The Friday Rant - 07.10.11

Now that I am back home and eyes down on various work related things, I suppose it's time to get back to the Friday Rant to help me let off some steam when required. Today it's air travel, or the hell that is economy/cattle/steerage class. If you like me you board an international flight and always turn right instead of left then you will know all about the inhumanity of being crammed together in a plane like sardines for hours and hours. Every single time I walk onto a plane I dream of being grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a flight attendant who says "No, Mr. Gilbey, what are you doing ? Get yourself up to First Class where you belong. Don't subject yourself to the back of the plane. Come along with me and let's get you settled into your nice big seat with lots of leg room and a meal that you can actually eat. Then you can stretch out and get some good old fashioned comfortable sleep." Ain't nothing wrong with dreaming, but dreams like this just don't come true do they ?

Now this is not a debate on whether you travel internationally or not. Some of us do travel for work or play, and some of us don't. Wherever we fly we want to do so as cheaply as possible, so the minor hell that these "budget" airlines are is something I can live with for those generally pretty short flights around Europe. No, I don't like all the extra charges they try to spring on you for example, but the simple fact is that "budget" air travel has opened travel up for so many people. The world is a fascinating place, and I count myself extremely fortunate to get to see some of it via this strange job of mine.

But economy class on (not cheap) international flights ? Now that is a different matter altogether. It's the sheer lack of room that gets to me the most. I am often travelling on my own, and as much as I am a member of the human race, it does not for one second mean I want to spend too much time cooped up around my fellow human beings. Why do you think I live here in Cornwall and not in the rat race of somewhere like London ? I don't do lots of people if I can help it, but cattle class puts paid to that. I accept that airlines have to make money, but surely their bigwigs from time to time wander around their economy class cabins and wonder how on earth the regular people like us can spend so much time crammed in like that. But that's ok, because those bigwigs of course would never be turning right when they enter a plane !!

When I see animals being transported in lorries on the motorway it strikes me that they have got a lot more room than we do in steerage class on a plane. I am not particularly tall (6'), but in most economy seats I am struggling for any kind of meaningful leg room and praying that the person in front of me is not going to recline their seat and crush my knees. I always feel for taller people than me, and I am always hoping that the person seated next to me is not going to smell too bad or spend the flight sprawling over their seat or falling asleep and snoring/trying to dribble down my shoulder. The joy !!

OK, so there can be "better" economy class on some flights. Those new A380 planes that Emirates run on some flights to Dubai actually seem to have more room in general, and the meal I got on one of them last year was actually pretty edible. Perhaps I got lucky, but the whole experience just seemed that bit better. I generally fly with whatever airline can get me where I need to go at the best price, and that flight over to Boston the other day with Virgin was about as rubbish as it gets. Not a very long flight, but there had to have been a mistake with our seating. I literally could not move, and the fact that it's always a daytime flight to the US means I can't pop some sleeping pills, put some earplugs in and try to get a bit of (restless) sleep. Those direct flights down to southern Africa for example are that much longer, but anything overnight gets my vote because of the potential sleep factor. I have flown with Virgin plenty of times, but this was the worst by far. "Beef or chicken ?" is the question about an hour into the flight from an admittedly very smiley flight attendant. "How does it come ?" is a perfectly reasonable question if you ask me, but it never helps much. "OK, beef please".

You know all about trying to actually eat a meal in economy class don't you ? You have to be able to practise the art of contortion. There is no other way. But as much as trying to eat the sodding thing is a minor technical miracle, it's the actual food that I find horribly fascinating. Not fascinating though because it looks so good, rather fascinating because it honestly amazes me how human beings can create meals that look like the kind of slop that was dished out on that Virgin flight to Boston the other day. "Beef ?" You could have fooled me. If that stuff in the little plastic tray ever came from a cow then I'm a Dutchman. You've got to smell stuff like this before you even think about eating it, but because of the serious lack of elbow room I took a punt and allowed a forkful to enter my mouth. The fact that I did not actually gag is paramount to a great deal of self-control. It was not food, in fact I am convinced it was a Virgin conspiracy to poison us for the duration of the flight so we did not quite realise how hemmed in we were all were.

So for the flight home I make sure to eat something in Boston airport before we board the plane. No flight attendant manages to grab me and hustle me into "Upper Class" before I make the long walk of pain down to economy class. I keep turning back to see if they have made a mistake and are on their way to come and get me, but no such luck. Straight away I pop my sleeping pills and try my best to sleep for the short six hour flight back to London, but either I am becoming resistant to my pills or otherwise my body decided that no, it was not going to allow me to get any meaningful sleep in such a small, cramped space. I reckon I managed a couple of hours' fidgety, bum-numbing sleep before I gave up and read my Kindle the rest of the way back. A very good book I am reading though, and I then stopped off at my folks on Saturday morning to watch England just about claw a win against Scotland in the World Cup. The sheer adrenaline from the match I reckon kept me awake for my four hour drive back home to my girls. Travel is awesome, but I am sure you can now better understand why I get such a kick out of travelling on ferries for my work whenever possible. The sheer, unbridled pleasure at being able to freely move around and sit where you want (the Stena Plus lounge on the slower StenaLine ferry from Fishguard to Rosslare is just awesome). Here's to an outstanding weekend of World Cup rugby..........