Batavick: Flying just isn’t what it used to be

I've seen the future and it's not as cool as the past. OK, I'm exaggerating a bit, but if you are fortunate enough to enjoy international travel, the entertainment options were so much better just a year ago. Let me explain.

My wife and I flew coach to Africa in 2016 on a church mission and I thought I had died and gone to cinema heaven. The plane had seatback monitors offering a menu of over 40 recent films, a multitude of current and vintage TV shows, and plenty of audio channels, from classical to comedy. Plus, if you needed a break to use the restroom, you could pause the program, just as if you were piloting a La-Z-Boy recliner and DVR back home. I was duly impressed and watched three good movies.


Our most recent overseas flight this past October was purely for pleasure to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary. (I know. Hard to believe. I look so young in my photo.) However, when we got on the plane, there wasn't a screen in sight. Instead, the flight attendant was scurrying about announcing that if we wanted to watch any in-flight movies, we’d have to use our smart phones, tablets or iPads.

There's more. To do so, we had to access the Internet, go to the Apps Store, download the airline's app, and then access its on-board Wi-Fi system. This all needed to be done within a 10-minute window before we had to turn off all personal electronic devices prior to take-off. Needless to say, old fumble-fingers failed to pass the test. (Password? What's my Apple password, and did she say that my phone's Airplane Mode was supposed to be on or off?)

The absence of screens also meant that the usual safety talk had to be conducted the old-fashioned way — with the flight attendants demonstrating how to use seat belts and life vests from way up-front. This certainly lacked the production values of the sometimes cleverly animated safety videos of old.

Bottom line? I got most of my novel read, plus a few articles in an old New Yorker.

Think about it. We live in an age where TV screens are absolutely everywhere, from doctor's offices to restaurants to supermarkets. Yet on airplanes, they're apparently becoming as scarce as character witnesses for Harvey Weinstein. Unlike previous trips, I saw few folks watching films as I strolled up and down the aisles. As might be expected, most travelers were in the 40 to 70-plus age range and probably as befuddled as I about accessing this new delivery system.

Oh, I get the savings angle — no personal screens, no wiring, no maintenance, less weight (a plane’s seatback equipment can weigh more than 1,500 pounds), better fuel efficiency, and the hardware onus is completely on the customer. Sweet!

US Airways went the screen-less route a few years ago, as did Alaska Airlines and WestJet, a low-cost Canadian airline. Richard Bartrem, vice president of WestJet claimed, "Today, more than 80 percent of our guests are boarding with a device. The new system will allow us to provide a better, more relevant service to our guests while continuing to offer low fares." Hmmm. He didn’t mention that WestJet will be charging an introductory fee of $7.99 for connectivity; credit cards happily accepted.

Some of the new video systems run on high-speed Internet by using satellites, conveniently placing the bulky hardware outside and high above the plane. This does give airlines the benefit of now offering more than 450 movies and television shows, plus live satellite TV channels. Fox and CNN, welcome aboard and no fighting!

The switch from seatback monitors to personal devices is just one reason airline profits are at record highs. This uptick in bottom lines has also been fueled by a massive cut-back in many amenities that used to be standard fare on local and regional flights, like snacks, meals, beverages, and even blankets and pillows. Most airlines now expect an extra fee for some or all of these. They may also levy a charge for certain, selective seats, in addition to first and business class, and luggage, even if you have only one bag. While in Europe we bought some family gifts, and to make room in our suitcases on our return trip, we shifted our dirty laundry to a small nylon bag. For this extra baggage, we were assessed an additional $100! Ridiculous. Flying is no longer a luxury and now reminds me of my Trailways bus excursions when I was an Army private traveling to and from home. Sexy and sophisticated it wasn't.

I know. Poor me. I acknowledge that our flight experience wasn't exactly an "Oh the humanity!" moment, but it is symptomatic of how degraded flying has become and how we as consumers are given few options. Whatever happened to those “Friendly Skies”?