May 24, 2008

Sting in The Tail

Airlines are all pretty much the same aren’t they? They all fly nice planes that are safer than your family car, they have lots of seats and everyone has to endure the same airport security procedures before the plane takes off. So is there a difference between full-service and discount airlines?

I’m here to tell you that not all airlines are the same, and having paid my money to travel with Tiger Airways from Melbourne to Thailand earlier this year I’m convinced that not all discount carriers are the same either.

My main gripe with the cheap airlines is the baggage, and the chaos caused by limiting check-in luggage to 15kg. The ridiculous pantomime of people unpacking suitcases and stuffing heavy items into their handbags is a farce. If it’s ok to take it on the plane under your arm then why not just let them check it in anyway. There’s more weight difference from one person to another than one bag from another – my wife weighs 25 kilos less than I do but we still pay the same price for a ticket.

Full-service airlines have the good sense to allow a little grace with luggage limits and save everybody, including themselves, the hassle.

Having to play the luggage limit game is silly enough, but flying discount means having to do it over again for every connecting flight. That’s right, if you’re flying from Melbourne to Phuket on Tiger Airways you have to get off the plane in Darwin, collect your bags, stand in line and check them in once again. The procedure is repeated in Singapore too, with the added excitement of clearing passport control, entering the country, and then exiting the country an hour later after you check-in on the other side of the building.

Or you could catch the Jetstar flight direct.

Re-checking an entire plane of people and their bags is a waste of money and time, but the utter turmoil facing 150 transit passengers in Darwin every midnight looks more like an airline strike than a modern mode of transport. The queue to check-in extends all the way through the departure-hall and into the arrivals section. Your place in that queue is determined by when your bags come off the carousel. If you’re an elderly traveller who isn’t used to having to push your way to the front of the pack to reach your luggage then you may end up standing in line to check-in for about 2 hours.

That’s not an exaggeration, that’s exactly what happened to my mother-in-law. I can’t even mention the name Tiger Airways anymore without her ankles and legs throbbing with pain from the enduring memory of that experience.

Things are a little better in Singapore where a plane-load of Aussie passengers are dispersed among those over-nighting in the city and others making connections to one of a dozen Asian destinations. It was however the third time I had my bags weighed and this time the scales said I was over the limit. Much like airlines, not all scales are made the same.

After six sectors on Tiger Airways only one flight actually departed the terminal within an hour of the scheduled take-off. Plus we had to listen to our friends for the entire week talking about what great service they got with Thai Airways and how they didn’t spend three hours the night before the trip trying to reduce their luggage to 15 kilos.

Even my 6ft tall brother-in-law was boasting about having plenty of leg-room and sleeping comfortably during the night. I’m barely 5’4” and my knees were hard up against the wire frame of the seat in front of me. When I did fall asleep I was bumped awake by a Tigeress pushing her overpriced snacks-cart up the aisle. Who really needs the offer of purchasing a chocolate bar at 3am?

I know what you’re thinking, “You get what you pay for right?” I have to admit my ticket was dirt cheap, but I booked it nine months in advance and got a great deal. If I were to book the same flights for next month the cost would be the same if not higher than going with a full-service airline. Compare that to Air Asia’s range of short-haul flights where I know the price of the ticket is always cheap, even when I buy it the same day I fly. That pricing policy has forced other airlines on the same routes to lower their prices too.

I think Tiger Airways can do better and offer some genuine competition for Melbournians who want to fly to Asia, but for now they’re best value is on the domestic routes. Budget conscious travellers can hunt online for one of their cheap seats abroad, if they get in early, but watch-out for a sting in the tail.

A month after enduring the Tiger trauma I found myself on a direct flight from Melbourne to Bangkok with Thai Airways. It was only economy but it felt like my own private limousine service. I had miles of leg room and elbow room, really comfy seats, proper entertainment and absolutely delicious food. The service was attentive and professional and my bags arrived at the other end. It was so lovely I could have cried.

The next time someone offers me a flight to Bangkok for half the price I‘m going to pass. Holidays are something to enjoy, not survive.

May 18, 2008

Create the Whole

A friend of mine pointed out that in centuries past the best and brightest of our society were people who made things. They were creators. The drive to construct is part of our human nature, and our modern lifestyles rarely allow us to fulfil that need.

Before the rise of modern cities the most intellectually capable of our society were people who used their hands to create. Masons, painters, wood carvers, builders, etc. The pinnacle of a culture's achievements were artistic, aesthetic and visual.

Great pyramids in Egypt, Fabergé eggs in Russia, buttressed churches in France or divine murals in Italy. That's just a sample. Fine china, antique furniture and Ming vases were all just examples of our social respect for the talent of creativity. On more mundane levels the daily lives of people centred around building a home, growing gardens and constructing communities.

The very essence of working is the satisfaction of completing and creating. Blacksmiths who forge metal tools from lumps of rock are men who feel a sense of achievement, while their wives are women who turn a house into a home - nesting behaviour is not a trivial matter, it's about creating a world within four walls that is greater than what was. Working the land, working with your hands or raising a family is all about creating something from your life.

This is what is missing when we design our modern lifestyle. We focus on the financial, on the material and the analytical, and we place very little value on creating and construction.

Our brightest and best tend to fall into careers that extract from our society instead of contributing to it. Lawyers and brokers head the pack, careers that filter and deconstruct in order to make money for a few. Doctors and scientists do a little better but are out numbered and distracted. Many of our most talented are sidelined with cosmetic achievements, sometimes literally.

What this means for our society is simple, we are putting our most talented minds to poor use. What this means for us as individuals is more challenging, as many of us fall victim to the false idols of a modern lifestyle. Pursuing employment to pay the rent, to buy a car and pass our time is not a satisfying existence.

Lawrence Daws describes his artistic pursuit of painting in terms of being whole. Having finished a work of art, an expression of emotion and a unique record of his experiences committed to canvas, he can sit quietly with a painting and feel a sense of being complete.

Only in that moment of having finished a work of construction do we feel the most whole. We are fulfilled with achievement, expression and purpose. Working for the self, exploring artistic goals or determining one's own career path is more than just a bid for freedom, it's a step closer to being oneself.