Despite all its frustrations and inconveniences, flying remains a miracle. Tons of metal and fuel, floating above the clouds, whisking us across continents and oceans in the space of hours. Outside the windows, it is minus 10 bazillion, but inside, we're warm, watching the latest Hollywood movies while being served fruit juice, coffee and tea. It is a luxury that would have been utterly unimaginable to kings and emperors just a century ago, but today it is so common that we take the wonder of it all for granted.
My mother, born before the widespread onset of civil aviation, enthusiastically recalls her first flight, a transatlantic odyssey from Toronto to London at the age of 19. In those days, everyone dressed up for such occasions; hats, gloves, high heels, tuxedos. Flight was a marvel worthy of celebrating.
What a far cry from today, when the indignities of modern air travel (the sorry-nothing-but-a-middle-seat, the electronic check-in machines, the all-pervasive sense of being herded like cattle, the unspoken-armrest-elbow-jostling, the three-bucks-for-headphones-thank-you-very-much) have grown so gnawing and so prevalent that they threaten to define the entire experience.
If all airline passengers make one resolution this New Year's Day, it should be to never forget the miracle of modern flight and refuse to be dragged down by the frustration and impatience that now grip our airports and planes.
I flew to Toronto in the days before Christmas, when bulging carry-ons, winter coats and bags of presents – coupled with the widespread refusal to check anything at all – meant overhead space would be at a premium. Passengers were twitchy long before boarding started, and a mini-stampede broke out as the flight was called. A few fliers waited for their row to be called, some boarded regardless and most hovered so close to the ticket agents that no one knew who was getting on or where the lineup was.
Of course, the overhead space was jammed almost instantly, and the aisle clogged with frustrated and confused patrons. The purser called for remaining bags to be brought forward and checked, but no one could move. By the time the shemozzle was sorted and the plane pushed back from the gate – more than 45 minutes late – the cabin was full of grumpy folks. It went downhill from there, with malfunctioning entertainment systems, crying kids, exasperated flight attendants and spilled drinks. Disembarking was a joke, some folks literally climbing over seat backs to get ahead. For what? To get off the plane five seconds earlier?
My neighbour, a pilot with decades of experience, confirms such chaos is the new norm. But it doesn't have to be this way. We can fight back. We have the power.
Yes, our lives and schedules are tighter than ever, meaning even a five-minute delay can be stressful. Yes, slow security lines and overcrowded terminals would test even a monk's patience. But pause for a moment to consider the alternative. No matter how delayed your flight, you'd never travel from Vancouver to Toronto (or St. John's or Montreal or Winnipeg) faster by car, train, bicycle, foot or horse.
Two generations ago, crossing the country demanded a week-long commitment. Two centuries ago, the effort required was monumental. Lewis and Clark endured 18 gruelling months of travel before reaching the Pacific. Today, we cover their route in the time it takes to watch the latest Batman movie. And we get bent out of shape when the person in front of us is a bit slow getting off the plane?
How do we return civility and humanity to flying? Simple. Lead by example. Don't point fingers. Behave the way your mother taught you. And, above all, remember it is a miracle.
A traveller's creed
If enough people take these New Year's travel resolutions to heart, we might just change the flying world. Even if we don't, in the paraphrased words of author Edward Abbey, at least we'll outlive the curmudgeons.
Don't stand inches from the gate during boarding, waiting to leap in the moment your row is called. This leaves everyone confused. It's not a race.
Board when your row number is called. Not before. Simple.
If you have more carry-on luggage than permitted, check it. (Airlines could go a long way toward easing carry-on tensions by enforcing size rules. Better yet, eliminate all uncertainty by dividing overhead compartments into small spaces and assigning one to each seat.)
Have patience with those who may not fly as often as you do – the young and old, the bumblers, the lost. They need your help, not your anger.
Greet the person who sits down beside you (without engaging them in an unwanted multi-hour conversation).
When disembarking, don't squeeze ahead of passengers trying to retrieve baggage from overhead bins. As soon as one person sneaks past, the flood gates open and the whole aisle tries to rush out. You may have saved five seconds, but for what? It's rude. Wait your turn.
If you have a tight connection, speak up. Explain why you need to get off. And if someone behind you explains they have such a dilemma, let them go by with a smile.
Don't stand inches away from the baggage carousel. If everyone stood back until their bag appeared, the process would be much easier.