Something which gets neglected by most travel writers – I think because long-haul economy-class flying is inherently a bit shit – is the immense extent to which the actually-flying bits of the long-haul rigmarole have improved over the last 15 years. The pre- and post-flying bits have worsened, of course, which makes short-haul flight far, far worse, but that’s a story for another piece.
At the turn of the millennium, by no means all planes flown by serious airlines even had seat-back in-flight entertainment (IFE). The last time I flew long-haul on a BA plane with only ceiling CRT screens was in 2002; the last time I flew long-haul on a US carrier (who count as somewhere between top-tier and third-world) which had them was in 2004. Surprisingly, the last time I ever flew long-haul without seat-back entertainment was on Air Canada in 2008.
But back then, even seat-back IFE was shit. You had perhaps eight channels playing on a continuous loop, so once you’d watched a film, you were stuck with whatever was next on the channel for 90 minutes until the loop ended, or joining something else completely halfway through. So even if there were channels featuring things you might reasonably want to watch, it was still a frustrating process. The same was true for music: at best, there might be one radio station vaguely to your taste, which repeated every two hours.
If you had a decent laptop, it’d be twice the size of your seat tray and would have a battery life of an hour or two. There were no power sockets in economy. If you were ridiculously dedicated to work, you might bring a second battery, taking your laptopping time up to a grand total of three hours. The concept of doing anything other than work was fairly ridiculous, not least because downloading films in the first place would have taken you all month and most of your disk space.
So you were often left with books, which are obviously a great medium, but a bit of a pain in the arse to lug around, especially if flying 20 hours for a two-week trip away.
Compare all of this with now, where any half-decent carrier has a video-on-demand system. As I’ve discovered on this Cathay Pacific flight, any carrier which isn’t from an English-as-first-language country [*] will end up with a fairly average range of videos to watch. Qantas are exceptionally good at VOD programming. BA and Virgin aren’t bad. But even Malaysian Airlines has enough to keep you occupied for 12 hours if you don’t mind watching HBO re-runs (and come on, there are worse ways to spend 12 hours).
If you do object to HBO, you also most likely have a Kindle with every book you own on it, a tablet or small-form laptop onto which you’ve pre-loaded your own favourite TV shows, music and online long-reads to catch up on, and you have access to AC and USB power sockets. The only thing you’re missing is the internet (unless you’re on Emirates, in which case you have all the fun of 1998-era dial-up internet, or above the continental US on a domestic flight). Noise cancelling headphones cost under $50.
And if you’re on an A380 or B787, newer thin-material seat designs, airflow systems and lighting systems mean that you can pack more people in without making legroom worse than it was in a 2000-era 747-400, you can breathe better and feel less groggy, and you’re subjected to lighting patterns designed to maximise sleep and wakefulness and minimise jetlag.
Don’t get me wrong. We’re not built to sleep in upright seats, and once a flight goes over the nine-hour mark even a Broadwalk Empire marathon starts to lose its appeal. Economy-class flying is still more of a chore than a joy; otherwise nobody would pay the price of a car to travel in the premium classes. And the improvement is largely down to wider improvements in the electronics industry, rather than anything specifically to do with carriers improving.
But that doesn’t negate my point. Long-haul flying is a hell of a lot better than it was when I was a callow youth – even though back then I was able to drink solidly through the whole thing and not worry about the destination consequences of hangover, no sleep and horrible back pain…
[*] insert your preferred first language if not English.