It's 5,360 miles from San Francisco to London, and every one is a pain in the aspidistra in a 747 400. Ten hours of flying. Ten hours assigned to a seat the size of a baby's high chair.
You want to know what's wrong with the airlines today? Their concept of passenger comfort. They don't have one.
The skies may be friendly, but the personal space in airliners isn't. Be it a commuter turboprop from Peoria to Chicago or a long jet haul like L.A. to Sydney, the space allotted Economy passengers was designed by a descendent of the Marquis de Sade. It's about four inches short of comfortable in every direction.
If you happen to be a Swede with long thighbones (as I am), you can't find a position for your legs no matter how you try. Maybe that's the point. By giving you just enough hope to keep you searching and cussing, the airlines distract you from their pallid food, the poor seat cushions, and the cabin temperature, which is only briefly comfortable on its way from equatorial to arctic.
Now if you want to eat, you have to drop a 12 x 18 tray (which means lower your knees somehow) and fill it with a plastic food parcel 10 x 15 on which you have lots of plastic-wrapped items of faux food which can't be opened except with plastic explosive.
There is also the matter of entertainment.
The Marquis d.S. might enjoy the torment of passengers trying to crawl out of their seats when the one in front is reclined, but because the windows are too small and only a few people can see out, we more normal folks have to amuse ourselves. Unless you bring your own book, that means airline magazines on most U.S. flights plus music and movies you need earphones for. Not only does this mean another invasion of your space but an invasion of your pocket since you're expected to pay for the earphones -- or take up lip-reading. International flights give you the blamed things free -- but they have all the sound quality of those Lee DeForest radio kits I used to build with my friend Danny when I was a kid. You know, just one step above the copper wire around the oatmeal box and the cat's whisker.
The first two drinks are free, too, on international flights -- and you better enjoy them because they're the only two. No peanuts anymore because of allergies. Now you get pretzels or maybe a leek, cheese and potato-filled brioche pastry (I'm not making this up. That's what we got on our flight.)
Meal-wise, you may get beef bourguignon. More likely it will be ravioli or chicken ala Creole. On my recent trip to London, I discovered that not only is the food better westbound -- but so are the movies. Westbound from Heathrow, we got ''Life is Beautiful'' and ''Wonder Boys'' among others. Eastbound -- ''Remember the Titans'' and ''The Replacements.''
Our flight left SF0 at 5pm only 30 minutes late. Most people watched a movie with dinner, then began the struggle to find a dozing position for the night. Fortunately, flying east at 599 mph, it's a short night -- even in January. Dawn found us south of Greenland five hours later. Time for breakfast -- an airborne omelet ala McDonald. Then standing in line to use the lavatory over Ireland. Two hours later, London in -- what else? -- a drizzle. But after ten hours in fettered flight, even standing in line for Custom and Immigration inspections seemed a relief.
Our ten-thousand-mile round trip was marked by a big flap about DVT -- deep vein thrombosis -- alternately called the Economy Class Syndrome (though not for long if the airlines have their way.) The London Times reported that the Oxford-based Aviation Health Institute believes up to 30,000 people die every year from too much alcohol, too much altitude, and not enough moving around on flights.
From now on, all British Airways tickets will have blood clot warnings attached; and in-flight safety demonstrations will provide instruction on how passengers can prevent DVT. By this, they mean standing up and taking regular walks around the cabin.
Think a minute.
How many seats in an airplane are on the aisle? How easy is it to get up and walk if you're not on the aisle? How convenient is it to walk up and down an airliner's aisle?
We're back to passenger space again.
Standing up at your seat is impossible in most passenger planes. Walking around is improbable in the narrow aisles strewn with passenger litter and stewardesses passing out meals, drinks and pretzels from their carts. So forget about such simplistic solutions. The obvious answer is to take out seats, but the airlines would sooner install a workout gym than do that. Still -- 30,000 deaths a year?
The lawsuits are starting in London. From what I hear, they'll have trouble finding unbiased jurors.
But if you're thinking DVT might represent the last hope of passengers getting some comfort in Economy Class, consider this. President Nixon suffered DVT while flying on Air Force One to China back in 1973. If the President can't avoid it on his own personal jet, which is about as spacious and comfy as they come, how are the rest of us to escape in the Passenger Purgatory we call Economy Class?