Up in the air

AT RANDOM: Katherine Mortimer reflects on the once esteemed occasion of flying which has gone downhill at some airlines

There is a photograph on my fridge that captures me at five years old, along with my family, all of us standing from youngest to oldest on the front stairs of our house.

We were on our way to the airport to fly to Montreal, and then Halifax for my uncle’s wedding. Our wardrobe looks as though it’s been lifted from the costume department of Mad Men, given the era in which the photo was taken. My mom is in a stylish suit and heels, my brother is in a jacket and tie, and we girls are wearing dresses, complemented with little white gloves.

Back then, flying was not something people did every day. When we made summertime trips to the Okanagan from Vancouver, we drove on the old Fraser Canyon highway. We didn’t just hop on a plane for a 40-minute flight.

Flying back then was an occasion. People dressed up for it, and the whole experience, from check-in to landing, was something special. The flight attendants had an almost mythical air about them: elegant, refined and ready to attend to your every need.

I have some other family photos of us on that same flight: my parents with cocktails in hand and enjoying an in-flight smoke (don’t judge; it was the ‘60s).

I was more than happy to see in-flight smoking abolished, and I don’t particularly want to get all dressed up to fly, but there are other aspects of flying I miss.

The main thing is good old-fashioned customer service. To be sure, there are airlines out there that provide exceptional service, from friendly and efficient, to sublime.

Many years ago, I was blessed to have enjoyed a number of flights on that great charter airline, Wardair, a company that went above and beyond, from meals served on Royal Doulton china, to the upstairs lounges on its 747s that were open to everyone. It sadly went out of business once it started offering regularly scheduled flights, but what fun while it lasted. And by all accounts Max Ward treated his employees well, which tends to translate into those same employees treating passengers well.

I think airline service started going downhill after 9/11 when security, understandably, started getting much tighter. I’m happy to know that security has tightened up, but it seems as though some of the joy has gone out of flying as well.

I can accept the increase in fares because of rising fuel costs. I can even put up with having to pay for my checked bags. But I don’t think I should have to pay to insure that I am seated next to my own child on a flight.

But yes, even if you enter the age of your child while booking online, some airlines do absolutely nothing to make sure you are sitting together, unless you pay for the privilege.  On a short flight, my daughter — an experienced traveller — would be just fine sitting away from me. But if this happened when she was a toddler, she would have snapped. And I love children, but I don’t particularly want to entertain someone else’s three-year-old when all I want to do is settle in for a good read.

But if an airline does separate me from my child it would be nice if the ticket agents were at least vaguely concerned about it and attempted to rectify the situation. When this happened to me a few weeks ago, I was instead greeted with disdain and hostility. I know we all have off days, myself included, but when not one, but two agents have me almost reduced to tears then something is wrong. I have a sneaking suspicion that some airlines do not treat their employees well, and it’s the passengers who pay the price, in more ways than one.

Ever since that first flight I took at the age of five, I still marvel at the fact that I can get on a plane in one time zone and land in another, all on the same day. I just wish getting there was a little more fun.