for that coffee, if I can actually find a coffee shop among all the other shops as airport terminals seem to become more and more like a shopping mall every year.
At last I am there and order my coffee. I pick up a tasty looking pastry or something else to go with it and head for the checkout. By this time my blood pressure is starting to return to somewhere around normal but that isn’t going to last. My eyes almost pop out in disbelief and I hear myself asking “How much?” when I am asked to hand over an amount I could have bought a small house for back in the 70s!
Perhaps my memory has faded but back in my early flying days I don’t remember my jaw dropping when I was told what my coffee was going to cost. It may have been slightly more expensive than my local cafe but it didn’t involve taking out a mortgage to fund it.
Information is without a doubt better with the modern information displays (there I found something good to say!).
Most airports, back in the 70s, had displays where the letters and numbers actually physically moved, making a distinctive noise as they did. Actually they were quite mesmerizing to watch them change I found.
They often went wrong and didn’t show very much even when they did work. Some smaller airports relied entirely on loudspeaker announcements.
Boarding At The Gate
Back in 1977 I was traveling from Queenstown on the south island of New Zealand to Auckland on a Mount Cook Airline’s HS748 2-engined propeller driven airliner. The terminal building was lovely, just a large comfortable log cabin really. They made an announcement that all passengers for our flight should proceed to gate 2. So we walked outside the terminal and there, in the wire fence, were two gates. They were literally right next to each other, with Gate 1 and 2 written above them. We walked through the gate and across the apron to our aircraft – the only aircraft at the airport.
There was another funny odd thing on that flight. After about half an hour we started to descend in the mountains. We landed at a small airstrip, in the middle of nowhere, on which the only thing was what I can only describe as a bus stop with a seat in it. There were no staff at all at the airstrip. The only person there was a huge Māori guy sitting on the seat. We had landed just to pick him up.
One of the few things that doesn’t seem to have changed much is the actual boarding of the aircraft.
You still get the selfish idiots who insist on blocking the aisle while they get everything out of their hand luggage that they may need for the flight. That is even though the flight is going to take 10 hours so they can easily get what they need during the flight.
You still get the couple with three young kids that get on last and then expect the cabin crew to find them 5 seats together.
Long Haul Flights
It seems that even the definition of what is a long haul flight has changed in recent years. In my early days of flying by air you were either on a short haul or a long haul flight. Now, evidently, you have short haul (under 3 hours), medium haul (3-6 hours), long haul (6-12 hours) and ultra long haul is over 12 hours. To me, anything over 5 hours is long haul.
In my early air traveling days, long haul flights took much longer than they do today. Aircraft flew a bit slower, and didn’t have the massive range that some of today’s airliners do, with their very efficient engines, so fuel stops were quite frequent.
I remember my first very long haul flight when I flew from London to New Zealand in the mid-70s in a British Airways Super VC10.
The flight took 35 hours with about 6 fuel stops en-route which were particularly frustrating as for about an hour each time we were getting no nearer our destination, They were Geneva, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Perth, Sydney and then, finally Auckland, if my memory serves me correctly.
In those days there was absolutely no onboard entertainment on most flights. If you were lucky enough to be flying on a Boeing 747 you may have had one film during a flight, projected onto a screen. The sound was awful as it was piped through tubes (not electronically through wires) into headsets that really hurt your ears after half an hour.
The days of personal entertainment devices were still a long way off. Imagine that! No iPods, tablets, kindles, portable, games consoles, laptops or smartphones – the younger readers will never believe it.
Long haul flights were interminably long, uncomfortable, tedious and very boring. The only thing you could do to pass the time was to read a book – yes one of those strange paper things. Also, in those days there was only first class and economy class – no business class, no premium economy and all the other options. If you weren’t rich you suffered in cattle class.
Stopping The Boredom
It is certainly less boring during the flight nowadays I have to admit. Having so much entertainment available, both onboard and your own, and the ability to catch up with some work on laptops etc does help to pass the time.
There is even internet access on some flights. This is particularly good for the increasing number of individuals who can’t go 5 minutes without checking Facebook, Instagram or whatever to check what their friends are doing, to post a selfie or tell others what they are eating or drinking.
Internet withdrawal is a very serious condition after all.
Kids and Flying
Some things don’t seem to change though. Mainly it is the kids that are the problem. Who can honestly say that when they have boarded a flight quickly, while others are still coming on, and you see someone with young kids, or worse still, a baby, coming along the aisle towards you that you haven’t said to yourself “Please don’t sit near me” and are relieved when they carry on past you.
I can remember a 10 hour flight between the UK and LA on a full 747 when I had a girl with a young baby sitting two seats away from me. The baby spent well over half the flight crying and screaming. I know it wasn’t the baby’s fault, it probably had air pressure problems or something, and the mother did what she could to pacify it. But equally, it certainly wasn’t my fault either, yet I, and the other passengers, had to put up with it.
Slightly older kids can also make a flight less bearable too. I am sure everyone has had a child sitting directly behind who has spent most of the flight kicking you in the small of the back.
What about the child directly in front who spends most of the flight standing up on his seat looking over at you, dribbling and expecting you to entertain them, while their parents usually just ignore them and watch a film.
Or the toddler who is allowed to run up and down the aisle throughout a flight, getting in everyone’s way, including the cabin crew’s, while the parents sit back and enjoy the flight.
Yes, on reflection, it is mainly the selfish parents that are the problem, not the kids themselves.
I believe that some airlines are offering a choice of child-free cabins. Not before time in my opinion. Perhaps kids should travel in the hold with the dogs and cats? Hey – I’m only kidding.
Tolerating Other Passengers
Kids aren’t the only problem on board though. Having selfish people around you can also be a problem. Noisy drunks on a stag or hen trip; people with infectious colds sitting next to you, sneezing the whole flight, and those who sit in a window seat but can’t seem to stay there for more than 10 minutes at a time without needing you to move so they can go to the toilets, or get something from the overhead locker. The annoyances can be endless.
I was on a short 2 hour Iberia flight from Madrid to London a few years ago. My wife and I were in the last row of the aircraft, so our seats wouldn’t recline as the bulkhead was directly behind. As soon as we took off the Spanish guy in front of me reclined his seat fully. This meant his head was almost in my lap.
Despite my sighs etc he took no notice. Then after about half an hour he put his seat back up and went to the toilet. I saw him coming back and got myself ready for my revenge. I pulled my knee back and as he sat down and started to recline his seat again I rammed my knee into the small of his back. He made a noise that confirmed I had struck my target and he put his seat up to half way for the rest of the flight. A result at last.
Sleeping On A Flight – You Must Be Kidding
Now we come to one of the worst things about very long haul flights. Trying to sleep. For some that isn’t such a problem. My wife for instance is only 5 feet 2 inches tall so she can get herself fairly comfortable and get some useful sleep. I, on the other hand, am 6 feet 2 inches tall, with particularly long legs, so trying to even sit comfortably in an economy seat is difficult enough. Trying to sleep without waking up after just 20 minutes feeling like I will be crippled for life is nigh on impossible.
There are of course things you can use to try and make yourself more comfortable and I cover these flying tips and tricks in another article – How to sleep on a plane in economy class
The only time I ever remember getting a decent sleep on a flight was when flying back from Hawaii on an Air New Zealand DC10. On the leg from LA to London, the flight was almost empty, so I was able to get a whole row of 5 seats in the middle of the cabin to myself. I lifted the armrests and lay full length across the seats. I actually got about 5 hours sleep like that.
Before Non-Smoking Flights
One thing that is definitely a massive improvement when flying today compared with when I first started, and that is there is no longer any smoking on board. It used to be awful, particularly on some of the flights where the only available seat for me was in the smoking section.
I have never smoked but, as much as I dislike the actually smoke itself, I absolutely loathe ashtrays. They are the work of the devil and full ashtrays are the most revolting thing in the world, at least in my opinion.
Can you imagine spending 10 hours surrounded by chain-smoking passengers? Well I have had to endure that more than once. The ashtrays were in the front of the armrests and I can remember one flight in particular where the person in front of me got up to go to the toilets. They tipped up their armrest to make getting out easier and the entire contents of the ashtray flew back at me. I was not at all amused I can tell you and that was one of the few times on a flight where I lost my cool and told them what I thought of them.
You Arrive But It’s Not Over Yet!
Finally, after you have endured all of the above, you have the final hurdle to jump. Immigration, waiting for your baggage and getting through Customs (assuming it was an international flight).
Immigration doesn’t seem to have changed that much, even with the aid of machines to read passports and iris recognition etc. I have spent over an hour in a queue recently just to get through immigration – more like a massive rugby scum actually than a queue. And I remember arriving at San Francisco years ago, during a quiet period too, and choosing a line to join. An hour later another flight’s passengers joined us and some of those that joined other lines got through before me! Not what I wanted after 9 hours of flying.
Once was on the way back to London with my son after I took him to Arizona and Las Vegas for his 16th birthday. We flew via Toronto and when we checked in our bags at Phoenix it turned out the cretin at check-in sent them to London, Ontario rather than London, England.
The first time was rather more comical. I was in Kenya on holiday with a friend I worked with in the mid-70s. We arrived in Nairobi and spent a couple of nights there and then were due to fly on to Malindi for a relaxing week of lying on a beach.
We got to Nairobi airport and found the check-in for our flight. The sign said it was just going to Mombasa and not stopping at Malindi first. After some discussion, they realized it should be going to Malindi too so we were checked in, our bags taken and we were given our boarding card.
When we walked across the tarmac to the East African Airways DC9 and went onboard it turned out that the only passengers were the two of us and one other passenger who was flying to Mombasa – in an aircraft that held over 100 passengers. Before they closed the door, the captain came over the tannoy and asked if any passenger had a black suitcase. My friend did so he got up and identified it as his and they loaded it.
We took off and when we arrived at Malindi airport we walked across the tarmac into the terminal (which was literally a small hut) to wait for our bags. My fiend’s arrived but not mine.
Then the 1st officer came across the tarmac and fetched me. We went over to the aircraft and both climbed into the hold to look for my suitcase! Absolutely bizarre. It wasn’t there and they actually delivered it to our hotel the next day. Incredible though that they had three passengers, one didn’t have baggage, they almost lost one bag and did lose the other.
It was a memorable vacation though. We had both some travelers checks stolen in Nairobi, although we didn’t realize until we were in Malindi – but that has nothing to do with flying.
Coming back from Malindi to Nairobi we arrived at the airport to discover that the flight back was to be in a DC3 Dakota. I was very happy about that but I virtually had to drag my friend onto that flight as he wasn’t very keen on flying at the best of times. I loved it though, even when we flew around a thunderstorm.
Oddly, I have nothing to say about coming though Customs, good or bad, as I have never had a problem. The only delay I can remember is going into Australia where they seem to go through everyone’s bags, not just selected passengers as they do in most countries. Australian Customs seem to be very hot on what you can and can’t bring into the country. Perhaps I have just been lucky but then I never have anything to declare so perhaps that is why.
Well that’s it. If you have actually read right to the end of my thoughts on how air travel has changed then thank you for your patience and your perseverance. I hope you will find other things of interest on the website.
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