Early this morning, as I was trying to sleep on a flight, it struck me that air travel is no fun anymore. Flying today is worse than unremarkable. It’s downright depressing.
In its early days, commercial flight was chic and exclusive: the idle rich jet-setting around the globe, prim stewardesses in pillbox hats. But though the ritziness has vanished, airline travel has retained an idiosyncratic collection of characteristic peculiarities.
Until recently, the airline experience was pretty constant. Passengers enjoyed demurely packaged meals of infamously poor quality – free with airfare – and tiny bottles of liquor, also gratis. The in-flight movie played on a single screen, with funny beige earphones piping hollow soundtrack from the armrest. A soft “ding” accompanied the “Fasten seatbelt” warning.
Uniformed flight crew gestured at exits, dangled yellow oxygen masks and donned flotation devices in the aisles. Ah, those were the halcyon flights of our youth.
Today, food costs extra. The safety demo is pre-recorded. The movie shows on dozens of tiny screens, and you can’t hear it without shelling out five bucks for a junk headset. And the “Fasten seatbelt” sign now has no functional purpose; like its “No smoking” cousin, it’s simply always on.
But beyond these changes lies something far more sinister: the encroaching of our growth-crazed consumerist mindset into the once-sacred aisles of the jetliner.
This struck me as we reached cruising altitude. Releasing my tray table, I was dismayed to find its surface rudely clad in a gaudy Verizon ad.
Since when have companies taken to advertising on my dinner tray? Worse, since every tray-table in the aircraft bore identical advertisements, mealtime was a kaleidoscopic cacophony of inappropriate marketing; I felt rather like a fly, if my compound eye could see only Verizon logos and Cobb salads.
The experience, while farcical, seemed oddly demeaning. Successful advertising should preserve at least the illusion of choice. Whether we are paging through a glossy magazine, flipping channels or even glancing at a billboard, our attention should be courted, not coerced. Nowadays, advertisements are crammed in our faces at inopportune times: while urinating, for instance, or while pecking at an airline meal. I prefer not to be counseled while on the toilet, especially in matters as trivial as which chewing gum to buy. A similar advertising blackout extends to dinner time. Consequently, I shall make it a point not to buy any Verizon products this week, on account of that company’s evident willingness to harass a seatbelted audience already burdened with day-old salads and swollen feet.
A further intrusion is the SkyMall catalog. You can find this unwelcome development crammed in your seat pocket, cozying up to the airsick bag. SkyMall is a thick, glossy catalog now found on major airlines. It offers the most peculiar collection of merchandise: an array of goods so wholly absurd that the only way to replicate it would surely involve Philip K. Dick, Lewis Carroll and a barrel of ether.
Why not invest in the ludicrous “PoshAir Cocoon”? It’s a “modern, hygienic sleeping accommodation” that looks strikingly like a flannel condom with armholes. At last, you can zip yourself into comfort, and broadcast your status as a xenophobic, germophobic, spendthrift idiot to an entire airplane of snickering people. Or perhaps you’d prefer a stuffed dog toy with a camera hidden in the nose. (I dare not dream what combination of preschool-aged children and illicit spying begat this creepy hybrid.) And that’s not all.
Marvel at the raw utilitarian brawn of the “Solar Powered Mole Repeller” on page 70. I have no idea whether moles plague my garden, but this device will set things right. The vibrating post “drives them crazy,” since moles “just cannot tolerate that underground vibration!” But perhaps my favorite item is the in-ground swimming pool on page 109. For $19,400, you can order your very own, and you can do so from 35,000 feet.
This is, quite simply, the most ridiculous in-flight catalog imaginable. Buying these items on the ground would be bad enough, but the need to acquire them at cruising altitude is completely beyond comprehension. Has anyone actually bought a $70 “feline drinking fountain” during the in-flight movie? Actually, never mind. I don’t want to know.
Alas, apparently, this is progress. Traveling by air was once a special experience. Now, sadly, it shares a great deal with visiting a public restroom: It’s institutional, unpleasant and overrun by ads. Occasionally unavoidable, it must simply be endured.
Why have airplanes become a mail-order mall in the sky? Perhaps a cabin pressurized at 5,000 feet predisposes a planeload of suckers to buying $20,000 swimming pools. Or maybe air travel merely reflects broader problems in our society. If so, the subtle decay of character, the encroachment of advertising and the general commercial sleaziness on board are cause for concern.
Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.