On Flying (in planes)
I do hate the old-hag manner of going ‘things used to be better in the days..yadda yadda….’, but in case of flying (on airplanes), the statement is probably true.
Or else, I must have been much less demanding and easily pleased twenty three years ago, which was the last time I flew half-way around the world on Singapore Airlines and figured I was in heaven or something. On the other hand, the recent trips between Brisbane and Kolkata on the same airlines were quite the disappointment.
But then, back in the mid-80s, flying was still somewhat of a novelty (to us at least) and had an aura of luxury surrounding it, even for Economy Class. That overall aura and glamour has all but eroded as flying became cheaper and ubiquitous. And in the post-911 era, flying is almost a chore, especially for domestic flights within the US: long security lines, rude flight-attendants, over-priced airport food, non-existent inflight service, unexplained delays, cramming of more and more passenger in smaller planes etc. One looks forward to these flights with dread.
International flight experiences, minus the chaos that is Los Angeles airport, fare slightly better. Plus, I am careful about avoiding obvious pit-falls such as flying Aeroflots, Royal Jordanians or Bangladesh Bimans. (I figure I’d rather pay an extra $200 than be stuck in Moscow bereft of my passport, told in Jeddah that my remaining non-stop segment has been converted into a 2-stop on – on two different airlines – or worse, not allowed on the the plane at all in spite of a confirmed ticket because some dude paid extra money at the check-in counter – all true stories that happened to people I know. And I have flown Air India and Indian Airlines on international segments – but those stories deserve a separate post). Even then, trips on Qantas, British Airways, Malaysian and China Airlines (this was before I was aware of their horrendous safety record) have been a mixed bag of expereinces. Somewhat true to stereotypes, personalized services and food were slightly better in the Asian airlines compared to the European or Australian ones. But there were are experiences aplenty: Malaysian once gave us a half-broken seat that would not recline (for a 12hour flight) and did not seem to be bothered to do anything about it and British Airway’s scheduling errors once led to a nightmare 10-hour wait in a queue at Heathrow, sustained only by warm bottles of Coke.
In this scenario, I was quite looking forward to the Singapore Airlines flights. Apart from the previous highly positive experiences with them (albeit two and half decade ago), the airline’s reputation for punctuality, safety and service is matched only by Cathay and more recently, Emirates.
Well, only the flight from Singapore to Kolkata was delayed by an hour due to technical problems and we did manage four flights without a crash – so they were delivered on punctuality and safety ! However, the service was a bit of a let-down. The so-called ‘warm towels’ handed out were regularly quite cold, and smelly (not the good smell). In one trip, half of the passengers got the towels before take-off and half later. Then there was the irritating habit of serving spirits only with the meal; pre-dinner Gin and Tonics had to be asked for (the horror!). The worst part was their highly touted personal entertainment systems. The system had about 99 channels – great variety of choice, including some of the latest blockbusters; but rather than a on-demand system like Qantas, the movies played on a loop. For some reason, quite a few of these movies started midway at the beginning of the flight and there was no indication as to when the next loop would start ! A minor inconvenience of course, especially given that I wasn’t going to spend much time watchin movies anyway. And all these lapses in services would have been quite acceptable on any other airlines, but I guess I had much loftier expectations from Singapore.
In their defence, the food and drink on all sectors were of very high quality, including the red wine. They even served ice-cream as deserts on some sectors. One only hopes that the attendants should know better one not be expected to ask for a slice of lime in the G&T. And their Boeing 777-200 (not the 777-300ERs) have quite a bit of extra leg-space – always welcome for vertically extended people like me.
On a slight aside, the best airlines service I have encountered in recent years have been on Qantas domestic flights. I have flown both short (1 hour) and long (5+ hours)-haul flights, and apart from the slightly cramped seats and tendency for long queues at the check-in counters, there is very little to complain about. Australian domestic flights do not have the stupid liquids and aerosol bans, and getting through security is much more hassle-free. They have a high ratio of on-board attendants to passengers, and these are usually a cheery lot. On any evening and all long haul flights they serve wine, not only pretty decent South Australian Shiraz ( they offer but I have never tried the white), but they actually hand out a whole 375ml bottle – to be poured into a proper wine glass that is actually made of glass ! On both my long-haul flights, the attendants were even quite insistent that I try out a second bottle. It does help that Qantas only has to compete with Virgin in Australia, and not a whole bevy of low-cost airlines.
Among other flying notes: a bit of venting against co-passengers. When the flight it half-empty, why would you wish to be cramped up occupying the aisle seat in a 3-seater row ? One can easily move out to a another empty row and make life comfortable both for yourself and the remaingin two passengers. Yet this kind of obstinacy of clinging on to the assigned was demonstrated twice by different passengers, occupying the third seat next to ours when plenty vacant ones were available. Yes, I suppose we would have moved, but it is usually easier for the single person to find a different seat.
Also, when you don’t feel like reading a book, and the movie choices have whittled down to Aaja Nachle or 27 Dresses, a couple of G & Ts are of immense help in digesting either the silly song and dance routines or the saccharine-coated chick flick moments.