As a young whipper-snapper, I recall a rather racy volume on my father’s bookshelf entitled Coffee, Tea or Me?. Decidedly tame by today’s standards, it chronicles the impossibly glamorous life of an air hostess, as she attended a string of Tom Jones-alike international jet-setters, stopping off at the world’s most desirable locations for further amorous adventures.
I mention this only to illustrate that by the 1970s, though we’d moved on from the early romance of air travel (seemingly entirely populated by women with head scarves and large sunglasses), there was still a whiff of the new and exotic about taking to the skies. Fastening your seatbelt equated to freedom – new horizons, new possibilities, social and physical liberation.
And the ever-obliging trolley dolly, with her jaunty cap, white gloves and shoulder bag, was the embodiment of this exhilarating spirit of escape. How times change. A recent family holiday confirmed how unpleasant and squalid the whole experience of airline travel has become. Unless you’re the Sultan of Brunei, the feeling of being cramped, claustrophobic and thoroughly dehumanised comes with the territory. And it’s not just when you’re on board – the entire process of short-haul, economy class air travel needs a radical, soup-to-nuts redesign.
The moment you step into the airport, you’re herded like cattle from one queue to another, surrounded by scary looking moustachioed men touting machine guns. You’re harried, scrutinised, questioned, frisked and frowned at. OK, we all know why, but these are hardly the snarly bookends you want to your precious two weeks in the sun.
There are no smiles or concessions from security. We’d bought a rather funky tin of local olive oil from a supermarket and took it as hand luggage to avoid a potential suitcase disaster. This was summarily confiscated, and yet we managed to buy an exact replacement not ten feet away in duty free. Our strict friends are no doubt rustling up a tasty salad dressing right now.
Then it starts in earnest: the excruciating hours of amateur contortionism, cramming your back and legs into a space they simply won’t go; breathing in stale recycled air, paying through the nose for a tiny, luke-warm drink you probably wouldn’t touch under any other circumstances; trying to ignore the screams of the hyperactive toddler kicking you in the back. This time, on account of swine flu, our officious ‘customer experience manager’ (no obliging hostesses here) asked us to be careful where we sneezed, as if we could saunter over to a nearby field and let rip.
As for in-flight catering… a concoction that manages to be sloppy and congealed at the same time is an insult to gastronomy. Prising the tin foil off the red-hot serving dishes is a struggle, and when you finally manage it, burned and splattered, you wonder why you bothered. A few years ago, celebrity chefs were drafted in to lend their names to airline fare, and the tarnish to their reputations is still visible. So I hereby throw out the challenge to you product and built environment designers.
Seamless check-ins, comfortable seats for sixfooters, palatable food, clean air. It’s not rocket science. I’m not asking to travel in my own arm chair, or for my clothes, pressed and laundered hanging in my hotel wardrobe on arrival – though that would be dandy. Until then, the joy of flying’s strictly for the birds.