Just back from another few days away, this time in Toronto, feeling rested and full of ideas. But as I emerge from the fog of jet lag, the most immediate memory is the hell of the economy cabin.
I still like airports – even when I leave my netbook at security at Toronto Pearson and have to run back for it and endure a good telling off from the security guard, whose job I would not do for any money. Even when I have to queue for 45 minutes for transfer security screening at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 on the way out, and another 45 to drop my bag at Toronto on the way home. And, most seriously, even when I am underwhelmed with my local airport’s new makeover.
Those of you who don’t travel cattle class will already be thinking that’s not your experience. The segmentation of air travel by price began with the ‘no frills’ airlines, but pricing mechanisms are now moving further up the scale. Premium Economy gives you more legroom but no other extras, and then of course Business Class and First Class allow passengers to avoid the baggage and boarding queues, and to use airport executive lounges, as well as all the pampering on board. As economy travel becomes increasingly unpleasant, it's tempting to splash out on an upgrade and travel less frequently.
But some of us remain stuck at the back of the plane, gritting our teeth and thinking about what we’ll do with the money we’ve saved, unless DVT or food poisoning carry us off first. So I offer a guide to how to behave, especially on longer flights, based on the general philosophy: ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’.
1. You are entitled to carry on a bag that will barely fit into the overhead locker, which you will determinedly shove into the remaining small space with no regard for anyone else’s more modest and perhaps fragile possessions. On some airlines you will congratulate yourself on having saved a few quid in baggage charges. But in an emergency (or even when disembarking), your fellow passengers will take great delight in elbowing you out of the way in the stampede for the exit.
2. After take-off, you are also entitled to very suddenly push your seat back to the maximum reclining position, giving the person behind no warning, and keep it there until preparation for landing. Although some cabin crew may ask you to return your seat to the upright position when food is served, most will not. But if you do this, don’t be surprised if the passenger behind you feels the need to push rather hard, and repeatedly, against your seat if they need to get up during the flight, which they may need to do several times (it feels great...). Personally I never recline in economy, it’s just too anti-social.
3. Please have consideration for the personal space of the person next to you, and I would argue you should do this even if it is not reciprocated. Life’s too short to be competing for the middle arm rest; if you have the window seat then move over and rest on that one. Do not elbow your fellow passenger while trying to eat, select your movie, call the cabin crew or for any other reason short of a heart attack. Men should think about that wide leg thing they do. It’s annoying enough on the bus, let alone on a transatlantic flight.
4. If you have bladder issues (or worse), learn how to select an aisle seat at self check-in.
5. Do not talk to the people on either side of you if you don’t know them – and perhaps even if you do. Stick to the in-flight entertainment system, your iPod, or even a book. For all the tales of meeting fascinating people on the plane, you’re more likely to get someone who is boring, obsessive, depressed, scared of flying, sexist, or drunk. Which leads me to....
6. Alcohol makes jet lag worse, so drink in moderation, if at all.
I’ve left out the difficult question of travelling with small children. Airlines have got better at accommodating the needs of families, which may be why I’ve noticed fewer screaming children on board recently – although I wasn’t surprised to see a small child obviously very distressed at Heathrow security as the parents sipped their way through five or six pre-prepared bottles and then struggled to remove their shoes while trying to keep hold of bags, buggy and child. So my conduct list doesn’t include ‘don’t travel with children under, say, eighteen’, which it might have a few years ago. However, as air travel becomes more and more a matter of being prepared to squash up or pay up, many of us will be thinking about flying less often, and not just for environmental reasons.