When Flying Sucks

This post began as a simple copy/paste of some notes I jotted down on my laptop during the second leg of my trip home from Seychelles on 29 Feb 2011. There have been some edits to add links, and where I”ve learned even more, but for the most part it remains intact, as typed out quite uncomfortably on the fold out tray table of a Delta 767 in flight.

Travel notes-

Charles de Gaulle airport is HUGE, and once I was in another terminal (E as opposed to F, which is ugly enough to be a modern art masterpiece) it was much nicer than my trip down to Seychelles. There aren’t many places to eat and it’s dreadfully expensive, but lovely nonetheless. I think that was especially so because the French were very kind. I simply thanked them and would attempt to speak what French I could, but they were very nice and helpful the entire time. (I didn’t have my boarding passes for the last leg of the journey once I left Qatar Airways and needed some help.)

The problems began once I boarded the plane to depart Paris. Well, just one problem, really. Delta Airlines. Or to be more accurate, flying coach on an American carrier, it seems. On the single longest leg of my journey, an 11 hour flight, we’re in an old Boeing 767. On a 4-hour flight with Qatar Airways I had my own LCD video screen with on-demand choices. On an 11-hour flight we have small TV monitors hanging every fifteen feet along and above the aisle. On a 7-hour flight Qatar Airways feeds you twice. On an 11-hour with Delta, you get lunch. And the real kick to the tenders came when I walked through first/business class, then through “Economy Comfort” (just as narrow, but about 4 inches more leg room)… and then found my seat directly aft of the wing and engine. Compared to the Airbus (I’m told the plural is “Airbi”) I’ve been riding on, this thing is LOUD. Bose QC15 headphones only manage to turn it down to a dull roar. And as I try and type a draft of this blog post I have an empty blue pleather headrest shoved back into me and closing my laptop screen as the guy in front of me reclines.

How does this happen? That’s a silly question, I know EXACTLY how this happens- Delta is willing to fly this route the cheapest and everywhere they cut costs is painfully obvious. Meaning that it pains me to be on this loud and cramped plane for this long. (At least it’s still better than the Paris-Seychelles flight on Air Seychelles! That was easily the worst flight of my life!)

The other thing I noted is Qatar Airways’ in-flight magazine has ads for nice hotels and Mont Blanc or Tag Heuer, and Delta’s in-flight magazine has ads for lawn ornaments and that Stauer 1930s Dashtronic watch they advertise for $99 in Popular Mechanics. You know the one: it looks really cool and retro or art deco, but is really just filled with the same cheap Chinese movement that’s shoved into a bunch of mail-offer garbage.

I understand this. It’s a matter of budget. And frankly, on Delta’s part, it probably makes fairly good sense. People chose this flight because it was cheap, I imagine. That’s likely why my company bought tickets for me traveling this way: SAVE MONEY. And when saving money is the priority of the customer, why would you flash $200 dress shirts in front of the crowd a la Esquire, Maxim, or Stuff magazine? It’s not the target demographic for that product. I may drool over a Tag Heuer Carrera wristwatch from time to time, but when reality sets in I simply can’t justify spending that kind of money when $300 gets me a “Swiss Made” watch from Oakley military sales that can handle diving down to 10 bar. For TAG’s $6,000, that thing had better shave an hour off every flight and long layover I have for the rest of my life! So obviously, we have a disparity of demographic.

My hangup is this: I really enjoy “the finer things” every now and then. Or perhaps (and more likely) I’m so coddled by my upper-middle class life that I’ve become an obnoxious whiner when I have to “slum it”. Because I was still flying economy on Qatar Airways, but the difference is so great that I imagine flying First Class with them would be a vacation unto itself. It’s easy to see why they win so many SKYTRAX Awards. And it’s downright embarrassing that there’s not a single American carrier in the SKYTRAX Top 10. I have this mental picture of Orville and Wilbur Wright rolling over in their graves with the state of American air transportation today.

Even if I can’t get business class, being seated forward of the engines would be a huge improvement. I doubt I can, but I need to start asking the INCREDIBLY nice and wonderful woman that does my travel arrangements what can be done about that. Or maybe it’s simply worth paying out of my pocket for business class. One thing is for sure: I need to join EVERY airline’s rewards club, just in case.

I also want an iPad, for typing on with longer battery life than my MacBook Pro. I’ve considered a MacBook Air, but I figure an iPad gets me magazine apps and newspapers as well as movies. And a Kindle (sorry, Apple) for lots of books but even better reading surface and battery life. (NO! Not a Kindle Fire! That thing is a compromise in every direction, with the sole thing people praise being it’s price. I’ll keep my $200 or spend it on something with better functionality.)

Alright. Whether it’s the two pair of headphones I’m evaluating, or the food cart’s impending arrival, I’m thinking that’s enough for now.

     Summary: U.S. domestic airlines are terrible, and TSA treating us all like barefoot suspects doesn’t help. If you want to enjoy a flight, fly on a foreign carrier from an airport outside the U.S.

     P.S.- They just announced they lost galley power in First Class, so they’re going to reset a breaker that will also disable/reinitialize the in-flight entertainment on the whole plane. I’m a little surprised at the wiring, and can’t imagine something like that on Qatar Airways.

Doha International

Flying international beats US domestic travel like a rented mule.

I’m sitting in Oryx Lounge, and it’s the best $40 USD I’ve spent in ages. I’m not a frequent enough traveler to be part of the clubs that would allow me free access (though that may change), but everything about my flight from Seychelles to Doha on Qatar airlines has been superb. And highlights a great many things wrong our airlines and the TSA back home. I’ve long hated traveling and flying, but this trip has me thinking I’ve been wrong the whole time because of my limited exposure.

First, in none of my international airport experience have I been asked to remove my shoes as if I’m a suspect of some nefarious plot. It really highlights what I’m saddened to say can only be described as a culture of fear mongering in the United States. Michael Moore is a blowhard, but he did have at least that much right in Bowling for Columbine. We’re fed fear constantly in our news media, regardless of the source, and now we’re fighting a war on “terror”… We’re fighting a “war” against an idea or against fear, and as Dan Carlin pointed out in an episode of his Common Sense podcast– it can’t be done or won. But I digress.

First, was the flight itself on Qatar airlines from Seychelles to here. A relatively large Airbus, I’d guess an A320 of some make, that was mostly empty. That’s always nice and allows room to stretch out, but what was truly remarkable to me was simply how nice the plane was. Everything looked new, and even though I was right over the wing and close to the engine is was shockingly quiet. I didn’t even need my Bose QC15 headphones. It’s odd but fascinating to see different locations on the in-flight map like Mombasa and Mogadishu, and the constant distance counter saying how far we are from Mecca. I’m on a middle-eastern airline and the entire cabin crew is pretty women of some form of Arab or Asian origin who speak flawless English and they’re playing soft jazz, with ambient LED lighting that makes the cabin seem more luxurious than it should be. And they have a selection of movies that range from the latest Hollywood blockbusters to Bollywood, to some old classic with Humphrey Bogart.

(Notably, the Shrek spin-off Puss in Boots was called Cat in Boots over here.)

The airport itself isn’t particularly nice, but they do have a quiet area with reclining chairs you can catch some Zs on. What really stood out to me at one point was the food. I paid $9 USD for a plate of rice and chicken korma. A bit on the pricey side because I’m in an airport, but the sheer amount of food they gave me and how tasty it was make the US airport’s Burger Kings seem like highway robbery by comparison.

So I’ve got a 13-hour layover, and I’m trying to kill some time. Mosey around the Duty Free only to discover the prices are no better (and in some cases far more expensive) than simply buying elsewhere in “the real world”. Strike up a conversation with a Brit for a few hours. Sit in a too-smoky smoking room to enjoy the forbidden fruit that is a Cuban cigar (from Duty Free) only to confirm they’re overrated simply because they’re prohibited.

Now, Oryx. More private sleeping rooms, with cabinets for your bags and charging stattions for your electronics.. Another smoking room (which I won’t be partaking of again, thank you). Unlimited wifi that I don’t have to pay for (take THAT Charles De Gaulle and Seychelles!). A small buffet with the most delicious chicken sandwiches I’ve had in months, chocolate tarts, good coffee, lentil soup, and rumor is alcohol (if one is so inclined). It’s large, comfortable, and wonderful. And frankly, I’m really looking forward to a quick nap since I have over 24 more hours of travel left.

It strikes me now that when I was stationed in England I was pretty impressed with flying British Airways direct from London to Phoenix. It was just nicer than the American airlines. Now I’ve flown Air France and Qatar, and they’ve both impressed me as well. Even flying coach/economy on these flights has been nicer than anything I’ve flown in the US, and almost the equal of the one First Class flight I’ve ever had domestically.

(Quick disclaimer: Air Seychelles was outright terrible. So is their national beer, SeyBrew.)

I’m just kind of typing random thoughts at this point, like a journal. I want one more chicken wrap and to get some sleep. But I thought all this was worth noting because it’s made a very long layover downright enjoyable. This is not the torture session of being stuck in an American airport due to delays. This is… the good life.

As somebody who honestly thought they hated travel (but loved the adventure once I was there), I can honestly say that international travel has spun my preconceptions on their ear. I didn’t venture into Doha itself, regrettably, but there’s always the future and I fully intend to explore more thoroughly in the years to come. If you’re an American with our unfortunately typical insular mindset, I really encourage you to try some international travel on a “foreign” airline. Trust me, they’re nicer. And while no country I’ve been to yet measures up to the good ol’ U.S. of A., the experience alone is worth it. There’s nowhere I’d rather live than the States, but I have to admit when we get schooled in something. Foreign travel is the best. You owe it to yourself to try it once in your lifetime.