As I flew to Texas earlier this year, cramped in the back of a commercial airplane, a realization hit me: Traveling by commercial airplane today sure feels like riding the bus.
I’m not a travel snob, but if you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to pack onto a bus for a trek of several hours — or even days — it’s not exactly a comfortable experience. And unless you’re privileged or a road warrior with enough points to ride in first class, hanging out in coach on an airplane for a trip of any more than an hour sure compares with one of those bus trips.
I logged my fair share of time on buses as a kid en route to school, but I was exposed to “extreme” bus travel for a few years in my early teens when my family ventured east from California in sweaty Greyhound buses to visit my mother’s family in the Midwest.
I enjoyed being with my family and heading to grandmother’s house as the song goes, but there were so many memorable travel lowlights to those cross-country bus journeys. For starters, those were the good old days of travel where buses still had the smoking section in back. Since my sister was younger, she’d sit with my mother in a row of two seats while I, the older brother, had to buck up and take the first open seat — which for however many legs of those trips always seemed to be in the back, knee-deep in the smoking section.
I also remember the inane chatter (yes, even a 12-year-old at the time thought it was inane) of some of our seatmates. I’ll never forget the lady who said she, for whatever reason, loved the smell of skunks. After someone who passed before us previously hit what seemed to be an entire skunk village judging from the smell, she proclaimed to anyone who would listen that she thoroughly enjoyed the smell.
And I remember the sheer number of stops the buses made in such charming and picturesque communities as Laramie, Wyo. That’s where we couldn’t figure out if a dessert at a truck stop was Jell-O or some form of epoxy.
With all of those great bus memories locked in my mind, I entered the air travel stage of my professional career with absolute glee. And then over the years, something happened — the air travel industry, while impressively safe and reliable, started behaving more like the bus industry from a comfort and service standpoint.
The reasons for these evolutionary changes in air travel are multiple and understandable given economic, labor and competitive challenges. But the end result is that the comfort factor has been significantly diminished.
Remember that airline commercial from years ago (I believe it was for Southwest Airlines) where a guy who had to use the restroom was nervously pacing the aisle asking fellow passengers if they had change for a dollar? The idea, which seemed more far-fetched at the time, was that airlines were charging to use the bathroom on the plane. Now that day doesn’t seem far away.
On a recent American Airlines flight, I discovered the airline provides no complementary snack. No little bag of peanuts or pretzels — nothing to nibble for free. Not even a complementary receipt if you buy a snack. You havego to online and print that out yourself. The complementary beverage is undoubtedly next to go away.
While complementary items are just creature comforts on a flight, the actual comfort in a coach seat for anyone of size is, well, non-existent. You can pay additional for a little extra legroom, which certainly helps, until you want to work on your laptop and the person in front of you decides to lean their seat back—putting the laptop well into your lap at an angle that doesn’t allow you to type.
Yes, many of those traumatic bus trip feelings come swirling back into my mind frequently these days on business plane trips. Like so many other travelers who share similar sentiments and recall the long-gone days of more elegant air travel, we’ll do our best to muddle through the experience. But until that lottery jackpot comes in, we’re resigned to our fates to fly the Greyhound skies.
Dan Francisco is managing partner in an El Dorado Hills-based business management firm specializing in sales, marketing and engineering.