The Airline Experience: Is it the Seat or Your Seat Mate?

For over 15 years I traveled more than six months annually. This included visiting nearly 40 countries and lots of time in New York. I like to claim I have stayed in every hotel in Manhattan. The latter is bravado as the number is closer to 35 hotels while Manhattan has 258 hotels but I am getting off topic. The point of this piece is to discuss how we get places.

Have you seen photos flight experiences in the 1950’s and 1960’s? They actually carved meat in the aisle and shook fresh martinis! Never mind everything was mixed with cigarette smell. That would be a big trade off for me personally.
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Air travel today is definitely unglamorous. The experience begins with pricing which never makes any sense. I believe airline pricing algorithms are satanic and those administering them are drunk. At the airport you pay at every stop…parking, luggage. Speaking of stops. Getting onto an airplane involves so many lines it is like queuing to get bread and meat in Soviet Russia.

Getting onto an airplane involves so many lines it is like queuing to get bread, meat and batteries in Soviet Russia.

Then you get on the plane. I am a relatively short fellow so legroom is not a problem but my personal space does get invaded. The New York Times reported that, “Seats were 18 inches wide before airline deregulation in the 1970s and have since been whittled to 16 and a half inches. While seat pitch used to be 35 inches and has decreased to about 31 inches. At the same time, the average man is 30 pounds heavier today than he was in 1960 (196 pounds compared with 166 pounds) and the average woman is 26 pounds heavier (166 pounds, up from 140 pounds).”

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Then there is the loss of onboard amenities. Food and drink are woefully inadequate when gratis and overpriced when purchased. I feel for the airline employees on board. They witness and deal with every type of customer behavior and are the recipients of any and all dissatisfaction resulting from spreadsheet decisions made at head office.

This is the main issue. Airline travel was once special, arguably a luxury. In the 21st century, air travel is accessible to many. In the 1950’s, you paid 40% or more for the same ticket you buy today. A ticket on TWA in 1955 from Chicago to Phoenix, for example, cost $138 round-trip. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $1,168. Since then the airline industry has become a volume-based business.

An airline seat is now a commodity. More people travel because airlines want more people to travel. The category chose volume and sacrificed quality. Occasionally a new airline will pop-up challenging the status quo but will soon gravitate towards the mean because of economic realities. We have seen this with Southwest in America and Porter in Canada.

Airline travel was once stylish, alluring and prestigious. Now planes are the equivalent of flying Greyhound buses. Taking an airplane trip was once an expensive and often rare occasion for travelers, and looking your best was part of the experience. I know we will never go back to the 1960’s when air travel demanded men in suits and women in dresses but I would wish that there was just some tiny improvements in fashion choices.

Is it too much to ask that we avoid wearing pyjamas in airports and on planes? Pajamas should never leave the house. There are plenty of articles written on this topic because airlines have gotten in trouble when challenging customer’s outfits. Sources such at The Huffington Post, Time Magazine, The Atlantic and more agree that pajamas are a definite no-no and further suggest that shorts, flip photo-500x375cflops, super short skirts, ripped clothing, unwashed clothing, excessive perfume and cologne, lack of deodorant, shirts that expose armpits, and t-shirts with expletives and political slogans are inappropriate.

This is tough stuff. Subjectivity and opinion are wide ranging on airline dress. Airlines have published dress codes so they can educate or penalize travellers (as we learned recently with United). I must say, in the recent cases of aggrieved passengers who were challenged on their clothing choices that I found online, I would have sided with the airline. Common sense seems to have been left behind when people set out to travel.

Industry experts suggest airlines must act like restaurant owners who daily must “edit” customers based on appearance. Other pundits advise airline travelers not to wear anything on a plane they would not wear to church. Celebrities have been signaled out for blame in this sliding scale in etiquette. They frequently fly long distances and are often photographed in their sweatpants or cozy travel attire by paparazzi at airports. Dressing up for a flight is now the exception, rather than the rule.

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We cannot not turn back time and return to the glory and wonder of early air travel. There are too many factors at play such as security. I used to be invited into the cockpit of planes for takeoffs and landings as a frequent flyer. There were no locks on the door and often pilots kept the door open all flight. Decades ago non-traveling friends and family were allowed to accompany travelers to the boarding gate to say hello or goodbye. Terrorism ended these practices.

I have a theory that will improve airline travel. If we customers improve all aspects of our decorum while traveling perhaps the entire experience including airline service will improve. Synonyms for decorum include dignity, propriety, correctness, politeness, and respectability. So cutting one’s fingernails, doing sit-ups in the aisle, browsing adult content on a smartphone, telling loud stories laced with expletives, sleeping on the floor, changing diapers at your seat, and taking off shoes and socks should not be tolerated (all of these and more are documented on a Facebook group page called “Passenger Shaming”).

Whenever I read or hear about the airline customer experience the airline usually gets blamed. This does not recognize that a significant component of the overall experience is beyond an airline’s control. We customers have to police ourselves because the airline travel experience hinges more on our seatmate as it does on the seat.

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