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Flying the coop

It is not just the airlines that have had a makeover, so have many of the ancillary services.

travel Updated: Dec 03, 2010 12:18 IST

This apology comes, long over due...a little over 30 years. It goes out to all my co-passengers on Sabena Airlines, Bombay-Brussels sector on 10th March 1979. I bawled through most of the ten-hour long flight and even crapped in my pants a few times. I was nervous and fidgety. No excuses, but, it was my first flight and I was not yet two months old. I survived my first plane trip, scar-free and took to air travel like a bird to the sky. 

My first flight on my own was at the age of six. I was put under the charge of an airhostess who was to deposit me in the care of my uncle when I reached my destination. On my first trip to the bathroom I discovered a little button near the wash basin that would dispense a small bar of soap when it was pressed. During the eight hour journey I made several trips to the bathroom. I would jam as many soaplets in my pockets as I could, come back to my seat, empty them into my handbag and then go back for more.

My grandmother never travelled by a plane and she would pepper me with questions every time I was taking a flight. How did I manage to not fall off the seat? Was it safe to use the bathroom? But, what fascinated her most were the cans of soft drinks. "Do they really let you have as many as you want?"

"Yeah dadi."
"No way. You are pulling my leg."
"I'm not dadi, serious."
"Ok, then next time get me a few."

There is some sense of excitement associated with air travel even for the most frequent of frequent fliers. The fact is that for most of us this is the closest we are going to get to landing on the moon. Up until, a few years ago air travel was a celebrated event, when men dressed up in their best suits and women in their silk saris as they set off to take flight. A friend once showed me an old faded photograph of her parents at the airport. They stood in the middle of a group of 20-odd people; garlanded, foreheads marked with sacred vermillion and holding a coconut each. No, they were not attempting a Wright-brother like adventure; they were making their maiden trip to the USA. The other 20 people in the photograph were at the airport to see them off.

While most of us may have missed the historic decades of airplane evolution, the last few have been no less revolutionary. We have witnessed the Concorde covering the transatlantic distance in record time and then eventually retiring. Luxury in air travel has been stretching to newer widths starting with wider seats to beds to even individual suites. The most relevant development, though, has been the increasing number of budget airlines fighting for air space. Budget airlines have been instrumental in making air travel commonplace. My first low-cost flight was in the year 2000 from London to Amsterdam for the princely sum of £30. Low-cost airlines had not yet made their mark in India and my father urged me to opt for a regular airline. But, I was a student and the money saved meant more money to spend. The flight passed without incident and made me a staunch patron of budget airlines.

Unfortunately, some of the good bits from the old days too have not survived the process of evolution, like the trays of sweets that were circulated before take off. As a child I remember stuffing my pockets with handfuls. And then there were the cotton balls to prevent them from blocking. A few years ago I was taking a flight from Bombay to Bangalore with my cousin who had missed the 'No cotton balls' part of air travel evolution and had serious concerns for his safety when he failed to procure any from the airhostess. Through the flight, he gulped mouthfuls of air afraid that his ear drums might otherwise suffer extensive damage. They were. They were blocked for the whole three days that we were in Bangalore. Now, a frequent flyer he always has cotton in his pockets when he boards a flight.

It is not just the airlines that have had a makeover, so have many of the ancillary services. The one aspect of modern air travel that I find difficult to make peace with is booking via the internet. To get the best price you must stalk a few websites and keep an eye on the deals on offer. All of last month I scoured all the popular travel sites looking for the best deals for flights to Spain. Different websites would hit different lows every day and I would hold back from taking that plunge. After days of indecision, I chickened out. I called the travel agent, gave him my travel dates and asked him for the best available fare. It may not be the cheapest fare but at last now, I have a ticket in hand and my take-off date to look forward to.

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