Sunday, 7 July 2013

Elbows out

To be fair, it was only a matter of time. 

Easyjet's not unusual. It's no longer a case of having the option of checking in online, the benefit of an additional service, something to make your life easier. Now you have to check in online, and after the failed experiment of forcing people to elbow their way to a good seat on an aircraft, a sort of blue rinse survival of the fittest, now seats are allocated to you. But no longer at the airport, where you might be able to speak to a human and suggest that, as you're travelling with a child, perhaps a couple of seats together might be a good idea. No, now seats are allocated online, when you check in online, because checking in at the airport is no longer an option. 

So here we are, in an aircraft full of families split up by an algorithm that clearly doesn't work. I'm sat in row 26 while my wife and child are in row 25. But they're not together: one is one side of the aisle, the other on the other. We're the lucky ones. We're within touching distance of each other. I've seen one mother have to tell her 9 year old son that she'll see him when they get there, leaving him sandwiched between two strangers ten rows behind his mother. Safe enough, I grant you. Where's he going to go? Perhaps it's all a wonderful adventure to him, a taste of independence. But perhaps he'd rather be at next to his mother for the next two hours, rather than two grown up strangers? And perhaps his mother might prefer to not entrust his safety to two complete strangers in the - admittedly highly unlikely - event of an accident?

Asking cabin crew whether this happened a lot, the splitting of families on flights, they said it was relatively unusual, but that 'well, they probably didn't book their seats early enough.' So this is a deliberate policy then, to force people to prebook seats? A shrug: 'it would avoid the problem.' 

The frustration is that pre-booking is of course a money spinner for the airliners. Choose your own seat online and that's a premium service which comes at a cost. Fair enough, you get to see a plan of the aircraft, you get to choose your favourite seat. But I no longer have the option not to. It's no longer a human eye that roves above the melee, allocating spaces on the basis of common sense. It's an algorithm that cares not a jot for relationship or age or need. And yes, of course some passengers will offer to swap seats, but many don't, and why should they have to? 

In short? It's bollocks. Much, frankly, like these headphones I just bought for the flight. You gets what you pay for, but at least the headphones were cheap.

But. 

Yes, there's a but. Having sat here for the past two hours, I've come to realise something quite marvellous about all this. A quite unintended consequence of the money grabbing. Most families have been split up over two or three rows, which has seen them lean across those sitting between them, speaking over the aisle, carrying on conversations over a distance. And wonderfully this has meant those surrounding them have been brought into the conversation. Suddenly, and for the first time in my entire flying experience (and I've been doing this a few years), we're all talking to one another. People are standing in the aisles laughing and talking and interacting. I'm loathe to give Easyjet credit for this, they've hardly set up their online booking policy on the basis that it might encourage people to be friendly to one another, but I'm suddenly equally loathe to condemn the policy outright. Sometimes good comes from bad.