Air travel just ain’t what it used to be

I remember a time, when I was a young fellow, about 50 years ago, when pretty well all air travel was considered a glamorous undertaking. You dressed up when taking the plane. There was an atmosphere of reverence for the technological marvel of the turboprop, which allowed 50 or more people to get where they were going quickly and in style. Seats were wide and comfortable. Some of them faced backwards so you could sit in a group of four. The Lockheed Super Constellation, with its three rudders, was the height of sophistication as it plied international routes with Lufthansa, BOAC and Trans Canada Airlines among others. Of course you could smoke and drinks were free.

Those were the good old days. Today, you can experience a bit of that romance by flying business class on international routes with flag carriers such as Lufthansa, British Airways and Air Canada, the successor airlines to those mentioned above. But flying economy class on domestic flights has become a chore, which we experienced firsthand on our trip to Mexico in February, 2014.

When we first flew to Mexico, we flew on Continental Airlines, which has since been absorbed into United. Its Houston hub was – and is – a gateway to Mexico, with destinations to many large and medium-sized cities. When we flew this year, we wanted to start our trip in Villahermosa, the gateway to the state of Chiapas, home of the EZLN and Subcommandante Marcos, so it was United we booked on again.

What a change from even 15 years ago. Where our first trip was on 737s on both the Toronto-Houston and Houston-Mexico City legs, this year we flew on a Canadair Regional Jet and an Embraer 148. While I normally enjoy flying, these aircraft make it a chore. The RJs and Embraers are OK for trips of an hour or two, but airlines today have adopted them for longer flights of five hours or more. Air Canada touted them as giving it access to US cities which didn’t have enough traffic to justify larger planes. Now United is also using them on the Toronto-Houston route.

We always check in early for international flights, so we happily arrived at Toronto’s Pearson airport at 11:30 on a Friday for our 2PM flight. Everything was normal as we got the gate. Then the hassles started. First, it was an alleged problem with an overweight airplane. The United checkin staff offered $300 cash to five people if they would agree to be bumped to a later flight. My skepticism was working full time: I didn’t believe the explanation. I figured they deliberately overbooked to account for no-shows. Since we had a connection in Houston with no more than a couple of hours between flights, we decided not to take them up on the offer. We soon came to wish we had.

“Weight problem”

The plane was going to be at least half an hour late because of the “weight problem.” But things finally seemed to be sorting themselves out when the gate staff announced that the pilot was almost finished with his load balancing. They even called for people with disabilities to come to the front for pre-boarding. But no pre-boarding took place.

An announcement was made that the crew had exceeded their permitted 90 minutes on the ground and would have to go through customs. Now, the staff called for people with connections to come to the desk. The second staff person at the gate inexplicably left, leaving about 20 passengers to wait for one attendant to sort out their travel plans. It was then that we formally learned we would not make our connection and would be put up in Houston for the night at United’s expense. About half an hour later, I reached the head of the line and spoke to a harried but very helpful staffer. I got on the phone and changed our hotel booking.

We still figured we would get off the ground with United. Another announcement was made, this time that there was a problem with the plane’s lavatories. Evidently, the service panels on the outside of the aircraft had frozen and the bathrooms were not operational. We were assured maintenance was working on the problem and we would be in the air soon.

By about 4:30, they finally announced that the flight had been put on “indefinite hold.” They couldn’t get the bathrooms fixed. Our luggage was to be offloaded. We had to collect it and then go back to the departure level to rebook. This meant going through customs even though we hadn’t left the country.

To add insult to injury, we had to wait more than an hour for our bags. By the time we got back to the departure level, it was after 6:00 and we were ready to go home for the night and try again in the morning. But the man at the United checkin counter informed us there were no seats available on the Toronto-Houston leg the next day, but we could catch an Air Canada flight at 7:55. We decided to give it a try. We had time for a very mediocre but expensive dinner before we boarded.

Frozen lavs

Of course, our Air Canada flight was also late. One of the flight attendants had not shown up on time. We waited about 15 minutes after the flight was supposed to have left to board. Then we sat in the very cramped plane for another half hour. Guess what? One of the lavatories on this plane had frozen as well. Fortunately, maybe because we were at a major Air Canada maintenance base, the problem was fixed.

It made me wonder: is this problem endemic in the CRJ?

The three-and-a-half-hour flight was not pleasant. The Air Canada RJ was showing its age. The seats we were in tilted forward, making it difficult to keep a good posture, and were very narrow. In an aircraft which should have had three seats across, we had four. We had extra legroom in the emergency-exit row, but we paid for it with seats that would not recline.

We landed at Houston to face more baggage chaos. No one knew which carousel our bags would show up on. By the time we got them, it was after midnight Houston time (they’re an hour behind) and we took one of the last shuttle trains to another terminal to speak to the United customer service department, who gave us vouchers for a hotel and meal. Then it was another half-hour wait for the hotel shuttle, so we didn’t get to bed until after 2AM Toronto time. We were exhausted and slept until 10 the next morning.

More foulups

More foulups when we reached the airport. Just before we were scheduled to board for our 5:30PM flight, I heard a maintenance man talking with the gate attendant. I heard him say our plane had two red maintenance flags. Shortly afterwards, there was an announcement that we were changing planes and gates. At the new gate, our departure time was listed as 6pm. But this was changed to 6:15 and then 6:30. By the time we pushed back from the gate, it was 6:40, more than an hour late.

The Embraer 148 was even more crowded than the CRJ. The seats were impossibly close together. I wasn’t able to use my notebook computer; there simply wasn’t enough room. Fortunately, the scheduled two and a half hour flight turned into a journey of less than two hours.

A few incidents leavened the gloom. In Houston, we met a couple of Mexican businessmen from Guanajuato, who were very surprised when we told them we had visited their city. During a very amiable conversation, they asked where we were headed. “Villahermosa,” I said, pronouncing out out as “Veeya-her-MOH-sa,” as it was written in Spanish. But our new friends couldn’t understand me. Finally, one of them said “Ah! You mean ‘Vee-hrm-sa’,” in the guttural Spanish of Mexico. Now I know how to pronounce the name properly; kind of like hawking up phlegm.

They were supposed to be on the same United flight as us from Toronto and had endured the same inconveniences. But they also got it on the way up to Quebec City, where they were visiting for three days on business. Their flight from Léon to Houston had been subject to a major delay, and they had had to overnight there on the way up, as well as the way back. What should have been a total of 12 hours of flying on their entire return trip had turned into a 96-hour ordeal.

The discomfort of the Embraer plane from Houston was alleviated by the beautiful sunset we watched from cruising altitude as the plane flew across the Gulf of Mexico.

And the soft, humid, 24-degree weather as we walked from the plane to the tiny Villahermosa terminal seemed to make the horrible journey worthwhile. After all, it’s still faster than walking.

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