Wednesday, February 18, 2015


It’s time to face a sad truth - circling the globe in a bright shiny jet just isn’t the fun it used to be. 

I’m harking back to the wonder days of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when boarding an aeroplane was like taking flight to the moon:  When air travel and airports were chock full of romance and adventure. When it was hard to know which exerted the stronger pull, the destination or the mode of transport.
Travel to foreign places may have been the highlight, but for me the thrill and romance of travel always began pre flight when I rolled up at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm Airport.

OK! So what is so different now in 2015, to the way it used to be - let’s say ten, fifteen or even more years ago?
Actually think back to the 1950’s when I was a teenager working for Queensland Air Lines in Brisbane.
The sign below says it all:  There was just a wire fence to separate onlookers from the tarmac.  Essentially intending passengers were still master of their fate and requests to take care were made in politely non legal terms.

The airport itself was a collection of tin roofed hangars fronting wide open spaces of desolate land where suburbia had yet to intrude.

On boarding QAL’S DC3 relic from the war years and pulling your way like a mountain goat to the front of the plane you found you were one of no more than 21 or so passengers with a single Hostie to care for your needs.  The ratio of both passengers and attendants increased only marginally with the introduction of the bigger planes, the ones that sported a level playing field and in some cases more engines than two.
Today’s Jumbo Airbus in an economy setup, I’m told, can seat up to 800 passengers with roughly one flight attendant to every 50 passengers, while the airspeed of commercial aircraft has gone from a giddy 65 mph in halcyon days of 1914 to a possible 559 mph cruising speed for today’s humungous Boeing jets.

The high flying world has indeed changed.

But while the planes of today have grown so dramatically in size, their interior and mechanics modernised to the ultimate degree, has the paying public been likewise pampered by the dictators of government regulation and the architects of space and crowd control? 

Not really.

It seems the rule of financial thumb these days is to squeeze the maximum number of bodies into the smallest possible space while making sure you put them through every possible bureaucratic hoop beforehand.
International travellers of today need to sharpen their wits if they are going to arrive at journey’s end in a relaxed and joyful mood.
So what helpful advice could the travel savvy of today offer a first time passenger?

Along with the planes themselves, airports and their boarding facilities have grown like topsy. Making your way through the labyrinth of halls and concourses is a marathon effort.

First off one should really invest in a comfy pair of walking shoes.  Of course they will come in handy when you arrive at your holiday destination but chances are you will need them most at the airport before you board your flight: In some cases it takes longer to walk through a metropolitan airport than it does to fly to your destination.
No kidding.

Just getting from the book in desk to the departure lounge could easily wear out a trusty pair of Reeboks.
In itself the initial arrival by car to the airport concourse can be a mind blowing and pocket emptying experience. 
Like a vigilant boy scout Be Prepared to leap out of your cab, family driven car, or bus without making the mistake of dilly dallying at the kerb side. 
Hefty fines are liable for those who blithely leave their vehicle standing or worse bereft of driver. Gone are the days of rellies and friends crying copious tears as you prepare to board your flight:  It’s now a case of swiftly dumping the intending passenger and luggage on the foot path and letting them fend for themselves.  Stiff cheddar if they are old or infirm.

Suitcases these days come with little wheels of their own, and if you’re brave enough to be travelling light then you won’t need the following advice.
However if like me you’re loaded down with the maximum luggage allowance then you will need a trolley to safely make the journey from drop off point to check in.
In many airports you will require a shiny little gold coin in order to free a luggage trolley from locked in cousins.  Yes the same little coins you never manage to locate when you’re in a hurry or in a tizz.  Always keep a couple in a handy easily accessible pocket.

This is the physically exhausting part.  It starts with the Weighing of Luggage.  I’m assuming you’re absolutely confident your suitcase weighs the prescribed number of kgs.  After all, no one wants to face the embarrassment of airing clean linen in public as they frantically ditch unnecessary items.

  No matter that I‘m absolutely sure my bags will pass muster, at this point I still hold my breath.  OK, so these days I do pack  the absolute max in relation to allotted weight.   Hey!  I’ve got a daughter living overseas now and her wish list from home fills every spare inch … and weighs a ton.
Mmnnn… Yes, this is the hard part.  Ever tried lifting your HEAVY suitcase, in the first instance from car boot onto a trolley, and then from the trolley onto the weigh in machine?

Don’t be a smartie pants; I know you’re a youngster; but I’m approaching senility and there has to be a better way to maybe slide or wheel the suitcases into position.  Push button elevation perhaps? Think about it QANTAS.
But it’s not just the gigantic size of these departure points nor the initial checking in that starts the drum roll of discontent in my stomach.  It’s the one sided battle with bureaucracy. 

We’re still in the limbo part of the Airport and the next beef is Immigration.

  Whoever invented that hellish meandering turn style maze where everyone is banked up in never ending zig zag queues needs their bottoms spanked… especially when three or more flights are due soon to depart simultaneously and a thousand or more people are banking up in the aisles staring daggers at the half dozen or so officers safely behind their cubicles checking each passport matches its owner’s mug shot.

A free flight to an imaginary destination for the wiz kid who dreams up a better system.

Still in the Airport, you haven’t progressed very far and the next obstacle is Customs… the point where you may or may not be asked to remove your shoes.  Actually you’re odds on to score that particular partial body search if you happen to be wearing lace ups and running late for the flight.

You may even be lucky enough to score either the full Monty hand luggage search or even the Explosives Test.  I’ve managed all three on the one boarding. It depends on how suspiciously odd you appear to be. A doddery grey haired appearance apparently doesn’t help.

Customs is also the point where you’re more than likely to be parted from your brand new ‘you beaut’ bottle of expensive perfume or ‘after shave’ or ‘shampoo’:  Unless of course you’ve managed to purchase or decant these items into a mini size.   Be advised – buy cheap in the first place then losing the lot won’t be so painful.
Now you’ve finally reached the airport’s boarding level and identified your departure lounge.  The check in staff haven’t arrived yet, but be prepared for when they do.  Their arrival will trigger a massive lunge for the head of the queue.  I have a word of advice.  Sit tight!  Do not move.  Why stand in that cut throat line-up waiting your turn to rush down the landing ramp with everyone else hot on your heels. 

The plane isn’t about to leave without you. 

Sit back and enjoy the reasonably comfy lounge chairs while you can; you’ll miss their size and soft padding once you’re on board.
Now we’re actually ON BOARD the plane.

Wait a mo! I’ve not mentioned your assigned seating.  Choosing the right seat can make or break your journey. Let me rephrase that; being assigned the best seat will make or break any happy flying experience.

These days there is a plethora of seating description: First Class, Business Class, Preferential Economy and finally Economy. (That’s another word for cattle class.) 

Your personal air space diminishes considerably with each rung down the ladder.

I’m assuming that like me you’re not a movie star or famous model; you don’t rub shoulders with the rich and elite, so the chances are your rear end won’t be comfortably ensconced in either First or Business.

On one airline at least you can pre-buy your way into the economy seat of your choice.  You need more leg room, desperately must have a seat by the escape hatch; crave a window seat?  Stiff cheddar:  They are as scarce as hen’s teeth.

 Best bite the bullet and jump in early.  They disappear fast.

One place you don’t want to be is in the middle of the four abreast centre rows where a midnight exit to the loo means disturbing or climbing over at least two sleeping bodies. 

Arriving early at the check in desk isn’t a shoe in for scoring the next best seat in the house, but it can sometimes help avoid pernickety little nightmares.

I’ve advised you to settle back and join the end of the queue but maybe that’s not such a good idea! 
‘Cos, and wouldn’t you know it… there’s always a Hurley.

If by now you’ve taken my advice and sauntered leisurely aboard in the wake of everyone else; and you’ve reached your numbered and allocated seat then you’ve unhappily discovered the one pitfall in being the last to board.

All the available space in the overhead locker above your seat has completely disappeared.

Airline companies have strict size rules regarding permissible carry on items, some even charge extra per item, yet I’m constantly amazed at the plethora of bulky back packs, maxi size brief cases and last minute shopping that is shoved and pushed into those small caverns running the length of aircraft aisles.

On one memorable Indian airline, admittedly back when Adam was a boy, I even saw a smallish slim line refrigerator manhandled onto a plane where it sat for the next hour slap bang in the middle of the aisle; and on the same flight saw a generous sized 12 year old sitting on her father’s lap for the entire journey from Singapore to Delhi.

These days, strict regulations put a stop to most flying rorts but a risk you run in being the last on board is seeing your carry on being shunted the entire length and breadth of the aircraft before finally finding a home some seats away from you.

I won’t go into the difficulties of senile old ladies trying to lift heavy weights above their heads but I will offer thanks to the many young and not so young people who sprang so willingly to my aid on my latest South American excursion.

Aircraft catering is another subject that deserves mention.  I for one adore the compact little trays with their mini version of a three course meal. 

 While some companies now provide basic snacks as an optional paid extra I’m happy to advise the Qantas Lan Chile shared route Australia to Santiago lays on a never ending array of complimentary taste tempters to please anyone’s palate.

Aircraft toilets are yet another pain in the butt when it comes to long distance travel.

A bean counter somewhere in the design section of today’s modern jumbo size aircraft has decreed the number and size of loo’s necessary per capita of bodies and arrived at a most unsatisfactory equation not to mention inadequate swing room within.

With obesity on the increase I find it almost unbelievable some can actually fit inside these mini sized cubicles.

Contrary to medical advice I suggest flying passengers curb their intake of fluids or at least not wait until the very last minute to make that dash otherwise they will find themselves at the jittery end of a very long slow moving queue.

 In days of old they were kept in fairly pristine condition.  No doubt junior staff back then were handed the unenviable job of giving the littlest rooms a bit of inflight spit and polish.  I can only imagine today’s intake of cabin staff find it beyond their job description to clean up the mess today’s public blithely leave behind them.

The problem, I fear, lies with the potty training of today’s flying youth, both manners and neatness have gone sadly down the gurgler.

At last you are nearing your destination.  Those of you with the prized window seats are keenly watching the plane’s descent through the clouds. In a moment your aircraft will land, taxi up to the landing bay and not long after your captain’s voice will thank you for making the journey with Qantas, Lan Chile, Emirates, British Air, Cathay Pacific, Air France…the list of probable’s is endless.

That will be the signal for every single passenger to leap to their feet, grab their hand luggage and promptly and impatiently clog the aisles as they wait for those favoured passengers in First Class to make their leisurely way off the aircraft.

Personally at this point, unless I have a pending connection with another aircraft, I just sit tight and wait until the end of the long queue is almost out of sight.  And then, and only then I make my exit.

Why rush.  Assuming all the impatient folk ahead of me are first time flyers I’m guessing they’re blissfully unaware the queues at this foreign country’s Immigration will be just as lengthy as the ones they experienced at home, the ensuing luggage carousels will be tardy,  growing anxiety will turn to panic.

In any case Murphy’s Law will dictate your brand new wheeled suitcase complete with identifying coloured ribbon or fancy logo is the last one off; and the odds are the ensuing session with foreign Customs officers will be at best unpredictable.
So why hurry?
On the bright side the hardest part is over.

You have successfully made your maiden flight and you’re looking forward to the next few weeks, maybe even months in your overseas country of choice.  You will take numerous photographs, meet fabulous people, taste amazing food, write cryptic messages in your note book that will be almost impossible to decipher once home; perhaps even suffer a tinge of home sickness.  In between all this and depending on age and circumstance you will meet members of the opposite sex who will appear rather attractive.

I can offer no advice on that last situation. You’re on your own.
Eventually and all too soon the Holiday is over.

You’re probably sunburned or just plain tuckered out.  What’s more important is the certain fact that by now you’re probably broke; suffering nightmares just thinking about the depleted bank account, the swollen credit card.

A horrid thought!  But ahead lurks just one more nightmare…
You now face that long, long flight in reverse.

Home! Ahead of you at journey’s end await the delights of local Immigration and Customs and even more long… long queues.

Believe me, even with years of experience it doesn’t get any easier… though I can promise with time the difficult memories do fade.

Either that or I’m a glutton for punishment.

Bon Voyage! Happy Flying!

 Robyn Mortimer ©2015-02-16