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Airlines to Africa

The Pilot is home safely — if not entirely constituted — from Mali, and thanks those of you who took time to browse his columns during the past two weeks. While you were enjoying Thanksgiving, he was washing his socks in cheap hotel sinks and hoping to avoid schistosomiasis (Google it if you must, but you probably don’t wanna know) in the Niger River.

There were times, lost in the cauldron of West Africa, when I wondered if those presubmitted Ask the Pilots wouldn’t be appearing from the proverbial grave. If ever you’re offered a cut-rate pinasse trip down the Niger, do yourself a favor and take the plane. It’s safer.

There’s an airport in Timbuktu. Although I’d arrived by boat, I had a few spare hours one hot afternoon and couldn’t resist a visit. Posing as a sort of Liaison d’Avion, “on assignment,” of course, from “a major American magazine,” I hired a Land Rover and dropped in. I expected nothing more than thatch-covered shack — maybe with a few of those ubiquitous Malian goats pulling a sand-encrusted luggage cart — only to find something entirely different: a spotless little terminal (the design is a kind of neo-Sudanese evocation, reminiscent of the mud-built mosques you’ll find all over Mali), smoothly-paved tarmac, and even a handsome control tower.

Thing was, there were no planes. Mali might be one of the poorest nations on earth, but they’ve built this incongruous jewel in the middle of nowhere and apparently for nobody. Two flights a week, the guard explained. You’ll find this time to time in certain corners of the globe — showcase airports for commerce and tourists that never come. If you’ve ever been to the obscenely oversized airport in Mandalay, in Myanmar, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Getting to Mali from America is surprisingly simple enough — a one-stop shot broken by a morning layover in Europe. Until recently you could fly directly from New York to most of West Africa, transferring at Dakar on the notoriously…well let’s just call them colorful, Air Afrique, but sadly their green and white jets are no more.

It was Charles de Gaulle for me, where a security screener confiscated two cans of mosquito repellent from my carry-on, citing “The gas! The gas!” when asked to explain. (If I have malaria, I’m blaming the French). They also made off with my plastic, disposable Bic razors. So let me get this straight….

Forget it. If it seems security procedures are annoyingly nonstandard, running the gamut from overzealous to ludicrous — assuming these aren’t necessarily the same thing — that’s because.

But I digress. What I wanted to discuss was the service aboard the flights to and from Paris.

It wouldn’t be fair to call passenger service aboard US carriers “the laughing stock of the world,” as one writer recently put it, but it’s something like that or certainly on its way. At a time when airlines are sending out SOS calls and trying to lure back travelers, it seems counterproductive to diminish, rather than enhance, passenger service. But if my flight from the States to Paris was any indication, we’re in trouble.

Assigned to seat 33E, I boarded a jet in the colors of a large US airline. This was a state-of-the-art widebody, its exterior struts and fairings gleaming in the sun, but one look at the interior and I thought I was back in one of my old cargo planes. It was filthy. The sidewalls were scuffed, the tray tables covered with pen and magic marker, the cushions stained and worn through. The carpet was dirty and torn, and a piece of plastic moulding had fallen from an underseat panel and was resting on the floor at my feet. One of my armrests was broken, and the one that wasn’t broken featured maybe the most horribly uncomfortable thing I’ve ever encountered on an airplane: the handset controls for the lights, flight attendant call bell, and in-seat video screen.

Usually these are mounted in the side of the armrest, where, attached with a cord, they can be pulled out and used conveniently. But in this case they were located in the top of the armrest, so that each time I attempted to relax, my elbow would set off any combination of lights and chimes, while randomly upsetting the volume and channel settings of my video screen. Not to mention jabbing its black buttons into my arm. Welcome to ergonomic hell, and after inadvertently summoning a flight attendant for the fifth time, I pulled out the handset and rested it on the empty seat next door.

Not that the crew didn’t need the exercise. Following the post-dinner tray collection, not once in the more than 7-hour flight were we offered water. The food was adequate but limited, and the wine cost four dollars a bottle. Underscoring the indolence, service was curt and PA announcements were mumbled in a rapid-fire fashion that at least half the people on board could hardly hear or understand.

The next leg, aboard, um, a certain European airline based in Paris, was another story. The cabin appointments were spotless and the crew attentive and helpful. There were footrests, fully-adjustable headrests, and extra pitch (that’s airline talk for legroom). Every passenger received a small packet containing a blindfold, a take-home set of headphones, and earplugs. This is in coach, mind you.

The dinner portions were ample, tasty, and extra bread was handed out twice during the meal service. The wine was free and the crew came around with water at least three times. Each seat was outfitted with a video screen (no harassing handset, thank you) settable to your choice of four languages, with one of the channels showing the feed from a camera mounted in the nose of the airplane, giving a rarely seen (well, for passengers) view of takeoff. And any of the ten available films could be started on request with the touch of a button, a small frill that is hugely effective when it comes to killing time enroute.

And that’s the point, right? Killing time? One hopes the airlines are beginning to understand that passengers no longer expect, or want, luxury in the old-fashioned sense — be it fancy entrees you can’t pronounce or a choice of wines from five continents. Such things might be fun extravagances if you’ve dropped eight grand for a first class sleeper seat, but they tend to come at the expense of more sensible, straightforward amenities. What people want is some basic comfort and efficiency.

You’ve heard me wax on about the salad days of flying, but don’t get me wrong: I neither believe, nor have I maintained, that pretensions of glamor have or deserve a place in modern-day commercial aviation. Note that none of my experiences on Air France, whether a second baguette or my chance to watch a movie at my leisure, were particularly lavish. People sitting in coach aren’t covetous of a 20-page vinum or a serving of grilled salmon with braised fennel and leeks. What they want is a halfway comfortable seat, some food (at least on a long flight), something to do, and, for God’s sake, an occasional 30-cent bottle of water.

The faux-glamor trappings are at best pretentious, and at worst outright embarrassing. What is a backpacking college kid in row 52 on his way to Europe supposed to think when handed a menu promising “authentic Italian minestrone with garlic and herb croutons?” Sounds impressive, but in the end he will not get a fancy meal. He will get a simple meal pretending to be a fancy one (served on a needlessly crowded tray overflowing with plastic wrap and silly cups). And all he wants is maybe some pasta, or just a damn sandwich.

With all this in mind, it’s worth taking a look at one of the upstart airlines making the big fellows nervous — the JFK-based jetBlue. The jury’s still out on whether their model is the stuff of future success, but for now they’re getting things right.

A ride on jetBlue is cool, clean, hassle-free, and the price is right. But the important part is this: while not luxurious, neither is the experience without some flair. People often lump jetBlue with the likes of Southwest, but in many ways they are the anti-Southwest. Both offer low fares, sure, but jetBlue’s strategy is something more upscale than a get-what-you-pay-for cattle-car. To help save the industry from an all-out, Southwest-style descent, it would behoove the majors to emulate this progressive player’s careful balance of style and price.

Glamor is an anachronism we need put to pasture. Quality, and a bit of polish, are not. And that’s what’s lacking.

This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.