Friday, 9 September 2011

Flying's no fun, anymore.

To anyone who regularly stepped on an airplane in the 1990's, the next statement won't come as any surprise: Flying is no fun, anymore. There.

Between Santiago de Chile, Germany, England and the Czech Republic, I've had a pretty airborne summer. Of the thirteen flights I've taken since May 22nd, eight were delayed, some of those causing me to miss connecting flights. Thinking back to the halcyon days of the early to mid-1990's when I flew almost exclusively Business and First Class, I can't remember so many planes taking off late, or maybe I just didn't care, sipping on a G&T in a real glass in the Senator Lounge with a Dunhill between my lips. Now I don't smoke anymore and the increased democratisation of air travel has led to scores of frequent flyers with grimy trilby hats and carry-on live chickens in cages, all of which has led me to believe that flying is now a mug's game. I've already written about the comatose Swiss in and around Zurich Airport but let me recount what happened earlier this week when I was scheduled to fly to Leipzig to give a private concert for a luxury car manufacturer.

My concert was due to start at 8.30pm in the Presidential Suite of a new, five-star hotel in the centre of Leipzig. I booked a flight out of Toulouse which would, after a change in Frankfurt, plunk me down on the outskirts of J.S. Bach's home town at 2pm, leaving me six full hours to rest, have a trip to the spa, practise and generally prepare for what was not an insignificant appearance. I checked in online the day before and got to Toulouse Airport early, just to be on the safe side. The first thing I saw was that our flight was delayed a full hour, endangering my connection in Frankfurt. The girl on the desk informed me that there was no problem, as the connection was also delayed. OK, I though, getting to Leipzig at 3pm instead of 2pm is no big deal. All flights out of Frankfurt were apparently delayed that day. Were they f***.

We landed in Frankfurt at 1pm, the time my connection was meant to be leaving, and, in the absence of any kind of information board whatsoever, I legged it to Terminal A, only to find the flight Frankfurt-Leipzig had just left, presumably the only flight leaving on time from Frankfurt that day. The next was at 5.15pm. If all went well, I'd be at the hotel two hours before curtain up. Faced with four hours to kill in the land that time and taste forgot, I set off to find a sushi bar. The Japanese noodle bar, Mouschmousch, is actually pretty good, more enjoyable if you've decided there's nothing you can do about your fate and just accept your karma that day. Needless to say, the 5.15pm to Leipzig was also delayed and I ended up landing in Saxony at 7pm, arriving at the hotel a mere hour before the recital was due to begin, still needing to have a quick rehearsal with the singer, sit down for a few minutes' rest and get changed. I was so tired and concentrated when the concert began that I played liked a God, even if I say it myself. When you know there'll be no safety net if you lose concentration you force yourself to go that extra mile during the real thing. The audience benefits, believe me. My one regret was not having the time to check out everything the hotel had to offer, so I had to make do with salivating over the broschure on the flights back, which, needless to say when you have no pressure on time and no appointment to catch at your destination, all left and arrived on schedule.

Flying is now as ordinary and bland as waiting for a National Express Coach to take you to Peterborough. Songs like Come Fly With Me belong to a bygone era, when a seat in the sky was, for many people, the height of distant romance, not evocative of a Ryanair short-haul where you have to pay to watch Gerard Depardieu piss on the carpet. No; flying is now on a par with regional rail travel; too many people do it; there's no room or space left, delays are the norm and services cut to lower prices to enable even more peasants to buckle up and enjoy the still-free, crappy Languedoc wine. I paid a handsome price for my last trip and still had my drinks out of a plastic skip; not so many years ago, Lufthansa still gave you glasses.

All over the world, there are Centres of Approximate English (CAEs). These locations are called airports. I can appreciate the desire to make English the global lingua franca, but, for God's sake, do it right. It's not a difficult tongue, but once you've heard or read the suggestion to 'Speak to our staff who will advice you' or 'Change your ticket against a rail pass in case of cancellation', you feel like shouting 'For f***¨sake, we have very little grammar! The only difficulty lies in the pronunciation, so please stop trying to make us all sound like José Bové'. My favourite experience was at Frankfurt Airport on the way back, where I had a three-hour layover before my connection to Toulouse. Peckish around noon, I decided to have some potato wedges. My server was called Niko and, according to his badge, 'spoke' Greek, German and English. I started out in German and, unable to understand him, tried English. Both to no avail. Bear in mind that these are two languages I really do know my way around. I decided his badge meant that he was able, with either German, Greek or English facial expressions, to give an approximate impersonation of an obscure Amazonian dialect. In the end, I just pointed at the potatos and proffered him a €5 note. They'd clearly sat on that stainless steel slide for the best part of Angela Merkel's last term in office and tasted dull and nondescript. At least there was an Audi A7 Quattro to coo at and salivate over in the concourse afterwards.

My biggest gripe with all this flying nonsense is the half-hearted attempts by the airline companies to still give you the impression you're special, that you're part of a privileged airborne club. You're not, so they should really stop trying to kid us. Special these days is flying your own plane. As in all walks of life these days: when 'service' is ubiquitous and mediocre, the real luxury is DIY.

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