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#sowhoknew: When did flying become as banal as taking a bus?

Do you remember when it was glamorous being an international jet setter? And if so, when did flying for business become as banal as taking the bus home?

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The golden age of flying in the 1960’s, so elegantly portrayed by Leonardo de Caprio’s faux Pan Am pilot in ‘Catch Me if You Can’ has been sadly superseded by George Clooney’s character in the movie ‘Up in the Air’. It paints an altogether more realistic (and stark) picture of how aviation for both the business community and vacation seeker has evolved into a truly mundane mode of transport.

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The imperfect experience often starts well before you even arrive at the airport itself. The hidden charges on flights that initially appear to be a bargain can quickly rack up if you are not diligent in your choices. Those pesky ‘optional extras’ such as card payment handling fees, baggage check-in costs and charges for sporting equipment can turn your initially cheap flight into a rather more expensive variant.

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Then what about transport to the airport? Taxi firms know you have limited options and shamelessly hike their rates for airport runs by as much as 100 per cent. Thinking of taking your own car? Well you better check out those airport parking prices first. I recently checked out the cost of parking for seven days at a UK airport and even with the claimed 50 per cent discount by booking online the cost was effectively the same price as the return fare of my airline ticket.

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Then you finally get to the airport itself… and that’s when the real fun begins. Firstly, there is the sheer and utter delight of the check-in procedure. The long meandering queues to simply drop off your bags make you feel like cattle being lined up to be slaughtered. That joy is then multiplied with the equally lengthy queue at immigration and a cringing (and often surly) exchange with the border staff where you are made to feel like you are a criminal or a terrorist when you simply wish to go to work or lie on a beach. A sad indictment on the society that we live in these dark days…

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And, as if that were not sufficient, to complete the holy trinity of ebullience, we enter into the Twilight Zone of the security line. Now don’t get me wrong, I fully accept that it’s something that we all have to endure in this day and age but, with that said, it still doesn’t make the experience any more palatable. Unpacking your laptop, tablet, liquids and gels is tiresome enough but having to take off half your apparel is even more annoying. And with the new stricter regulations recently imposed by the US & UK for certain countries you won’t even be able to bring any connected item on board beyond your smartphone.

Then of course, there is always one idiot who tries to flout the rules (as if they have not been made sufficiently clear for at least a decade) resulting in another pointless argument with the security personnel as to why their 125ml bottle of ‘Old Spice’ should be allowed through because they have already used two squirts of it.

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If you are lucky enough not to be delayed (and according to latest figures, roughly one in five flights are) you make it to your gate to be confronted by a plague of ants jostling to get on board before anyone else. Some airlines try to operate a loose system where young families or disabled people go first, then the frequent flyers etc. And that’s all fine and dandy until the irksome queue jumpers (who evidently have no embarrassment gene) attempt to push in.

You’d expect that these infuriating line dodgers would instantly be turned away when they get to the point where their tickets are checked but most of the time it appears that the staff simply can’t be bothered making a fuss and let them through much to the chagrin of those who try to abide by the rules. But thankfully, every now and again these cuckoos are rightly admonished and sent to the back of line. And, I’m not ashamed to admit it, on the rare occasions that it does happen I inwardly give a mini fist pump.

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So with stress levels already bordering on Defcon 1, you finally get to your seat only to find that there is no room in the overhead bins for your trolley case and it will have to be checked into the hold after all (so your cunning plan to travel light and make a quick get away when you arrive has already been foiled). Assuming you are in economy, you then have to cope with the ‘sardine principle’ of both pitch and seat width. Anyone who is taller or wider than the average will suffer more than most but everyone will be at the mercy of the inconsiderate passenger who opts to recline without permission, particularly when you have just placed a piping hot cup of coffee on your tray table. Even the IATA (International Air Transport Association) have recognised that this is becoming a real issue with a “clear, general upward trend in instances of unruly and disruptive behaviour on board aircraft” related specifically to passengers fighting over limited seat space.

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Still, it could be worse. A radical new seating design which dispenses with cushioned seats and tray tables entirely is being considered by some airline manufacturers. The seats (pictured below) resemble something akin to a bicycle saddle but I can’t see them catching on anytime soon unless you are a member of the pro peloton.

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Assuming you didn’t bring anything to eat and drink then you are increasingly being asked to pay exorbitant prices for a salty snack and / or sugary beverage. And if you fancy imbibing to get you through the flight then be warned that you can be charged up to $15 for the equivalent of a small glass of wine. And even if your meals are included in the price of your ticket, you may not exactly be enamoured with what you are served. One disgruntled Virgin passenger outlined his feelings in an email direct to Richard Branson where he described his dinner on a flight from Mumbai to London…

“On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird”

Yum, sounds appetising (but, to his credit, Branson personally called the traveler to apologise). Credit due.

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If the food doesn’t appeal to you, then I guess you can at least avoid it. However, the simple act of breathing is a tad more difficult to dispense with. A disturbing Daily Telegraph investigation into the quality of cabin air on most modern jets has revealed worrying evidence of toxic fumes (called ‘Bleed Air’) contaminating aircraft which could result in longer term health issues. Have a read of my recent article entitled ‘Business Travel. It’s a killer. Literally‘ if you want to scare yourself even more…

In a further investigation, a German television network claimed that 28 out of 31 swab samples secretly collected from the cabins of passenger aircrafts contained high levels of tricresyl phosphate, a substance commonly found in jet oil. Not altogether unsurprising but it does take a more sinister turn when you consider that several medical experts have claimed that exposure to this particular toxin can lead to a variety of maladies including migraines, respiratory problems and neurological illnesses. Certainly a lot more worrying than the usual noxious cabin odours that we have all had to contend with at some stage in our travel experiences… oh and incidentally if you were the one who dropped that air bomb on a Singapore Airlines flight to Shanghai last June then I suggest you should see a doctor.

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Which brings me neatly to the other, erm, fascinating habits of your fellow passengers. Beyond their aforementioned gaseous exchanges there are numerous examples of their unnecessary public sneezing, scratching, sniffing and snoring exploits. But the most disgusting example? A British Airways flight, 30 minutes into a journey from Heathrow to Dubai when the Captain announced that due to an issue related to (and I quote) ‘liquid faecal excrement’ the plane would have to return to London. Apparently the planes crew had examined the problem (who ever said the life of an air steward/stewardess was easy?) and determined that the flight had to be aborted. Lord only knows what they found but it must have been pretty grim if they decided they had to turn back. Just guessing but it may have been the same guy who was on my SQ flight to Shanghai…

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I could continue with a myriad of additional examples but I’m interested to hear if you have any pet peeves that you would add to the list of reasons why we have fallen out of love with air travel. As ever, I’m fascinated to hear your stories…

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Global Media Lead - Nestlé at Mindshare. Previously, he was the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.
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