Agony of flying

Amal Chatterjee
12 min readAug 29, 2017

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : The first experience of flying can not be pleasant for anyone but we now are in the era of mass air transport where people of all class fly often in budget airlines that has diminished the service and pleasant company the older era provided .Flying then was mostly limited to more polished travellers . I miss the glamour of flying.

I remember the first time I flew in a plane was from my home town to Kolkata some fifty years ago. No one in our family had ever flown in a plane anywhere so it was a first for them. Naturally they were all very excited and some piled into a small car that a friend of mine had to bring us all to the small municipal airport outside the town. They wanted to give me big sendoff not knowing what was in store for me. I did not know it either.

In those days there was practically no airport security so the well-wishers could go and climb into the plane. The small plane landed on time and unloaded a few passengers so that I could get on. The polite stewardess asked the non-passengers to get off the plane who were gawking because none had seen the inside of plane .We were all small town boys.

Finally the door was shut and the propeller driven plane took off and slowly gained altitude. I could see my town for the first time from the air and was impressed at how good the job the British had done in laying it out in a strict grid pattern. I could clearly identify the railway station, the water works and the huge park with Queen Victoria’s marble statue at the center of it.

Soon we attained the flying altitude so the pilot turned off the seat belt sign and we all prepared for the three hour flight. Ma had given me a good breakfast but now it became a great problem for me. The plane had non retractable wheels that I could see from my window and thought that in case of an emergency landing, they will come in mighty handy. But the small plane dropped in air pockets like a stone while the pilot struggled to bring it up to altitude again.

It was the most miserable flight I ever had and threw up all that I had eaten and wished the journey to end but I had to endure two more hours of this agony that made me weak. I deeply regretted flying because it was so unpleasant.

Finally when we reached out destination, an American fellow sitting next to me helped me out of the plane. My cousins had come to the airport to receive me but they did not see me so were about to go home when at last I stepped out quite pale and weak from retching. They had never flown either so did not know what it was like to fly in a small plane that dropped like a stone in air pockets. Any way I was glad to be home where I gulped down some soothing drink that eased my stomach pain.

My next flight was in a huge jet plane of Pan Am that was smooth and so powerful. It was a Boeing 707 in those days that no longer flies anywhere and the Pan Am has gone out of service now but in those days it offered a very comfortable flight. There were no air pockets and we flew at a tremendous altitude from where nothing could really be seen. The stewardesses were pretty and quite friendly so I was glad that it was so nice.

Remember that in those days, flying was reserved only for a few people who could afford like important people or students on a scholarship and a few well to do tourists. It had not degenerated into the mass transit that it has now become so it was classy and quite pleasant. The food was good and the music softly played into my earphone. There were no TV screens at the back of seats.

When the plane landed at Bangkok, I was told that my connecting flight to Saigon was cancelled that day so I was to stay overnight at a five star hotel at the expense of Pan Am. They took me to my hotel in a fancy car and brought me back to the airport the next day. They did all this for an economy class passenger like me so I wondered what they did for the first class passenger. May be there was a six star hotel somewhere. I did not know. I was just a small town boy flying for the first time and had never been to any hotel five star or not. The waiter offered to show me around the town but he did not know that I had only 5 miserable dollars in my pocket so I declined.

Thus my life of travel around the world started in a way that I had never anticipated and lasted over fifty years. I have since that wretched flight from my town flown in most types of aircrafts one can imagine and then some and saw the evolution of mass air travel that it has now become.

Gone are the niceties of air travel. Now there are security checks everywhere where the stone faced personnel frisk you, pat you and roughly push you if you do not understand what exactly they want. They inspect your luggage through x-rays, sniffing dogs and check your hand bags.

My daughter was roughly pushed back at some airport because her hair pin pinged the scanner. She was only a child but they showed no mercy or care. They shoved and pushed down hard a teen age girl who was a cancer patient and with severe disabilities just because she could not understand what the security people wanted her to do. She suffered injuries at their hands in the name of security.

It gets worse once you step inside your plane. You can no longer choose your seat and may be forced to endure a long flight next to crying or screaming kids or a very fat person who does not give you any elbow room.

Remember that Bill Cosby comedy video where he talked about a hyperactive kid on a plane who poked everybody and said “I am Willie. I am four years old” ? After a long flight the kid finally fell asleep but his mother had a rough time. Her mascara ran and her hair was limp when the plane landed. Then everyone poked the kid on their way out and said Hi Willie wake up. Her well-tanned husband was waiting to receive them when she shoved the sleeping kid into his arm and just walked off angrily. Cosby is a great comedian.

The airlines constantly try to squeeze in as many passengers as they can by reducing the width of the seats. Then there are Willies who are hyperactive.

One airline took my business class ticket and gave me an economy class seat squeezed between two not so nice people because they did not have a business class on that flight and would not upgrade me to first class that I thought was a standard procedure. They also did not refund the huge fare difference to me either which was quite unfair.

But I miss those early days when the airlines took good care of passengers and tried to make the flight a good experience.

The worldwide security checks at all the airports are now standard but at some airports they even check your shoes and pat you down in an aggressive manner if you are a woman. All these things have made air travel the unpleasant experience that is a far cry from those days when I could simply ask the stewardess a change of seat for some reason.

Then came the Jumbo 747 that was big and wide. I could lift the handles and make a comfortable bed if there were empty seats on long flights and get a good sleep. The stewardesses did not mind and even brought blankets for you.

The airlines now carry more passengers more frequently over numerous routes and have done away with all the nice things about flying. One stewardess kept on insisting that I must return the earphone to her although I did not take it at all. She kept on counting all the earphones until she was satisfied that I was not hiding one somewhere.

Another kept on asking for my ticket to verify if I was assigned the right seat and left me in peace only when I spoke in French to her.

The services vary a great deal from one airline to another so over the years I have learned to avoid certain airlines because of their very bad or nonexistent service while other airlines offer somewhat better service.

What bothers me is the condition of the plane more than the services they offer. We were once flying in a Malian plane where they put us in a section where they had removed most of the seats and the floor was covered with what looked like trash and some sorry looking luggage to me. I was very shocked to fly in such a plane. In another plane I noticed that the wall panels were loose and some had missing screws and rattled so I wondered what else was loose on that plane.

But let me take you back to Beirut in 1970 where I was stuck overnight waiting for a flight to Delhi. The taxi man came to pick me up at the hotel where the airline had put me up and said that he was looking for me all over the town. Anyway he thought that I was going to be late for the flight but brought me to the airport anyway and disappeared.

I saw no one at the airport so I banged at the door of the agent who came out and said that I was late. The check in was closed and the flight was on its way to taxi out for taking off. This was the last straw. It was not my fault that the taxi came late to pick me up so I said that he should see if the plane is still on the ground.

He checked and said that it was but the hatch was closed and it was waiting for the tower to clear it for takeoff. When I said that he should ask the pilot if he could take me on, he said that there was no way he could contact the pilot and take me on so I suggested that he should contact the tower. They can ask the pilot if he is willing to take on a very late passenger. He finally called the tower and the tower called the pilot who said that he will take me.

So the hatch was opened, stairs were brought to the plane and I got on the flight. Now try to do this today. I miss those days when people were so reasonable.

The security is so tight these days that it requires three hours before flight time to process the multitudes that fly now. The airports look more like a refugee center where a mass of people are trying to get through the process and some are constantly talking on their cell phones at high pitch annoying every one. They fight for a good seat and refuse to pay for the extra kilos if their luggage is overweight. They stuff enormous quantities of stuff into their hand bags that they try to lift and fit into the overhead bins often spilling things on the floor.

The narrow seats are very uncomfortable for long flights and the leg rooms are very limited. If you are stuck in a window seat then going to the toilet becomes difficult if your co passengers are fat and unfriendly.

I try not to sit next to old women who invariably pull out their wallets to show me the photos of their numerous grandkids and talk sans cesse about their life story. At such times I play dumb and say “ I speek no Ingles “ or something like that.

The future of air transport:

Now I would like to write something about the future. I have seen a steady deterioration of airline services over the years so I am not hopeful that it will get better anytime soon. More and more people fly these days because of cheaper flights or budget airlines. Many fliers are overseas contract workers like maids, servants, workers who go to the Middle East for construction jobs and all sorts of other jobs. They are not the sophisticated fliers with good manners that I used to meet in those early days.

I had to ask the stewardess in one flight to stop a fellow near me smoking so you will meet all sorts of rough and tough people who have no manners and are aggressive to boot and will disturb you for hours talking on their cell phones.

So how the airlines can improve the service and make flying once again a good experience? This is easily said than done. To keep the ticket cheap, they must squeeze in more passengers per plane meaning narrower seats, less hand carried baggage, cheaper food and drinks etc. because the airlines must make money.

They have to pay more for the jet fuel, more for the landing and parking fees and pay penalty if they stay too long at the gate where the next flight wants to come in. They also pay for the added cost of airport security and baggage checks.

Some ill-mannered passengers take the cologne and hand wash lotions from the toilet so they remove the caps to make it difficult to steal. So I do not envy their jobs. It is not so glamorous as it used to be. At the end of the long flight you can see the strain the stewardesses are under but they do it for a living so it must be hard.

At the other end of the flight you have to once again go through people who are often impolite and scan the computers to see if you are wanted for some offence somewhere. Then the customs people are waiting to check your bags once again to see if you have anything that you are not supposed to have.

But 50 years ago they were more courteous and waved you through. I even saw old women walked into the plane with their dogs in Europe. Try it now and you will be stopped at the gate. Your dog will be put in a cage and you will be charged a hefty fee for it. That poor dog will cry its heart out in the dark underbelly of the plane.

The flying has changed dramatically from good to bad to worse. I do not know what is next to worse but I guess it is coming. The airbus has now introduced a plane that is a double decker and so massive that they can fit in over 500 passengers into it. I do not know how many toilets they have but if you have to pee then I feel sorry for you.

So I think they should bring back the sea planes once again that were so nice and could land on water .They did not require fancy and expensive airports and you could be off and into a taxi in no time at all. This could serve all the cities that are near the water thus cutting down air traffic in airports and decongest them. Did you know that the first sea planes had nice bar and even a piano that a hired pianist played good music on? They served champagne too.

They could bring back the Zeppelins (not the kind that bursts into flames) that could transport people at a fraction of the cost and you could once again enjoy flying. I know there are blimps that take tourists to show them the scenery but it could be a serious mode of transport someday. They use helium to fill up those blimps so it is quite safe.

They could develop vertical takeoff and landing type planes that could land the passengers on a football field. I know that such aircrafts exist. All they have to do is to make a passenger plane using this technology. I know that the blimps can land anywhere.

They could bring back the supersonic planes that could cut down the flying time and your misery if they could make these planes fly using ethanol or some such cheaper fuel. Let us face it. Most people do not like to be stuck inside a metal tube in small seats that produce cramps so they want to get to their destination fast and forget the experience.

If you are rich, you can now buy a flying car for short distance flying but most people are not rich so a flying car to them is just a dream.

May be people should just forget flying and take a ship where there is a lot of room, a nice bed and good food. This was the way most people traveled in the old days before Titanic and the advent of aircrafts so it may be an alternative if you are not pressed for time although I had a bad experience in an old rust bucket once and never boarded a ship since. You can read that story in my biography.

Now that the drone technology is exploding everywhere, I can foresee a day when an Uber drone can pick you up in front of your house and drop you off unceremoniously at your destination minus the cheap food on plastic trays. The technology is advancing so fast that anything is possible.

Or you can just quit the rat race and retire like I have done and reminisce about the good old days.

Note : This blog has become a bit longer than my usual blogs so please bear with me and tell me if you like it.