Sunday, November 25, 2007

Fly the Friendly Skies?

I don't want to sound la-di-dah, but I have to say that I have become more accustomed to a certain rhythm of the transatlantic trek since transplanting to Paris. I've got the routine pretty much down: I pack a separate kit of goodies for the US trip -- US cell phone and charger, dollars, wallet, adapters, keys, computer cord. If travel plans are finalized at the last minute, I can plop my trusty kit in a suitcase, add the requisite Paris souvenirs for family, and head out to Roissy/Charles de Gaulle. Try to cajole ticket agents into an upgrade to business class. (I normally fail, but pat myself on the back for trying.)

Usually when on board, the flights are jolly even if a bit of a long haul. No streamers and send-offs at the gate, mind you, but at least a sense of the tradition of the spirit of travel. Normally I take Delta/Air France (same flight) or American. The flight crew is always congenial and service-friendly. Fun-loving. Once when my coach-class seat was in the single-digits, within whisper distance of an almost empty business class section, the crew started plying me with champagne -- "well, someone has to finish the bottle," they laughed. That kind of congenial. Extra pillows or blankets. They smile, they chat, they tend to think of the 6- or 9-hour trip as a cramped gathering that we all have to endure together, so why not make it enjoyable? Of course there is the occasional sleep-challenged grumpy flight attendant, but usually they are the exception.

This trip I flew Paris to Washington on United Airlines. "Fly the friendly skies of United?" I think not. Time for a new corporate slogan! Judging from the staff's behavior, they apparently are under order not to smile or engage in any friendly conversation with the passengers. Lower class passengers, that is.

Here's my tally

1. During the safety demonstration, I was chatting softly with the amiable French woman next to me. The stewardess was demonstrating how to blow on the tubes to inflate the life vest in case of emergency landing on the frigid Atlantic. She stopped in mid-blow and glared at us, then scowled "Shhh!" like a cranky school teacher. Not because we were bothering anyone else, but, oh, I guess she was concerned that we wouldn't know how to tread water.

2. When the seat-belt sign was finally turned off (after a stern announcement to abide by the rules or else) I wandered down the aisle to stretch my legs and keep the circulation going. I stopped back in the galley and smiled at another attendant "Hmm! Smells good in here." She stared back suspiciously, without a reply.

3. Okay, so there were a couple of less than chummy attendants. I was in steerage; the lowest form of economy class. I guess they think of it as a cattle car, and we are no better than beasts. But, gee, most people are friendlier than this to their farm animals.

4. Earlier, at the airport, I had bumped into a dear friend who was on the same flight. She and her husband were in Business Class, and we had agreed to catch up in flight. I popped up front to say a quick hello -- and the Business Class vulture stewardess swooped in and reprimanded, "You'll have to leave."

"But Polly's my daughter," joked my friend Patty. Business class seats have enough room between rows so that I was able to crouch in front of Patty while we toasted Paris and Thanksgiving in the US (I brought my own glass of wine from coach). But no, Vulture woman sneered to me, "She can visit you at your seat but you can't visit her in Business Class." Vulture lady pulled at my elbow to make me leave.

5. The attendants serving our drinks or meals would not smile. Were they all alums of the same United Droid School? They were handsome, neat, efficient, sleek, but stone-faced, vaguely like automatons. They were obsessed with keeping the plane litter free, which, I grant you, is a nice touch. Their altitude attitude wasn't arrogant or rude, just emotionless and cold.

I'd prefer a bit of humanity. Nine hours is a long time for togetherness. Today is my return flight to Paris on the (un)friendly skies and this time I'm taking real notes.

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