Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Why I Hate Flying

I recently returned from a trip to Italy with my father and brother.  It was an excellent trip, although it did have its negative aspects.  For me, the biggest negative aspect of this trip was what is usually the biggest negative aspect of most of my trips: getting there and back, or more specifically flying there and back, because I don't like flying at all. 

Long ago, it used to take months to get from one side of the world to the other in the old sailing ships, which were the only means of circumventing the globe until the steamship came into use in the early 18th century and cut the time it took to travel the globe from months to days.  The emergence of air travel came around two centuries later and by the mid-20th century, jet propulsion became commonplace.  Today, the sky is crowded with commercial passenger jets that move multitudes of people across the world every day.  I am very grateful that unlike our ancestors, we don't have to wait days, weeks or months to get from one part of the world to the other.  That being said, I still hate flying for a number of reasons which I will outline here by going through the typical air traveller's experience.

A lot of what I hate about flying is not flying itself, but all the things you have to go through when you fly.  First, you arrive at the airport for your flight.  In the post-9/11 world, this often means showing up at least three hours before your flight takes off.  Waiting for you at the airport is often a long, seemingly never-ending lineup at the check-in counters, although thankfully there is now the option of checking in online, which can speed up the check-in process.  But of course, you still have to check your luggage at the counter.  When it's finally your turn to check your baggage, you may be in for a rude surprise.  Your bag is overweight, which means you're automatically charged an extra fee.  Got more than one bag?  Well mister, that's gonna be another few dollars out of your pocket.  In fact, you will soon be paying just to check in one bag on one notable airline (see: http://www.thestar.com/business/2014/05/05/porter_to_charge_25_checked_bag_fee_on_flights_in_canada.html)
Want to pick your own seat on the plane?  Pony-up, buddy.  I could go on about the extra fees that you have to pay in addition to your flight ticket itself, but I'm wagering that most of you reading this know the routine already, especially if you happen to be travelling out of Pearson airport, where the fees are so high that some folks drive down to the airport in Buffalo in order to avoid the insane extra charges in Toronto.

Once you've finally checked your bags, you get to stand in another long lineup at customs where the folks in charge yell at you and herd you like cattle into separate lines at each scanning machine.  When you get to the scanning machine, you may have to spend some time removing a bunch of things from both your carry-on bags and yourself.  Got a laptop?  You may have to take that out and put it in a bin to go through the scanner separately.  The same goes for your phone and any other electronic device.  Travelling in or to the U.S.?  You will probably be removing your belt and your shoes too.  Remember, this is the post 9/11 world and we can't take any chances, which means more inconveniences and longer waits in line.  Eventually though, you do pass customs, so what comes next?  Well, for most people, it's sitting and waiting until your flight is ready to board.  And if it's a busy day, good luck even finding a seat in the waiting area by the boarding gates.  If you're in a good airport, you may be able to find something to eat or drink in a nearby cafe or airport restaurant, but if not, you're going hungry and thirsty.  You should also note the time and energy that you may spend walking in an airport terminal.  Depending on what kind of shape you're in and how the terminal is built, you may feel like you've just run a marathon after finally getting to the boarding gate.

Okay, it's finally time to board the aircraft, which means that you get to stand in another long lineup as passengers queue up for boarding.  In some airports, boarding can be a more inconvenient experience than in others, especially if the airport is not designed for aircraft to be boarded immediately at the gate.  In this case, you'll be shown onto a bus, where you'll be packed like a sardine with the rest of the general, unwashed public just as if you were on a Toronto subway during rush hour.  This bus will take you on a short trip to your airplane, where you'll have to climb up a flight of stairs to get aboard.  I pity the older, less healthy folks who have to do this and aren't entitled to assistance.

Finally, you're out of the airport and on your plane ready to go - sort of anyway.  For various reasons, you may be stuck on the ground for a significant amount of time for things like refuelling, de-icing (think of flying during the winter in Canada), or just waiting for your plane's turn to take off.  While you're waiting to get airborne, you may be sweating your butt off since an airplane can get really hot until it's in the air and the cabin pressure system is activated.  But of course, you will eventually take off and be cruising in the air shortly afterward.  Then it's just a matter of waiting to get to your destination.

While you're waiting to get where you're going, you'll likely be sitting in an airplane seat where you can barely move and must inevitably disturb the person next to you whenever you want to get up and go to the bathroom, unless of course you're one of those more privileged people in first class, where the airlines treat people like human beings rather than sardines.  There's a very stark irony about travelling on airplanes.  When you take a dog on an aircraft, the regulations usually state that the dog needs to be in a crate where it has room to stand, turn around and lie down whereas a human passenger on an airplane is lucky if he can cross his legs in his seat.  In a few cases, the lack of room in airplane seats can be fatal (see: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/dvt/travel.html). Here's a pointer for those of you who want to avoid being stuck in an airplane seat without room to move: try to reserve a seat next to one of the plane's emergency exits where you'll have all the leg room you want.  My brother and I did this on our way to and from Italy.  As I said before, however, you will pay more to do this.  You'll also likely need to show up at the airport earlier to beat someone else to your ideal seat, which of course means more time sitting in the airport waiting for your flight.

On most short-haul flights, like the one I took from Toronto to Florida a couple of years ago, if you want to eat but don't have any money on you, chances are that you'll be going hungry because the nickel-and-diming airlines stopped feeding us for free on short flights a long time ago.  If you're on a long flight, you will probably get fed without having to pay.  Ah, airplane food.  You should have no trouble knowing when they're bringing the food out because you can smell the fetid stench a mile away.  Yes, for those of you who have a lot of air travel experience, you know that airplane food has a smell that can make anyone nauseous.  If you have a weak stomach, I would avoid eating airplane food altogether, if possible.  I have a pretty strong stomach myself, but it didn't stop me from throwing up on my recent flight to Italy after eating the beef served at dinner.  At least I wasn't feeling sick afterwards.

Aside from the airplane food, I would say the worst thing about flying is just waiting to get to your destination.  As I mentioned in the beginning, people started off travelling for months on sailing ships to travel around the world, then the steamship cut those months to days, and finally we invented air travel, which allowed us to circumvent the globe in the space of hours.  The problem is that since the use of jet propulsion became widespread, we aren't going much faster on passenger planes than when we started using jet engines on them about a half century ago.  My recent flight to Italy was just over eight hours and the flight back over nine hours.  I don't understand why we can make a computer that is many times faster and more powerful than a computer built just five years earlier, but we can't make planes that can take you from New York City to Tokyo in less than three hours and that are cost effective.  There was of course the Concorde, which was significantly faster than conventional passenger aircraft, but it was shelved for safety reasons shortly after a crash killed over 100 people, leaving us with the same subsonic, tube-shaped airplanes that we use today and that haven't changed much in decades.  I truly hope to see the day where I can go from one side of the world to the other in less than three hours.  I would love to be able to fly to Europe, spend the day, and then go back to Toronto on the same day I left.  But for now all I can do is dream about it.

Actually, I wish I could do some dreaming when I fly because it would make the wait more bearable.  Unfortunately, I can almost never fall asleep on an airplane.  Of course, no matter how long you have to wait, chances are that you will reach your destination safely, because inasmuch as I hate flying, the fact is that, in the words of Superman, "statistically speaking, it is still the safest way to travel."  When you finally do land, you will likely spend at least another few minutes waiting to get off, and a few more minutes actually getting off.  And again, if you're in one of those poorly-designed airports, you may be packed like a sardine onto a bus again to take you to the terminal.  You may also be taking another long walk to customs where, depending on the airport's efficiency, you may be waiting a fair amount of time.  Pearson Airport was once notorious for its poor management of customs.  I came off a flight last year to find myself in a huge lineup at customs.  The big problem at that time was that there weren't even separate lines for Canadian citizens and non-Canadians, so everyone stood and waited in the same line.  And God help you if a visitor or new immigrant had a problem with their documents, because then you were in for a big time delay.  Fortunately, Pearson now does have a separate line for Canadian citizens, equipped with self-serve machines that scan your passport and let you go in less than a minute.  Unfortunately, they're still making us fill out those damned annoying customs cards when we come back to Canada.  I once got some verbal abuse from an Air Canada flight attendant for not having a pen to fill it out.  For some reason, whenever I go to Israel, where security is the number one priority, I don't have to fill out any stupid customs card, so I wonder, if one of the most security-savvy countries in the world doesn't need people to fill out these kinds of cards, why does Canada, or any other country for that matter?  I would also add that in Israel's main international airport, they've had separate lines for Israeli citizens and non-Israelis for a long time while folks coming home to Canada were still standing in the same line with visitors and new immigrants.

Your journey through the trials and tribulations of air travel ends with collecting your luggage, and for those of you who have had the misfortune of having your luggage lost by the airlines, I don't have to tell you how aggravating it can be.  My father once waited about a month for a suitcase to be returned to him after the airline misplaced it.  And of course, losing your luggage isn't the only big mishap an air traveller can go through.  I haven't even mentioned the other big headaches, like getting bumped from a flight or your flight being cancelled.  I haven't mentioned these things because I wanted to demonstrate to those of you who are reading this the fact that even if your air travel experience goes smoothly, without you losing your luggage, getting bumped from your flight, or having some other major problem occur, flying and all the things that go with it can still drive a person nuts, which is why I hate it.  Unfortunately, unless we end up being able to beam ourselves from place to place, like on Star Trek, or some other revolutionary invention comes along, we will likely have to spend more time putting up with air travel if we want to get to far off places.    

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