Sunday, November 20, 2016

A flying rant

HALLIE EPHRON: Today it’s my turn to rant. On flying. As expensive as it is, it should be a much better experience. Since I bit the bullet and got screened for TSA pre-check, at least getting through security is a breeze.

However, from then on flying has become a nasty, unpleasant, uncomfortable, and costly chore. Let me count the ways.


You can book and pay online way in advance, but on United (and others?) these days you can’t pick your seat until you check in (or pay extra). Apparently $400 dollars for a two-hour flight entitles you to steerage.


Then there’s the staff ON the plane that doesn’t talk to the gate staff. So (without warning) by the time you get on the plane there’s no overhead space and thirty bags have to be taken off by a ground staff who are angry and grumbling to passengers who are hoping their bags won’t get deep-sixed.

The seats are so narrow, even those of us who are slim-ish can’t fit our arms within the armrests. And there’s so little room between you and the seat in front of you that you can’t bend forward far enough to corral your shoes which you’ve slipped off but now need to slip back on since it’s frigid on the plane. I’ve started bringing a blanket. Then there are the broken seats that won’t lock in the “full upright position” -- seems like I’m in or behind one on every leg. Makes you wonder what else on the plane is broken.

Then there’s the plane that has a toilet (TOILET!) in the middle (MIDDLE!) of the plane. Whose great idea is that?

5. SNACKING ON What is this?

Oh, they’re back to giving out “snacks on some airlines.” Here’s the entire contents of United's package of
CRUNCHY SNACK MIX. I put the penny in it to show you how generous it is. Hmmm. Apparently it’s gluten-free and peanut-free, but what on earth is it? The ingredients list has more items than the snack pack has pieces. Seriously, this is pathetic.

Speaking of UNITED, in my experience they are the worst offender on all counts. On Delta and JetBlue, at least the snacks are recognizable as food rather than kibble. And on Southwest they have a sense of humor.

Bright spots: If you can, fly through Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport and for a laugh visit the Recombulation Area just inside TSA. And if you're in the airport and find a Vino Volo, treat yourself to a wine flight and a lovely board of smoked salmon.

TIP: If you must fly, use SEATGURU, a web site that shows you the seat map for the flight you’re booking and flags the lousy seats that should be avoided. That’s if you can pick your seat.

MAKING THE BEST OF IT: Finally, be kind to your fellow travelers (maybe not the one with the fake service dog, or the one who’s taken up half of a overhead bin with his coat, or the one sitting next to you who eats a banana and leaves the peel moldering on his tray for the entire flight…) who are feeling as pissy as you are, and who can blame them?

Share your rants an raves about flying. Are any of the airlines doing something right these days? 


  1. Hallie, I’m sitting here nodding yes, yes, yes, as I read this. I’m not entirely certain when flying lost everything that made it special, but the allure of flight no longer exist if you’re traveling with any of the major air carriers.
    When we lived in California, we’d fly across the country at least once each year. We being John and I or sometimes just me, always with babies/toddlers in tow. We could check luggage without paying an additional fee, we had seats that were reasonably comfortable, we were fed, the children got wings and a deck of cards to keep them occupied.
    Sad to say, but everything changed and suddenly flying was no longer fun. These days we do everything we can to avoid it . . . .

    I’m sure I’ll be sorry I asked, but what in the world is a Recombulation Area???

  2. Hallie, I totally agree with you that flying these days is no longer an enjoyable experience. When I first flew to Europe over 30 years ago on defunct airlines such as PanAm and Wardair, it seemed luxurious! We were served real good food on china! And free booze...on an economy or charter flight!!

    I fly mostly with Star Alliance airlines so I share your horror stories about United (and Air Canada). I will add that United has some ridiculously tight connection times. Flying last week from Newark, I had 1 hour to change terminals from A to C. Of course they gate checked my carry since the small connecter plane had no overhead storage space, so I had to wait 10 minutes. Then I had to take a shuttle bus to terminal C which took another 15 minutes. And then run clear across the terminal to catch my flight to San Francisco which was half-way finished boarding! Sheesh!

    And then of course, after all that rushing, we were stuck at the gate for over 45 minutes while the crew were fixing "an external maintenance problem". Sigh.

  3. One airline that seems to be more civilized is Icelandair. I used them to travel to Reykjavik in 2015 for work, and will be travelling with them next February on vacation. Free seat selection, 2 free bags checked.

    And I booked a great travel deal directly with Icelandair for my upcoming trip: Toronto-Reykjavik flight (return), 3 nights hotel, 1 Northern Light tour, and 1 geyser/waterfall tour all for under $800 CDN (which is @$590 US)! The return flight was under $200 CDN...I can't even fly one-way from Ottawa to Toronto for that price!

    And to add another comment to my United story above, that tight connection at Newark worked under perfect weather. Ottawa is getting 8-10 inches of snow tonight and Monday, so I shudder to think how adding winter weather delays into the travel mix will add to the horrible experience!

  4. Joan, it was fun. Once.

    Grace, those airports where you have to walk a mile to a different terminal or catch a shuttle bus AFTER waiting for your gate-checked bag to make your connection make me crazy. Best to connect in a smallish airport like Cleveland. Forget O'Hare or Dallas or Atlanta or Dulles.

    We flew Icelandic to Reykjavik direct from Boston and as I recall it was perfectly pleasant. Icelandc water is fabulous.

  5. Joan, the "Recombobulation Area" is just past TSA security checkpoint in the Milwaukee intrnational airport. It's where you can un-discombobulate yourself.

    Here's link to an article about it and a photo

  6. Hallie: Unfortunately, Ottawa is a small airport, so the US connection choices are limited to the larger airports: Chicago O'Hare, Newark, Dulles or Toronto/Montreal in Canada. The plus side of going to the US out of a small airport like Ottawa is that the TSA security/customs is usually quick...I was the only one there last week, so no line-ups! But I do miss living in Toronto where I had a lot of direct flights across North America, and did not have to endure the gate check/shuttle bus/terminal dash very often!

  7. You nailed it Hallie! Might I add how often they change your itinerary after you've booked? and I have to tell this story from 1984...

    MODERATELY BAD LANGUAGE ALERT...I was flying I think on People's Express and I was one of the last ones to board. The only overhead spot was two rows back where a woman had laid out her fur coat. I started putting my bag up there and she went crazy.

    "M'am," I said, "if you'll pick up your coat, I'll put my bag in and then you can put in your coat." But she was crazy mad by then and screaming at me. Of course I was the only one standing and the plane was ready to taxi off. Finally the stewardess came along and helped me get the bag in, but the woman continued to berate me at full voice while everyone else looked on. I lost it.

    "M'am," I finally said. "You're full of shit."

    "Your suitcase is full of shit!" she screeched, as I headed to my seat.

    Once we landed in Newark, my suitcase was handed up to me and everyone passing congratulated me on my handling of the irate woman. It wasn't elegant, but it makes me giggle looking back.

  8. You totally nailed it! My husband and I flew to Minneapolis in September on Spirit Airlines, whose sales gimmick is because their flights are so "affordable" everything is ala carte. You pay to get from point A to point B. We selected them through Orbitz because they had the flight times we wanted. You're allowed one personal item (allowed size not much larger than a Sucrets box) and the seats were so small I was squished (hard to do since I'm 5' 2" and thin). Because of flight delays and cancellations, it took us nearly 17 hours to get from Point A (Boston) to Point B (Minneapolis). This is only the most recent flying horror story for us, and your readers could say the same thing. If at all possible we drive to where we're going.

  9. I realize it was only a typo, but I had to laugh at "glutton-free" above. With that serving size, why yes, it is glutton free (unless some snagged a couple dozen bags)! LOL

    I will never fly American again after the debacle getting home from Raleigh for the 2015 Bouchercon. Short story: Got an email saying my scheduled direct flight was canceled and I'd been booked on a flight that left Raleigh at 5:30am on MONDAY and connected through PHILLY. Um, no.

    Honestly, despite the cattle-boarding, Southwest is my airline of choice. As you said, they at least have a sense of humor. The preflight speech on our way home from New Orleans (actually, I think it was the connecting flight out of Orlando) was funny.

    Also, back in 2008 (when they still did assigned seating), my then six-year-old son got assign a seat all by himself. I told the flight crew I wasn't going to accept that. The head flight attendant said, "Absolutely! We'll get that fixed. Don't worry." And they did. The only thing that made that flight good was the kids were old enough to behave, but young enough to be entranced by flying.

    Yes to being careful what airlines you connect through. Going to New Orleans was Dallas-Love Field (much smaller that DFW) and home was Orlando.

    But yes, flying is mostly uncomfortable and a pain. Grit your teeth and be nice to your fellow passengers, and you'll get through it.

  10. In September, Delta had overhead space for all passengers, unlike United, where everything larger than a Sucrets box (love that image) has to be gate-checked. I carry my own sandwiches.

    We took the plunge the first week of May and paid for Global Entry, which includes TSA pre-check. The first date we could get for our interview and fingerprinting was January 31st, 2017.

  11. You made me laugh internally on this, a very wet, snowy day in upstate NY! ๐Ÿ˜ƒ
    Many things are just not what they used to be. . .sadly.

  12. Linda, everything I've heard about Spirit makes it sound nightmarish.

    Glueten! Glutton! Can you say Serendipity!
    Love the Sucrets-sized baggage limit (Spell check just tried to change it to SECRETS-sized...)

    Did I mention the flight attendant on American Express who used his cell phone the entire trip from SF to Sea-Tac?

  13. While we're picking nits, I once gave up my seat so a 6-year-old could sit next to his mother. JetBlue promised a free drink. That was nice. But I never got whatever coupon the flight attendant expected me to have to redeem it. I'd still have given up my seat without the drink, but it felt sleazy and careless... And I remember it whenever I fly JetBlue. It and the tiny United snack packs. Little things matter when it comes to customer service.

  14. Lucy: Way to showed her!!

    We only have 3 airlines in Canada, with Air Canada having the monopoly in Canada.

    Westjet Airlines in Canada is actually pretty fun...kinda of sounds like Southwest. The crew are usually very upbeat, tell plenty of corny jokes and stories during the flight. Employees typically own shares in Westjet so they are "happy owners".

  15. Babs: Aaaagh, snow! Be glad you're not trying to fly out of Albany.

  16. I'm not flying again until I can get Hermione to teach me that purse-enlarging spell!

  17. Flying used to be so much fun. Everyone would dress up as if going to church, or to a very important business meeting, and the airlines would actually serve you, real food, on real dishes. However, the "smoking" section was ridiculous; on one side of the fifteenth row it was smoking, on the other side it was not. In other words, the entire plane was smoking, really. There was truly no way to get away from it. So that part is better these days.

    I've driven around the country so much in the last few years in large part because of the awful situation around flying. It's more fun to drive and eat what I want than to submit to the airlines, plus by the time you drive to the airport, wait the required hour or two, and then transfer to your destination, the time spent is nearly the same.

    Hallie, you mentioned one thing that makes me crazy, trying to fit elbows within the narrow seats. I always end up with sore elbows on long flights because of it. Either the seats need to be wider, or the armrests need to be lower. I get anxious just thinking about it. And that middle seat is a nightmare, isn't it? Especially if you're squished between larger people, or people who don't care at all about the concept of personal space. I don't care to be touched by perfect strangers in the first place, but having them looming over me for hours is a horror show.

    The very worst, though, is if someone falls asleep next to you. And then rolls onto your shoulder and will not wake up. I've had this happen twice. Shudder.

  18. Hallie, I went down your list and checked off every item, I'm sorry to say. What I recently found to be a new disappointment was how international flights are now as horrible as localones. What ever happened to roomier seats? A free glass of champagne and a decent meal? The food on the trip to Italy was definitely made by Chef Boyardee. The seats were tiny, and yes the one in front of me was broken so when its oversized passenger chose to thrust herself backwards every five minutes, my knees got crushed. Of course, I reacted maturely by shoving them right into the middle of the back of her seat. I should have just let it out like Lucy. I've had better bus rides.

  19. Hallie, on a recent trip to Peru we flew Delta to Mexico City, an almost 6-hour flight. Only peanuts were served and sandwiches could be purchased. Something we’ve come to expect from Delta. The second leg of the trip to Lima was on LATAM, an airline I never heard of. I had visions of flying in a Sopwith Camel at best. In instead we boarded a 787 where they severed a full meal in real dishes and good wine. Our red-eye home on the same airline was non-stop with two meals. Even I didn’t want to eat after midnight, but it was nice to know there are still airlines around with old fashioned service.

  20. Well, I have to say, I was an instant adapter to signing up for TSA pre-check, the life-changing fabulous greatest invention of the universe. However, and probably inevitably now, I have been at airports where the TSA pre-check line is longer than the regular line. Certainly in Palm Beach, which I always think is hilarious.

    My pet peeve? Is when people put their luggage over the forward seats, and then proceed to the back where their seats are located. You have to have to have to have to put your luggage over your own seat. It drives me absolutely crazy, and it is such a breach of the social contract to do it any other way. It ruins the system, and makes it crazy when the people in the forward seats then have to go back to retrieve their luggage before they get off the plane. I once had a mini fit over it on the plane, asking a guy who had just put his luggage over my seat to please move it. He got snarly, he really did. I was sweetly adorable back to him. grrr.

  21. And I will admit, because it is just us, my travel is significantly better, and some days I know you will be surprised, I even love it. Because I pay for better seats. Not for first class, but for upgrades, and I've got to tell you, getting on the plane first makes all the difference. When you are on the road and in a plane every day, as I sometimes am, for a week at a time or more, is very very worth it.

    Do not get me started about American airlines. Sure, the first class people go on first, that's fine but if you are group one, which you pay extra for, woe to you. First class goes first, then elite or something, then diamond gold sapphire ruby and emerald, then group one. All of us group ones always commiserate, like: what could be higher than one?

    And I love my popcorner chips on JetBlue.
    And I love the preflight video on United, it is completely hilarious.

    I don't hate flying as much as you all do… Isn't that strange?

  22. Hank: Good for deserve better seats and earlier boarding considering how much you have been travelling lately!

    And I totally agree about that faux pas of people putting their carry-on luggage in forward overhead bins. Not good etiquette. I loved how you sweetly challenged that guy!!

    I saw that United pre-flight video for the first time last week during my flight to SF. You're right, it was hilarious!!

  23. I do not love the United pre-flight video. Yes, it's cute & jokey. But packed around it is one huge ad (I already BOUGHT my ticket!) for the airline and it's ALWAYS much too loud. And it's right in your face, like those video screens in taxis that you can't turn off. I pack my ears with kleenex and hang my menu over the screen until it's over.

    And speaking of international airlines, our flight with Qantas to Sydney was very civilized, and I had a middle seat which was actually roomy and relatively comfy.

  24. Hank, I do crack up when they board emerald, ruby... and finally Group 1. I'm usually Group 4. I HATE paying more for what should be a given.

  25. Michele: Exactly what you said about sore elbows. And I do try NOT to use the armrest that the poor middle passenger should at least get.

    And our flight to China was like that... two meals. Hot towels. And a bazillion flight attendants.

    Karen, that is SO GROSS when someone falls asleep on you. Or what about the snorers?

    I'm SO jealous of the (usually) young people who get on the plane and instantly fall asleep. Boy do I wish I could do that.

  26. Hank, you have just voiced my pet peeve. These days I always pay extra to get the extra leg room in the front rows. So that overhead room should be mine. But if people get on ahead of me I find their bags already in my space while they sit further back.
    I'm a big fan of Southwest and pay for early boarding and always get a seat I like. And the cheerful witty cabin crew make the flight bearable.

    To Europe we always fly Virgin Atlantic in economy plus. It's civilized and one is treated as a human being and given a glass of champagne when we board!

    But why does the man in the next seat always think that he has the right to the arm rest?

    And have you tried paying for an onboard meal? A frozen turkey wrap? A cheese board that consists on three little squares of cheese and some grapes?

  27. Oh, was that cheese? I thought it was colored wax.
    And there's more packaging than food.

    Yes, if you pay more you get more. But what's now "more" is what we used to expect from "basic." People used to check their bags and there were no overhead bin issues.

  28. I'm surprised no one else has mentioned another couple of pet peeves of mine on domestic flights with limited leg room/seat space. The person sitting in front of you lowering their seat back while you are trying to enjoy your "free" refreshment or using the table to work on your laptop. Also I often seem to sit in front of someone who forcefully pushes the buttons on the seat screen so hard on the online entertainment system that you feel it all the time!

  29. I will say that AirFrance serves full meals, and free wine, on their international flights. It was a terrible disappointment on my return from Prague to get shifted to Delta because the AirFrance pilots were on strike.

    For some reason I've had TSA PreCheck for the last four years. I think our travel agent from our Tanzania trip secured it for me, but oddly, my husband doesn't have it. Hmm.

    Funny story about snorers: I was on my way to a conference to Tulsa or someplace, and sitting near the front of the rear cabin. A woman on the aisle seat several rows behind me was snoring SO loud, it was annoyingly audible throughout the entire cabin. When I got to my destination I saw some colleagues, who invited me to share their vehicle to the hotel, as soon as they picked up the very famous keynote speaker, who had also been on my flight.

    Yep, the snorer. It was so hard to keep my mouth shut.

  30. Oh gosh, I hope I don't snore... she'd have been horrified.

  31. OH, Hallie, you are too funny. But if it gets people to watch it, so what. I guess it doesn't work for you... ;-)
    I love seeing it. The kangaroo pouch!

    And come to think of it--how is it an ad? I never noticed. I guess I was laughing too hard.

    Group four. No. You must get OUT of group four. Seriously.

    And I am so grateful for headphones--for others. Have you noticed it's rare when people talk on planes now? They're all in their own little worlds. Love that. And I can get so much work done.

    Plus--Jet BLue lets you have as many snacks as you want.

  32. The best thing about not having a day job anymore is not having to fly nearly as often. Things have only gotten worse since I left the full-time scene in 2010.

    I have a story like Roberta's. It was one of those planes with first class in the front and everyone has to walk through it. They boarded first class first and everyone was standing in the aisles chatting, arranging, ordering drinks, chatting. I was at the front waiting to make my way to steerage, and finally I said, "You know there's a whole plane full of people behind me, waiting to board." One man sniped at me, "That's why we're in first class," but everyone else sat down. Later, one of the flight attendants brought me a free glass of wine and thanked me saying, "We're not allowed to say that. Thank you."

  33. Karen, it used to be that if you tell the person monitoring the entrance to TSA precheck that your husband is with you, they let him go through that line, too. SIGN UP FOR IT. It's the gift that keeps giving.


    My flight home from New Orleans I opened my overhead and it was full. I put both hands on my hips, looked around, locked eyes with a LOT of people and said, "Really?! Anyone want to claim this or tell me where your overhead is and if it's empty?" Of course no one spoke up, but at the end of the flight the guy behind me had to read around me to get his bag out of my overhead and mumbled a "sorry" at me. I just looked at him and said "too late."

    I HATE to fly.

  35. Here's something positive in the world of airline travel: I absolutely love Alaska Airlines. Seattle is their hub, and I've become very spoiled since I'm able to use them for most of my travel. When I have to take American, United, or the worst in my opinion, Southwest, I always pine for Alaska. The flights are on-time, the crews are terrific, and I accumulate a lot of miles, which means upgrades and other treats. The cherry on top is TSA pre-check, which makes my life so much easier.

    Hank, I'm with you on the overhead issue. Keep your bag with you until you get to your seat! And gentlemen (yes, it's usually men,) you do not own the armrest. If you aren't inclined to share, I'm always happy to give your piggy elbows a gentle shove!

  36. I think it's all well and good to say "use the bin over your own seat" if you board early. For those of us boarding last, we're told TAKE THE FIRST AVAILABLE SPACE and continue to your seat.

  37. Piggy elbows, yes, Ingrid! Too funny. Hallie, good timing on the rant, since my flight home from London last week was ten hours. I fly American most of the time because Dallas is a huge American hub. I now pay for the perks they used to give frequent fliers. And I pay for seat upgrades most of the time, which really rankles.

    On the American long-haul flights you usually have the most senior flight crew and they tend to be pretty grumpy. And the food!! I always think it can't possibly get any worse, and then the next time I make that flight, it is! Absolutely horrible. At least AA still gives you free wine on international flights.

    I flew BA outbound, however, and not only were all the flight attendants very pleasant, the food was at least edible. Seriously, with modern technology, can't they do better?

    And, Lucy, I would love to have seen you take down the fur lady!!!!!

  38. ...and all of that, and more, is why I no longer fly.

    Also, I'm extra-plus sized and all of the discomforts for both myself and the others seated by me are doubled. But we can start with the TSA treatment of us all as criminals, the seemingly eternal waiting, the lost luggage, waiting for same, boarding madhouse, bin stuffing, unmanaged children, crying babies, cell phone talkers, lousy "food", and the rest. My wife still flies, and I take her to the airport and pick her up, but that's as close to an airplane as I get.

  39. My last trip was all on Alaska Airlines. O'Hare to Seattle to Fairbanks and Seattle to O'Hare. First class upgrade was not that much. Whole trip in comfort with excellent service! Bless you Alaska Airlines!!

  40. Sounds like Alaska Airlines and JetBlue are the way to go. Southwest if you don't mind the lining up.

    Richard, my condolences...

    Deb, welcome home! Ten hours??? Feh.

  41. Hallie, in your rantselection, just starts the whole flying experience with a negative. And the sqing you have shared some great information. I'm so unhappy about the last minute seat ueezed in seats and lack of space. I've paid extra in the past to get a seat with more room around it, but I resented the heck out of having to pay for something that should be the norm. As you say, Hallie, the "more" used to be "basic." As for the food, I pass on the snacks. On the longer flights to Hawaii, I have bought a fairly decent package of cheese, crackers, and fruit, but one package that's acceptable is a fairly dismal offering. I do highly recommend getting TSA pre-check status. It's at least one improvement on the flying experience.

    I will have to say that I've met some fascinating people as seatmates. I'm careful not to force myself on someone and really look forward to some reading time, but it seems more often than not, I sit beside someone who likes to talk, and it's been interesting. One of the best was sitting beside a man who was connected to people at Canobie Lake Park, the amusement park in Salem, New Hampshire, where Stephen King gathered most of his material for his book Joyland. The man was related to people who worked outside the gate (I don't think he worked there, but he was present.) Anyway, they saw Stephen King walking along the road, and someone worked up the courage to speak to him. King informed them that he was interested in talking to them the most of the amusement park people, and, apparently, he was gathering material for Joyland. I thought that was rather cool.

    Lucy, I love your spunky response to the fur-coat-lady. So funny!

  42. I actually enjoyed my recent flights between Seattle and Heathrow on Delta. While the food was marginal, the drinks were decent (and free). But the best part is that the planes were only comfortably full, so on the 2-3-2 seat configured plane I got a 2 to myself in both directions and was able to stretch out enough to nap.

  43. We had fun on Southwest. It was cramped, and we got the generic non-peanut containing crunchy things, although they tasted a lot like pretzels. The selfish person beside me wouldn't share his seatbelt, but hey a seatbelt wouldn't save us from a crash in the Grand Canyon.

  44. Share his SEATBELT? Reine, what were you smoking??
    PlumGaga, I like 2-3 configured planes, too. Can't remember seeing an empty seat in years.
    Kathy, I love Canobie Lake Park. Ditto Stephen King.

  45. It has been almost 10 years since I retired from the airline industry. My employer, who no longer exists, stressed customer service. I am saddened as I read how the 'bean counters' have put profit ahead of customer satisfaction. Over and over the 'bean counters' said the cost of jet fuel was forcing them to make these service related cuts. When jet fuel cost went down, did the service go back? I think not.

    As a retired employee, I am granted tax free air travel. However, I have not been able to find seating in over 3 years. Perhaps, given what the travel experience is like now this is a good thing.

    A word about the seat rests, does everyone know they lift up? If you have an accommodating seat mate, this makes for more comfortable travel.

  46. Hahaha! Hallie... I left the middle out of my post but wish I had something to smoke! I was sitting next to my husband. He was sitting on half of his seatbelt and hooked up with half of mine instead and wouldn't unhook to let me use the half under his butt. I've called him Ayn Rand ever since.

  47. I hate flying. I get claustrophobic and I always worry that the airplane is going to crash. If I'm going somewhere, and it's less than a thousand miles, I'll just get in my car and drive.

  48. It's been what I call "flying Greyhound" for too many years now. We try to use Southwest, as its seats don't seem designed by the marquis de Sade, and the unassigned boarding system is so much faster and more efficient than on assigned seating flights.