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Apr 01 2008

Airports and plane travel

I hate traveling by plane. The only thing in its favor (and it is an admittedly big advantage) is that it enables one to travel enormous distances quickly.

There was a time when air travel was fairly pleasant but not anymore. Going to the airport hours early, parking in distant lots, dragging one’s luggage around, standing in long lines to get checked in, the ridiculous process at security where one has to take off one’s shoes and show your toothpaste in little baggies, all these make plane travel a tedious chore. And then one has to hang around in airport terminals where one is surrounded by TVs with their inane chatter, repeated announcements over the speakers, and where everyone around you seem to be constantly using their cell phones as a means of combating their boredom.

And after all that, when one gets on the plane, one sits in cramped seats where you cannot fully stretch out my legs, and where your arms are restricted by the arm rests on either side. And when the person in front reclines their seat fully, the sense of being trapped, hemmed in on all sides, is complete. I think that, as a small measure to improve flying comfort, planes should do away with reclining seats altogether, or greatly reduce the amount by which they can move back. The minor increase in comfort provided to the recliner seems to be far outweighed by the major annoyance caused to the person behind.

This is why I prefer to stay at home or if possible, drive to places, even if it takes longer. The silence of the car is conducive to quiet reflection in a way that plane travel is not. Unfortunately, I often have no choice but to travel by plane, often long distances to places like Sri Lanka and New Zealand just to visit family.

I have also noticed on my foreign travels that US airports seem to be the only places where one has to pay for the use of luggage carts. On my last trip, I noticed that the airports in Frankfurt, Germany and Colombo, Sri Lanka had plenty of free carts available all over the airport so one could always get one as needed. So one could take one right up to the security checkpoint, abandon it there as you go through the scanners, and then get another one on the other side. It looks kind of tacky in the US to charge people for this basic airport convenience.

Where the US comes out ahead is in airport bathrooms. They are easily the best in terms of the number of public toilets available and their cleanliness. I was surprised at how poorly the ones in Frankfurt, a major international hub, compared with almost any airport in the US.

US carriers on international flights tend to compare unfavorably to foreign carriers in amenities once on board the plane. In general, foreign carriers provide better food and free alcohol. They also have much more varied in-flight entertainment with little individual TVs embedded in each seatback to give individual choice. Their ability to provide these superior in-flight amenities may be because many of the foreign carriers are state run and thus may be more concerned about projecting a good image of their country and less concerned about squeezing maximum profit. Whatever the cause, when it comes to international travel, flying on a foreign national carrier is usually a better experience than traveling on a US carrier,

Some of these extra features are wasted on me, though, since I never watch the in-flight films and don’t drink alcohol. The one thing I sometimes watch is the feature that I have found only on Sri Lankan Airlines, which is the view from a camera facing forward and mounted just below the cockpit. This gives you a view close to that seen by the pilots and is terrific, especially during landing and take off. It gives everyone a better view than even those fortunate enough to have a window seat.

When approaching Sri Lanka for example, because of this camera, you first see the deep blue of the Indian Ocean, then you cross over sandy yellow beaches and then you see the tops of coconut trees, which look like a continuous sea of waving green fronds, similar to the blue ocean waves you just left behind. The palm fronds get closer and larger and just as you get the feeling that you are going to land on the tops of the trees, suddenly there is a break in the canopy, the runway appears ahead, and you land. It is spectacular. I have experienced this many times and it is an exhilarating experience.

So maybe there are some advantages to plane travel after all.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid Design

Believers in god try to make the case that the universe looks like it was made with just the right conditions for life, especially human life, and that this is evidence for the existence of a designer god.

This is a very silly argument, as pointed out by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Arvindh

    Oh, I am kicking myself for having passed up the opportunity to be aboard Sri Lankan airlines when I traveled to India recently. Would have loved to watch video from the camera you mention.

    Waiting at the boarding area is where I have the most fun because I get to sketch people who sit still getting bored out of their skulls. I have a whole series of sketches made at airports some of which are filed here http://artworkbyaravindhan.blogspot.com/search/label/airport%20sketch

  2. 2
    Chris Gorski

    That in-flight camera is a great idea. I haven’t seen that before.

    When I went to India last year, we flew Jet Airways, which was exceptionally pleasant. They seemed to actually care about our comfort. Every time I opened my eyes the attendants were bringing something more to eat or a hot towel or something. It was great. I just wish Jet flew more routes.

    It was also fascinating to fly over Pakistan and Afghanistan. What an absolutely amazing landscape to watch pass by.

    But my experience with British Airways was not nearly as nice. And the handful of international flights I took on American carriers haven’t been as nice either.

  3. 3
    Vincenzo Liberatore

    Outside cameras are also on some Nippon Airlines planes. You can also switch among various camera views. Too bad I only took them at night!

  4. 4
    vacation and travel

    Dear Sir Mano,

    I have been done to finish read your book in title Quest for Truth: Scientific Progress and Religious Beliefs (2000)
    And have wondering to know that you hate traveling with plan. lolz

    Same like me, but i thing its different reason, because actually in my country there are bad service for plane service.
    Nice to see you and your blog in here.

    Sincerely
    ~Thomas

  5. 5
    MOR Vacations

    I totally agree with you. Not only is getting trying to get to the terminal unpleasant but the flight itself sucks. Stuck in cramped seats next to unpleasant travelers. Not to mention my constant fear of dying.

    That’s why I prefer taking trains. Sure they may be a little more costly and sure it takes a heck of a lot longer to get to where you’re going but it’s a lot more pleasant. I recently went form NY to Chicago. For the same price of a plane ticket I was able to get a roomette on a train with shower, bed, and two piping hot meals. Sure it took me a day to get to Chicago but I at least had a fun trip.

    If you have to time I highly suggest taking trains instead of planes.

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