I’m sitting in a narrow seat with my elbows pressed against my ribs to avoid body-contact with strangers. And I’m starving. It’s only been two years since my last trip to the East Coast, so I didn’t think to bring food on my six-hour flight. After all, the last time I flew we were still in the Shrink-Wrapped Sandwich And Cookie Era.
When you ponder the history of airline competition, it’s like reading a customer-service obituary of sorts: First there was the Hot Meal Era, a glorious time that unraveled when some airline found that it could cut costs by switching to cold meals. This gave us the Shrink-Wrapped Sandwich And Cookie Era. Competition soon crushed that and replaced it with the Snack Era. And now my seatmate, who is happily munching on a homemade sandwich, has just informed me that this era is over as well.
So…damn…hungry. Pretty soon parents are gonna start saying “Eat your food and be grateful, Billy, there’s people starving on airplanes.”
The guy in the row in front of me is discovering that The Food-For-Fee Era has arrived, but doesn’t accept cash. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a person sigh so loud. When the attendant reaches my row I nod “no” in a dejected silence. Yes, I could pay seven bucks for a snack-box, but I’m not doing it. I’ve still got four fingernails left.
A few minutes later an old woman in the aisle seat across from me waves down an attendant. She asks the employee for a blanket. The attendant forces a smile and says “I’m sorry, we only have those for sale. They’re six dollars, but you do get to keep it.”
The attendant keeps smiling while the old woman stares back wide-eyed, her expression one of shocked disbelief. I’m waiting for the woman to say “Well fuck me, for that price I’ll take two!” But she waves a hand in the air and accepts a fleece from the guy sitting next to her.
Shortly before the flight ends, an attendant walks down the aisle holding a stack of brochures near her chest. Her dour expression tells me that she doesn’t enjoy pimping the US Airways MasterCard to her captive audience, which is ignoring her as if she’s a Bible salesperson. I’m tempted to ask her for a steaming-hot hand-towel, but I know none of this is her fault.
Remember those economics textbooks we read? They always told us that competition was like a gift from God showering an increasingly affordable abundance on the populace. Yup, they were right. But they never mentioned just how cheap and undesirable that bounty could get.