Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Flying Hell

 I will repeat myself, just in case you haven’t been reading my blog lately: flying sucks. And I can say that again, despite my frequent flying days being long gone, by virtue of putting three more flights under my belt as I flew from Israel back to Australia.
Each flight has its own story; and then the stories combine. My flight out of Israel was delayed due to technical problems with the plane, making the next connection a razor sharp affair and raising concerns as to whether my suitcase will make it. Luckily, ground crews were waiting for us to rush us through liquids' security theater. My next flight, with Turkish Airlines, had me wondering just how far the airlines wishes to go in its plight to secure the coveted "most uncomfortable economy class seat ever" title. Then, on my last flight, I had the joy of facing off a group of passengers that was so keen to sit together they threatened me with frequently getting up to the toilet just so I leave them my aisle seat.
An empty threat, I told them, given the sits were so tightly bunched together – Cathay Pacific truly made an effort to distinguish between its premium economy and regular economy classes – that getting up on my feet at every possible occasion was a blessing. Indeed, I have to add: nowadays economy class seats are so cramped I do not see the point of touch screens and on demand movies. It is virtually impossible for me to stare at a screen that is a mere 10 centimeters away from my face for more than a couple of minutes. Let alone give a movie a decent chance to prove itself.
The question, then, is what can possibly be done to improve the flying experience and turn it into mildly tolerable without having to take a second mortgage for the sake of business class seats. There are a few options there.
First, airports seem to have greatly improved over the past couple of years and now the majority offers free wifi. This includes Bangkok airport, where wifi required a short manual registration; Tel Aviv, where the wifi worked but refused to accept any of my VPN services (and thus relegated me to non sensitive browsing, as I did not want my credentials sniffed over an open network); and Hong Kong, where wifi was available throughout the airport – even at the toilets and the gates. The notable exception was Istanbul airport, by far the worst in my journey, which did not offer wifi nor any other worthwhile ways to spend one’s time with. Talking of airports, I found Tel Aviv’s shopping options to be by far the best; Hong Kong’s, which was clearly aiming too upmarket with its shops, was quite the disappointment. Tel Aviv was also the only airport that did not require me to dispense with all my liquids, by far the stupidest security demand ever; Hong Kong, on the other hand, had a special anti duty free after shave guard at the plane's door, browsing through passengers hand luggage to make sure they did not dare smuggle liquids on board. Apparently, this was to satisfy an Australian demand, but hell - how overzealous could they be!
Once on a plane I turn to my gadgets in order to address the two most critical issues on board a flight: boredom on one hand and the generally hostile environment on the other.
My main tool for fighting boredom, given the previously mentioned uselessness of movie watching, was my Kindle. Alas, on one flight the reading light did not work. There is also another problem with reading: there is just so much of it I can do, especially when tired to the level of tiredness one gets to after not sleeping for a couple of days worth of journeying under hostile conditions. I therefore find lighter forms of entertainment are due.
My vote regarding the supply of such lighter forms of entertainment goes to a light, smallish tablet with strong batteries. A tablet I can play games on, listen to music through, watch my videos on, and also read from. In other words, I want a retina display iPad Mini, a device that doesn’t exist yet. The first thing I have to say with regards to this iPad Mini is apologize for my use of Apple’s marketing term “retina display”; I hate such bullshit language. However, having played with my father’s iPad 2 I have to acknowledge its screen is vastly inferior to my iPad 3 and iPhone 5’s. Second, nowadays an iPad would almost mean I no longer have to carry my too big to use on a plane Mac Air along (although nothing yet can replace a full blown computer with a proper keyboard, especially a small & light one like the Mac Air, once the plane has landed).
The next thing to do is address the plane’s hostile environment. There is not much one can do regarding the foul dry air or the food that had my stomach raising sensations I had never felt before, but something can be done about the noise. That something is headphones.
My favorite headphones are of an open design. Although these have qualities that allow them to offer the best sound headphones can offer, they are useless at blocking ambient noise. I therefore carried along my wife’s AKG K450 closed headphones, which did prove vastly better than the iPhone 5 headphones I also had along. However, those particular AKG headphones are mini ones, designed for portability, and therefore they could not provide tight sealing. This makes me wonder as to whether I should put my money on a worthwhile pair of high quality, audiophile grade sealed headphones, like the Sennheiser Momentum. Or would it be better to invest in Bose’s noise cancelling headphones, which despite mediocre sound quality do offer excellent noise cancelling according to anyone who bothered trying them on board a flight? Both are similarly priced at $300 (although one could get the Momentums for significantly less); the question is just how worthwhile noise cancelling is.
In my view, as an audiophile, having better sound quality counts more than noise cancelling. Perhaps the right solution is in the form of in ear monitors such as the Shure SE 215 ($100), ear plugs that do not offer noise cancellation but rather fit ergonomically around the ear so as to block external sound?

As I write this I am still fighting jet lag. There seems to be only one good cure there, lots of sun exposure. However, between Melbourne’s autumn and work that proves too rare a commodity. I will note, though, how we tend to ignore this lingering effect of the evils of flying.

2/5/13 update:
In my overview of airports I neglected to mention Melbourne's. It's quite bad, actually: starting from airport access (no trains, third world style), moving through no free wifi and poor, ripoff priced, shopping options.
Security theater wise, Melbourne now has its own porn scanners. It was the only airport along my journeys where I have stumbled upon these vile redundant contraptions. It seems like at this stage not everyone is asked to go through them, though. I've seen some people going in, but I wasn't asked (and obviously, I did not stop to ask for the privilege).

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