There is no more pretentious a place than airports, and no greater snob than the frequent flyer, and airlines are only too willing to appeal to their egos – and wallets – with business class travel, special privileges and “exclusive” clubs.
Even Virgin has shed its egalitarian inclinations in pursuit of the business traveller. In recent years it has successfully grabbed market share from the struggling Qantas which not so long ago had a near monopoly on the lucrative frequent flyer market.
I’m an infrequent flyer these days, but when I do take to the skies I prefer to fly Virgin – Qantas’s corporate arrogance long ago lost my custom – but it’s with some sadness that I note that Virgin has picked up some of the Limping Kangaroo’s habits.
I was shocked recently to see how many passengers were shoe-horned into a 6.00am flight from Melbourne to Sydney. No longer the leg room that once acknowledged passengers as human rather than pinstriped cattle.
It’s just as well I chose to read the Financial Review rather The Australian because there is no way I would have been able to negotiate a broadsheet. Even a tabloid was a challenge: by the time I finished reading the paper it was an unruly ball not even fit for fish-and-chip wrapping.
As is my preference, I was sitting in the aisle seat. At one stage I attempted to retrieve my satchel from under the seat in front of me – and when I say in front of me, I mean in front of me. This took some time, and some manoeuvring, almost knocking the glasses off the man next to me, and causing him to elbow the man by the window seat. It was the airline equivalent of the Mexican wave, only with bruises.
I was so tightly packed into my seat that if I sneezed I would have punched myself in the nose.
That was in mob class. Presumably things were less fraught in business class. Passengers are considerably more relaxed at the front of the plane, and no wonder.
Virgin business class passengers, like their Qantas counterparts, “enjoy priority check-in, priority boarding and access to the Virgin Australia lounge”.
“Onboard, stretch out and relax in your luxurious leather seat. Start your flight with a complimentary newspaper and pre-flight drink, and in-flight enjoy premium food and beverages from our exclusive onboard Business Class menu designed by renowned Australian chef Luke Mangan.”
Red carpet treatment
Priority check-in lanes make me see red, and I’m not just referring to the swish carpets.
Business class passengers in a hurry to get to their seats bypass the regular queue at the departure lounges and get to walk down exclusive red carpets. Frequent flyers are always in a hurry; somehow a purposeful, brisk stride denotes importance. This excludes those who get to swan in from the airline club at the last minute; in this instance, it’s important to take your time and be seen to be a cut above the rest. It’s like the parade of the nobles at the opening of the British Parliament.
Even if I qualified for priority check-in, I would feel foolish poncing down a red carpet. And what is the advantage of the red carpet treatment anyway? Getting to your seat a few seconds before the economy schlubs? If airlines really valued their passengers, why should a favoured half-dozen walk down royal row, while the poor people and Collingwood supporters gather in an unseemly throng on the drab grey carpet?
Is it really so much to ask business-class worthies to wait in the same line as everyone else?
Regular air travellers are a breed apart and the airport is their stomping ground. You can see it in their smug, self-important demeanour. This is their world: trolley bags in tow, mobile phone permanently affixed to the ear. And they love airport ritual.
This is most evident when lining up at the security station, particularly at peak time. They take a peculiar pride in whipping off their belts, shoes, watches and cufflinks and ostentatiously placing them in the security tray.
And any greenhorn foolish enough to set off the alarm will earn themselves searing glares of disdain.
My travelling companion was unfortunate enough to bring the security assembly line to a halt as the officer at the x-ray screen announced an object in his travelling bag that could not be identified. A burly, obviously senior officer took the bag, placed it before my bemused friend, pulled out a toilet bag, and with exaggerated care removed an aerosol can of deodorant.
With a sombre and reproachful countenance he lectured the transgressor – who might as well have been wearing a t-shirt declaring “9/11 Rocks!” – that this was a banned item. My friend remonstrated that the item had passed airport security before. “That’s not possible,” said the stern officer, who appeared something of an aerosol himself. The deodorant was duly binned and a potential terrorist breach was averted as men without belts tut-tutted.
Theatre of the absurd
I find the airport security ritual offensive, demeaning and, above all else, pointless. Nobody believes that the elaborate screening makes flying safer, but for regular business travellers this theatre of the absurd, and their world-weary compliance, marks their status as seasoned travellers.
As I walked through the gantry in my new “airport friendly” shoes – can you believe there is such a thing? – I surveyed the suits like pigs at a trough retrieving their possessions, while others were busily putting their shoes and belts back on. Are we really winning the war on terror?
Security ceremonies observed, the chosen ones seem to spontaneously disappear into thin air to magically reappear at their airline club. The lesser beings, meanwhile, commence their journey, earnest of countenance, phones at the ready, mobile trolleys in tow, to the departure lounge, like a herd of wildebeest.
Negotiating those wretched trolleys – which we all know contain, at most, a David Jones catalogue and a banana – in airport peak-hour is a major undertaking. About the only positive I can attribute to this mayhem is that it does wonders for my Gene Kelly dance routines.
Most annoying are the Trolley Tossers who insist on dragging their banana-crates-on-wheels into the boarding queues. On this particular morning, as we inched towards our plane, I found myself on several occasions having to brake suddenly to avoid crashing into the trolley before me.
Finally, I accidently on purpose sank my “airport friendly” boot into the offending conveyance. When its owner turned to complain I challenged him, pointing at the trolley: “Do you mind?” Pride dictated that he waited a couple of more steps before assuming the enormous sacrifice of picking up his bag. My companion remarked: “You’re not a morning person, are you?”
The return flight to Melbourne that afternoon was equally trying for anyone impatient with modern air travel.
The plane was packed, the space cramped and the economy-class throng had lost its morning reserve. It was like being on the 6.00pm train to Frankston.
To my immediate left, across the aisle, a 30-something businessman was eating what I took to be a chicken wrap. The smell was unspeakable. How could someone even think of bringing such a festering abomination onto a plane? Why not allow passengers – or “guests” as Virgin prefers – to bring kerosene cookers and livestock on board?
Next to me on my right, in the middle seat, was a little man who bore a remarkable resemblance to Hans Moleman from The Simpsons. I wanted to take a closer look, but if I turned my head I would have planted a kiss on his desiccated forehead.
On the afternoon flight they served a snack of biscuits and cheese, which came in plastic packaging that must have been difficult to open because for the next 20 minutes the crinkling of plastic packaging, one of my favourite sounds, filled the plane.
I opted for a vodka and tonic and it was $10 well spent. I was prepared to go to $100 for that drink.
Hans Moleman obviously enjoyed his snack. The sound of his enjoyment was the only thing that could be heard above the packaging concerto. He devoured his fare with gusto. Imagine an electric saw cutting through a piece of timber and a stream of sawdust filling the air – that was Hans.
Alas, time did not allow for a second drink, but it was good to hear those words, “Welcome to Melbourne”. By the time we arrived on terra firma, my back was sore with economitus cripplitis and I was covered in Hans’ sawdust, but I didn’t care. I knew my next column had all but written itself. Happy flying.
And Virgin; don’t become another Qantas – a little respect for your passengers please. You can start by getting rid of that bloody priority-boarding nonsense.