Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Way We Fly Now

Travel news in-boxs are filled with word of new, first- and business-class service on long-haul, international routes - where the world's major airlines make their money. Meanwhile, domestic, short-haul service in the United States, which used to lead the world in civil aviation, just gets worse.

Latest case in point: A trip I took this past week between California and Lexington, Kentucky, a city I liked. Getting there, however, was not half the fun.

I flew both ways on United Airlines between San Francisco International Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The flights were packed. The seats back in steerage, where I flew, were lumpy, narrow and had almost no pitch - i.e., room between rows. The food for sale during the flights looked barely edible. The cabin crews were superannuated and often grumpy. Occasionally someone smiled.

Then it got worse. For flights between O'Hare and Lexington's delightfully named Blue Grass Airport, I transferred onto needle-thin regional jets contracted out by United to ExpressJets and operated as United Express. Think one flight attendent, even less room than on the mainline carrier and very limited space for carry-ons. I had to check my bag, something I almost never do, as it wouldn't fit into the Lilliputan overhead bin; at least, there was no checked-bag fee. Coming back, it was more of the same. And not a single empty seat - the result of fewer flights and smaller planes that United and other major airlinjes have put on domestic routes throughout the past decade, as they have been losing money and have thus downsized with a vengence.

Before the return flight from O'Hare to SFO, I bought a three-berry muffin at Starbucks. It was so lacking in flavor and loaded with sugar, I tossed it. Still hungry, I bought a tomato caprese sandwich at the rather grandly named Stefani's Tuscany Cafe in O'Hare. I figured it might be better than the food sold on the plane to economy class passengers.

Right after take-off, the passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, and thanks to the usual paucity of pitch, it nearly became a windpipe-crusher. Then, oops! I dropped the fully wrapped sandwich on the floor; it bounced under my seat. Wiggle, bend and stretch though I may, there was no way I could pick up the wandering sandwich; there was simply no room. A United flight attendant made a sickly, sorry-about-that face and continued pushing the beverage cart down the single-aisle of the plane, not offering to help. Nearly four hours later, when we landed in San Francisco, I was finally able to retreive the sandwich.

So much for lunch. But, hey, I'll chow-down at home. Mistake. The tomato caprese 'wich ($8.35) was soggy and tasteless, threatening to give bland a bad name. I ate maybe half and dumped the rest; it had been like eating a fistful of Kleenex.

Ah, well, at least Lexington was interesting and fun. The way I see it, it's still rewarding being in new places, but more and more, I have come to dread taking air or land transportation in the U.S., with its neo-third world infrastructure and couldn't-care-less notion of hospitality.

Just another day in the sky in the United States of America, 2010.

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