The Sunday before last, my plane was half an hour away from Budapest and a stewardess was bustling clumsily down the aisle. I was reading John Lukacs’s Budapest 1900. Something in his description of the Austro-Hungarian Empire led me to be glad I was wearing a neat shirt and blazer. In some countries, people value spontaneity and casualness. In others, people appreciate an effort to look distinguished. I expected the Hungarians I was scheduled to meet at the airport would be of the latter type. By a strange coincidence, the stewardess chose just this moment to pour half a pitcher of black coffee down the front of my shirt.
She said she was sorry. Actually, being English, she said, “Sore-ray!” This was my cue to blurt out, “Not to worry!” or some such consolation. But her tone was so impenitent, so insincere, so indistinguishable from “Good morning!” or“Here’s your drink!” that I could only stare dumbfounded at the puddle of coffee in my lap.
Once my absolution had been withheld for about two seconds, her tone changed. Now she was the wronged party, and addressed me in a tone of outrage. “Well, ore said sore-ray, din eye?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said. “It’s fine.”
It had better be fine. I have flown across the Atlantic a lot over the years, and something like this generally happens. I get the middle seat or the seat with the missing cushion, the seat in the middle of the traveling basketball team or the seat behind the squalling baby, the seat in back of the man with Tourette’s syndrome (that was on a memorable flight to Rome in 2005) or the seat alongside the 60-year-old woman keen to explain what the “Mile High Club” is (that unnerving experience came on the very first transatlantic flight I ever took, while still in my teens).
Accumulating such a long list of travel grievances should, in theory, be impossible. If you fly enough, and if you make a habit of giving airlines your frequent-flyer number, you should quickly amass enough frequent-flyer miles to defect from the world of spilt coffee, importunate neighbors, and stewardesses who shake you awake at three o’clock in the morning to ask you if you want to buy anything from the duty-free cart. Miles allow you to find asylum in a comfortable, luxurious, and private part of the plane. People who fly half as much as I do quickly amass enough of them to do just that.
These frequent-flyer deals are also known as customer loyalty plans. That happens to be my problem. While I like to think of myself as a loyal friend, I am not a terribly loyal customer. I fly thousands of miles a year on several different airlines, not a hundred thousand miles a year on one. Occasionally a stiff, business-size envelope will arrive through my mail slot at home, congratulating me for having “earned” (and they don’t know the half of it) a Gold Elite Prime Plus Advantage Excellence World Executive Rewards Card, or some such thing. But whenever I try to use it to gain entry to a lounge or cut in a line, I always find it’s one echelon below the level where the real benefits begin. (“Sorry, sir, the lounge is reserved for Senior Gold Elite Prime Plus Advantage Excellence World Executive Rewards members!”) My level is kind of an honorific, a courtesy title.
Those who don’t fly can avoid the jostling, the noise and aggressive retail, that is a modern airport; those who fly a lot can avoid it, too, because they can use the well-appointed lounge. In air travel as in tax policy, it is the in-between sorts who bear the brunt. We spend five-hour layovers in provincial airports wandering from the Starbucks to the croissant shop to the Relay or the W. H. Smith’s, buying $3.50 bottles of water and $16.95 hamburgers and trying to find someplace other than a squalid corridor to plug in our laptops.
There are consolations, though, and even some signs of improvement. Sophisticated software programs once allowed the airlines to fill every single flight to the brim. But in this floundering economy, you cannot stuff a plane full of passengers if the passengers can’t afford to buy tickets. Flights are, once again, becoming a good time to read, and not just because the alternatives, from naps to work, are impossible. And, as always, there comes that glorious moment when you emerge from the airport into the city you’re traveling to—even if your shirt is soaked with coffee—and have the joy of climbing into a taxi, rolling down the window, sticking your head out, and, as you roll off, gulping down the delicious, rushing, unfamiliar fresh air as if you were a golden retriever.