A lot has been and will be said about the United Airlines incident. It is horrifying and degrading to humanity. No one in their right mind should ever give this corporation another dollar of their hard-earned money again. But while #boycottunited was trending last week and we were all vowing never to touch this airline again... sadly, it is already stale news as we move on to the next more horrifying and scandalous piece of content. A giant three foot bunny (no bunny should be this big) died on a United flight yesterday... Did you know that United had the most animal deaths of all U.S. airlines last year for the second year in a row on scheduled domestic or international passenger flight, according to Department of Transportation data? But when it comes to air travel, fares matter. So where will our loyalty lie? To our points, to our wallets or to our honor?
Where has the dignity in air travel gone? At what point did things change from those gorgeous vintage KLM flights where everyone wore suits and heels and the flight attendants looked like movie stars? How have we fallen so low as to be dragging a senior citizen, a doctor, someone who just wanted to get home, through a narrow aisle of a plane, harming him, bruising his dignity and insulting his family’s name forever? And now, a video circulating of a mom carrying an infant on American Airlines, crying because the flight attendant tried snatching her stroller away from her, almost hitting the child… The mom is sobbing as an angry passenger stands up to the rude attendant. Sigh, what is going on here? People are feeling hurt, angry and insulted right now and trust me, there is going to be an onslaught of these types of videos. I would like to warmly welcome all airlines to the ‘there’s no escaping this’ world of video-enabled social media platforms. Get your shit together.
1. The offense of offense—everyone is angry: Air travel is a funny thing…it’s almost as if a small aggression button gets activated from the second you are dropped of at the curb outside the airport where you suddenly feel like you have to have your A game on. Like a boxer…you’re on the offense, ready for action, entitled, aware. The mind swirls…do I have everything? How will I beat the lines? Will I get a good seat? Will the flight be on time? Should I eat something before the flight? Will the passenger next to me be bearable? The onslaught of questions and thoughts create an unpleasant feeling of anxiety, stress and hyper-awareness. Look, everyone just wants to get to where they’re going…and nothing, goddammit, will stand in our way. You pray it all goes as smoothly as possible and have very little tolerance when it doesn’t. The second it looks like something might veer from your intended path, you find yourself freaking out, overreacting and being way more angry or aggressive than usual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen very decent looking older men in suits (cue angry Indian uncles at Bangalore airport) screaming their heads off at airline officials (for a canceled or delayed flight) and I mean, like, literally shouting at their top of their lungs and using some terribly colorful language. Travel is stressful: everyone is on edge and people get pissed off pretty damn easily. Are we being too entitled? Too aggressive? Should they have yoga rooms at airports? Oh wait, United won’t let you fly with yoga pants on!
2. Run it like a chocolate shop—everyone hates their job: Dear people who work at the airport, the other people who are at the airport while you’re working are at your mercy. They are distressed, grumpy and tired. No one (well, almost no one) enjoys sitting cramped in a metal tube in the sky, with stale compressed air, surrounded by people they don’t know, food they don’t like and babies who won’t quit wailing. So your job (you, the people who work at airports) is to be super-duper nice, hand out lollies or free candy, smile like crazy, be insanely empathetic and kind to these poor travelers who aren’t going to get to leave their desk at 6:00 p.m. to dash home for a nice meal followed by a nice sleep in a big comfy bed. But wait... never mind the niceness we seek, why is it that you always seem a bit like you hate your job and that you’d really rather not check me in at the moment? My extra 1 kilogram of luggage seems to genuinely fluster you, and frankly, you often seem quite confused, like you don’t really know what you’re doing. To you I’m just a boarding pass, a luggage ticket, a seat number. And even when I pay 500 percent more to sit in a roomier cabin class, your smile is only 30 percent wider. The airlines may want to think about hiring former kindergarten teachers, nurses, therapists, Disney theme park employees and all people who know how to be nice and smile a lot. If it’s about the money, why don’t we go over and talk to the school teachers?
3. An all-access pass to the skies—everyone is taking everything for granted. As kids, we were always instructed to dress nicely for travel, especially if we were going to be getting on a plane. Air travel was special (and expensive!), a dignified luxurious experience that you were privileged to have, and an occasion worth dressing up for. Just like going to temple/church, or dinner at your aunt’s house, dressing well showed respect and demonstrated that you cared about the people, the experience and the surroundings. We grew up dressing fancily for flights, and still do. There are no yoga pants, sweat pants or half pants allowed in my family. Comfort is allowed—it’s not as though we’re dressing like the Kardashians—but no gym gear, thank you very much (I really wish there were more brands focused on ‘travel wear’). Today, compared to the Golden Age of Travel (1950–80s), air travel is much more affordable, accessible, far safer, far less boring and thankfully, smoke-free. There are still plenty of drunk people in the skies…but other than that there is nothing in common between air travel today and the Golden Age of Travel.
I look around at the airport today and I see a grown man in a singlet (yes, this is Asia; yes, we get that it’s hot outside but the air-conditioning is on full blast inside and, really, how hard is it to put on a T-shirt?). I see way too many flip-flops for my liking, and many folks look like they just rolled out of bed (probably did and I know it’s early but how hard is it to comb your hair?). I’m going to go ahead and excuse the little ones completely… I think they should be allowed to wear what they like even if this includes a floor-length Frozen nightie and furry bunny slippers (although my mom never let us do anything of the sort; instead, we were dressed like a Marks & Spencer advertisement even at five in the morning). The way you dress up and show up to a particular place says something about how you feel about that place. It also says a lot about who you are and whether you like it or not, how people will treat you.
The current mood appears to be that we don’t really care much for airports, or air travel, and we feel forced to be there and frankly just want it to be over with. Have we ourselves begun this vicious cycle of impolite behavior? Some may argue that comfort is the most important aspect of travel and who cares what you’re wearing, anyway, but if you search Google Images for “Golden Age of Flying,” those glory days of Pan Am and Concorde when caviar was served on planes and each passenger was given a free gift, you ate with designer silverware, your flight attendant (or steward/stewardess as they were known not so long ago) was at your beck and call, forever smiling and ridiculously good-looking. Look at those images—go on, take a good look and then I think we will agree on one thing: when it stopped being special, it stopped being special.