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Archive for Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Food service grounded

October 17, 2007

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Last week I was made to endure the living hell that is commercial airline travel.

On my return trip, neither of my two flights functioned according to schedule and, of course, a nonstop flight is such a rarity out of Kansas City anymore that most trips now have legs. As a result, a certain portion of my travel usually is devoted to anxiety about making a connecting flight after the first plane fails to take off or land on time.

Whenever I fly, I pine wistfully for the time when planes flew half-empty and a person could stretch out, maybe nap across two or even three seats. We didn't care about carbon footprints or business efficiency in those halcyon days of yore. But now more humans are wedged into smaller airplanes, and I find myself exceedingly grateful to be short.

All of this is nothing compared to the indignity that airline travel visits upon the stomach. In addition to tardiness and discomfort, one of these multileg trips now guarantees a day of junk food or hunger, take your pick.

The airlines no longer see feeding passengers as part of their customer service mission, and the dining options in the airline terminals are eerily similar to those available in a food court in a mall, except that the prices are at least double. This means that by the end of the travel ordeal, I am either cranky from hunger or cranky from bad food, and I have spent the day in intimate proximity with hundreds of other passengers who share my cheery disposition.

How did this happen? How did the concept of customer service devolve to this extent? I understand that food is a cost and that the airlines' overhead for passenger amenities is calculated into the ticket price - and yes, I prefer to fly cheap. But I also have trouble believing that there isn't a percentage in treating people well, beginning with their stomachs.

Part of this is the irritability of middle age, which occurs with increasing frequency as I realize that life just isn't as easy as I imagine it once was. But I'm also weary of life being stripped of its basic comforts.

Travel didn't used to be this way. Back in the day when the TWA stewardess pinned the wings on child passengers, travelers were served breakfast, lunch and dinner (chicken or beef?) on actual plates and were issued actual silverware. I suspect that rail travel, which featured a dining car with linen tablecloths, had set the standard.

At some point in the deregulation and bailout era, a sandwich became the main in-flight menu item, and then airlines traded food service for snacks. For years thereafter the offering was a bag of nuts - first almonds and then peanuts, then pretzels, then nothing. On my most recent trip, Northwest Airlines was selling a choice of trail mix or pretzels for $2.

A no-frills fare means a no-food fare. Never mind that many passengers end up spending plenty to buy food from one of the franchises leasing space in the terminal, so the savings are less than we think.

I am sure there were plenty of complaints about the quality of airline food, which once upon a time was heated in the galley onboard the plane. At the same time, the communal exchange that occurs when food is served always calms and bonds those who participate. It's no accident that tribal chiefs and leaders of nations see dining as indispensable to diplomacy.

Given the unreliability of airline travel, one would think a chicken cordon bleu, a frequent entree when airlines had frills, would go a long way toward bolstering the spirits of the beleaguered passenger.

When airline executives decided to outsource customer service to the fast food industry, they did not calculate the loss of goodwill and enthusiasm for flying. As for me, next time I'll pack a sandwich.

- When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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