Why are window shades drawn on most domestic flights now?

Used to be in summer months at sun-drenched airports like Phoenix that airlines sometimes asked passengers to close the window shades when departing.  I could understand that.  One summer I consulted for an insurance company in Houston and experienced 68 straight days of temps at or over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

But now it seems airlines routinely close the shades on every flight at every airport between flights year-round.  One airline manager told me it was because it saved the carriers money on cooling the planes.

You’d think passengers would open the shades on boarding, or at least to do so once the flight was underway, but most do not in my observation.  I’ve flown in broad daylight on planes which kept most shades drawn gate to gate.  On a recent 57-minute midday Delta flight RDU to ATL, every passenger in first class kept the shades down, most watching the IFE offerings.  The cabin was gloomy and claustrophobic.

Has the experience of flying become so banal and routine that no one wants to see outside?  Has the magic of flying disappeared?  What happened to the federal regulation that required window shades to be up for takeoff and landing?

Perhaps the ubiquity of screens has turned us all into zombies: smartphones, tablets, laptops, in-flight entertainment systems. I hardly ever see anyone reading a book on planes now. Eyeballs are on one screen or another, rarely twitching sideways to take in the magnificent earth landscape from 35,000 feet outside the window.  When I inquire about their lack of interest in what for me is the awe-inspiring real world, people look at me curiously and rarely have a response. They look away, as if they’ve encountered the village idiot.  I find the void of flying curiosity and excitement depressing.

Why do I have 34 AAdvantage 500-mile upgrades in my account (and growing), but I can never use them?

I am consistently upgraded 30-50% of the time on Delta, but on AA it never happens. With only 1.24 million miles recorded on my AAdvantage account, I remain a mere Lifetime Gold who doesn’t have much juice with American Airlines any more.  Gone are the years of being an Executive Platinum—and even if I was still an EP, there are two elite levels above that now at AA.  So I sometimes find myself number 24 on the upgrade list for even a half hour flight RDU/CLT.  Gate agents tell me that most Executive Platinums are rarely upgraded, so what chance does a Gold have?

If I can never use the 500-mile upgrades, then why do they keep accumulating?  They are no good at all.  Why doesn’t American allow me to pay for a confirmed upgrade at perhaps two times the mileage required?  I would.

For example, the normal 500-mile upgrades required for SFO/CLT is five. I would gladly pay 10 to get out of coach, because as I have repeatedly said since the 1980s, domestic front cabins are no longer first class anyway, but merely an escape from coach.  I have said since 1986 that, to be honest with customers, airlines should change the fare code designation from F to NC, meaning “not coach”.

Instead, I have to pay to get into domestic first class.  Which I sometimes do on long flights, such as CLT/SFO, because even AA’s domestic so-called premium economy seats (Main Cabin Extra) are tiresome and tedious for more than an hour or two.

Yet those 500-mile upgrades keep on building up in my AAdvantage account, a mirage worth nothing.

Why is the experience of flying 12-14 hour flights on Emirates in ordinary economy so superior to five hour transcons on American and Delta in coach in their so-called premium economy sections (Main Cabin Extra on AA, Comfort+ on DL)?

The Gulf carriers (Emirates, Qatar, Etihad) claim they don’t need a genuine premium economy (not a phony section like AA’s MCE, but genuine premium economy like Cathay Pacific—see this post) because their coach cabins are so good.  I can personally attest to the fact that 14-hour flights in coach on Emirates, an airline on which I hold no elite status, were noticeably more comfortable and overall stress-free than mere five hour flights on Delta or American in their supposed PE seats.

What made Emirates memorable, I believe, were subtle and cumulative differences:

  • On entering the Emirates airplanes, the flight attendants were numerous, cheerful (obviously happy), eager to help, and accommodating. On my first 14-hour flight, I had an aisle seat, but it was in an area with families.  I asked during boarding if it was possible to move once the plane was off the ground.  To my surprise, the cabin crew pointed me to several bulkhead aisle seats in the next section to choose from immediately and then helped me move my luggage.
  • As usual, coach travelers brought many large bags on board, yet somehow the copious overhead compartments on Emirates planes absorbed every piece. I cannot say why, since overhead space often runs out on DL and AA overseas flights using the same or similar aircraft.  I watch FAs helping many coach passengers stow their luggage overhead, and perhaps they are simply well-trained and efficient at it.
  • Coach passengers were given small but sturdy “welcome aboard” zipper bags containing essentials, such as earplugs, eyeshades, toothbrush, and toothpaste. Mine also had lip balm and men’s cologne. It was a nice gesture.
  • Beverages were offered to all coach passengers while boarding, and drinks were topped off by watchful, smiling FAs. Their care and attention felt genuine, and I was pampered by several flight attendants.  They wanted to know where I was from and going to.  Because there were so many, they had time to chat and warmly get to know passengers.  It was a very human experience, not the usual cold machine-like routine of boarding by American carriers with cattle prods.
  • Seats were no wider or had any more pitch (in my estimation) than on AA or DL, but they did feel more comfortable while sitting. I cannot explain why. Economy seats are not big and are often hard to sit for many hours, but the Emirates seats were easy to tolerate for 14 hours.
  • The IFE systems worked well and had many choices. I thought the selection of movies and other entertainment was sufficient to satisfy anyone’s tastes for several days.  The screens were not huge, but neither were they tiny.  I used my own noise-canceling, around-the-ear headphones, but I have to do that on American and Delta flights, too. Emirates did provide on-ear headphones to every coach customer.
  • Beverage and food services were offered multiple times, with snacks and drinks (both alcoholic and non) available self-service at several locations between cart services.
  • The meals actually tasted good. Certainly not business class or first class quality, but certainly better than the standard prison rations doled out like playing cards on long Delta and American flights overseas—or not provided at all on most domestic flights.
  • Pillows and blankets were available and comfortable. smiling flight attendants were quick to give out additional pillows and blankets to any who wanted more.
  • Flight attendants fussed over passengers throughout the long flights. They were always available and invariably polite, friendly, and helpful.
  • Emirates noticed that I had a long layover in Dubai, prompting FAs to bring me several food coupons in generous amounts to use at the airport while waiting. Who ever heard of a U.S. carrier offering such a courtesy, especially proactively?
  • Cabin crew was available to chat and respond to requests at every galley location. FAs often asked if they could get us anything not already on the self-service counters. Crew members also circulated through the cabins regularly, attending to requests and offering assistance.
  • As everyone knows, lavatories on long-distance flights get a lot of use and frequently show it in the most disgusting ways. On Emirates, however, attendants in the coach section constantly monitored and cleaned lavs, often replenishing supplies.  Thus trips to the toilets were pleasant by comparison to experiences on other airlines.

Overall, the answer as to why the experience was better on Emirates is elusive and subjective.  I left four long Emirates flights (plus one short one) feeling rested and sanguine, even the 14 hour flights. I remember the experiences as fun, easy, without stress, even though the coach chairs on board were probably not much different from those bolted into any other airplane.

Yet I find myself walking off five hour Delta and AA flights feeling tired, even irritable, relieved the ordeal is over. Truth be told, I often dread those transcon flights in coach, and I have to steel myself to endure them.

I credit the great Emirates experience to the small differences listed in aggregate, most especially the many opportunities for a friendly human interaction with the warm, professional on-board Emirates staff.  They made me feel at home from the first moment I stepped on their planes, through the airport connection process, and right up to leaving their planes at my destinations.  What was it?  Well, it wasn’t sterile or robotic.  I think what made the difference was attitude.

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