Flying with the senator


I’m sitting on a Northwest Airlines Airbus A319 way in the back, squeezed into row 17. I’m on my way to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for an editorial meeting of the contributors to my ski and snowboard guidebook, Ski Snowboard America & Canada.

Across the aisle is Senator Joe Lieberman, reading through a briefing book. He is squeezed into row 17, too. He is headed to Iowa to continue campaigning in his quest for the presidency of the United States.

This is the first time I have flown Northwest since a summer trip to Madrid, Spain, in business class. The world in the back of the plane is still miserable. Today, I get to share my misery with one of the Democratic candidates for President of the United States.

I guess he was flying standby, so he had to take whatever seat he could get. He started out in the middle seat, E, in row 17, but someone moved to give him a bit more space.

To be honest, I always thought politicians managed to get upgraded on their flights or flew on private charters. This time, I’m wrong. We even chatted a bit about the difficulties of getting out to meet the locals in New Hampshire as the first-in-the-nation primary election comes into focus.

The 5-foot-2-inch woman in front of me just decided to recline her seat before I could wedge my Knee Defender in place. Eventually, I turned my air nozzle on full blast in her direction and squirmed enough to get her to move her seat back up. Then I got the Knee Defender in place. It really makes a difference; even with almost no recline in these seats.

Joe Lieberman is still reading. He isn’t 6-foot-3-inches tall, like me, but he just fits. His three-ring binder is open, squeezed tightly between the seatback in front of him and his stomach. The overhead light is casting a stark shadow across his papers. He can’t turn pages without first folding them over or picking up the briefing book.

He is getting a taste of coach. At least he is a politician who has sampled the way most of us live. Hope springs eternal when I see those who have the possibility of making a direct change, subjected to the same conditions as the rest of us.

This flight is also the first flight I have taken where food was being sold. We had a choice of a Chicken Caesar Salad, a couple of hefty sandwiches and a snack pack that sounded a lot like old airline meals.

TGIFridays created these. The Chicken Caesar Salad was great. It came with dressing and croutons on the side, with a giant brownie for desert. Salt, pepper, plastic utensils, a napkin, a wet-nap and a bounce-back card with a survey and a tear-off receipt for the meal completed the box contents. And, a coupon for “a complimentary Smoothie, Appetizer or Dessert” on your next visit to TGIFridays … “including tax.”

The receipt was a nice touch for business travelers who need to save those darn things for reimbursement. The bounce-back survey seemed to actually ask questions intended to improve the product in the future. I volunteered to be a tester for new recipes and boxed meals. I hope they call me.

It is amazing how good in-flight meals can be. Crispy lettuce, dressing on the side, crunchy croutons, wet-naps and a discount coupon that makes the price a bargain. The portions were huge. There was enough salad to easily feed two. Probably four times as much food as any airline-created meal ever offered.

Any journalist who has covered the airline industry for the past few decades can recite from memory the excuses we have heard about why airline food was bad – the altitude affects the taste and our taste buds or salad loses its crunch at 30,000 feet.

There was always an excuse. The airlines were always testing new recipes. They were hiring celebrity chefs. They were sampling the effect of altitude on different foods.

Airline food was an amenity provided by the airlines – they worked to save money on meals rather than to provide the best they could provide.

The food always turned out terribly. They couldn’t get it right. Until now.

Now that the meal is part of the money-making machinery, now that it is part of the profit picture and it is being tested and sold to real consumers, the airline food industry and the airlines are starting to get it right.

It is about time. Now if they could give us a couple of more inches of pitch, flying (even in coach) can become far more civil.