The Brancatelli File



October 23, 2003 -- I was watching two flight attendants wrestle a fully loaded food cart down a narrow coach aisle when a voice wafted forward from a seat across the aisle and a few rows behind.

"I presume this is the dessert."

I craned my neck and saw a middle-aged fellow purposefully jabbing a plastic fork at something on his meal tray.

"That has to be the dessert," he said in a calm, but confused, tone. He looked at his companion, a middle-aged woman sitting in a middle seat and lazily working a needlepoint. "I mean, what else could it be?"

My eavesdropping was interrupted by a dull thud at my seat. The flight attendant had lowered my tray table into place and, before I could protest, he had dropped a tray in front of me.

Now I understood the man's confusion. The dinner was white. All of it. The tray and the flimsy plastic plates and the tiny plastic utensils. The chicken, which was smothered in a thick, greasy sauce. The green beans, which had also been inadvertently covered by the white sauce. A patty of what might have been potatoes was white. The cold roll was nearly all white. The wilted lettuce was white under a single slice of mostly white, unripe tomato. And there, in the upper left corner of the tray, was the presumed dessert, a quivering slice of white custard covering a small layer of what could have been cherries and what might have been a graham-cracker crust.

It all smelled foul and I must have made a face because the flight attendant looked at me and said, "Sorry about that. It's all they boarded today. That's really all I have."

"No, no," I said, "that's okay. Honest. Take it away. I never eat on planes."

"Smart move," said the flight attendant as he swept up the tray and moved on to the next row.

And I guess that's when it struck me. The flight attendant was exhausted. I was exhausted. The poor guy who identified his dessert by process of elimination was exhausted. The entire crew was exhausted. All the passengers were exhausted.

In fact, the whole idea of flying the way the Big Six U.S. carriers do it now is exhausted. The lifeless, dispiriting concept is collapsing of its own fiscal and operational weight. And everyone--airline management, flight crews and passengers--is just too exhausted to care anymore.

I had booked this flight--a transatlantic coach segment to New York/Kennedy on a Big Six airline on a seasonal leisure-travel route on an average autumn Sunday--just to see what I could see. I had no agenda, no particular place to be and no opinion of what I would find. For better or worse, I just wanted to take a look at the status quo with a fresh eye.

And what I found didn't repel me so much as bore me. I didn't disembark after nine hours angry, but apathetic. The entire flight was an exercise in physical, emotional, creative and operational exhaustion.

It's not that there's nothing special in the air, it's that no one expects anything from the Big Six anymore. It's not that the skies aren't friendly, but that they are now without hope.

The flight this average autumn Sunday even began inauspiciously. Travelers who had been aimlessly milling around the boarding gate waiting for an announcement never got one. About 45 minutes before departure, however, a gate agent appeared and opened the door. Then passengers began filing on without regard to class or row or boarding group. I waited until 10 minutes before departure time just to see if any announcement was ever made. None ever was.

My seat was near the back of the Boeing 767 and all but a few chairs were already filled. As I navigated my way down the aisle, the flight attendant made the first announcement of the day.

"I'm sorry to tell you that the entertainment system on this flight is not operating. There won't be a movie today."

I was expecting a collective groan from the mostly American load of leisure travelers on board. I was expecting another announcement from the flight attendant offering a further apology--and the salve of a free drink or something. No one even bothered to complain. No tangible expression of apology was ever offered.

Shortly after departure, the public-address system turned on again and I was expecting a greeting from the flight deck. But this time it was the purser with a new apology.

"There doesn't seem to be any English-language Customs cards today," he said sheepishly. "It looks like they only gave us [foreign-language] ones. But don't worry, it'll be easy. Just follow the instructions in the back of the in-flight magazines. The boxes are all the same."

A couple of minutes later, I heard a persistent whine, a sort of irritated, twangy drawl. It came from a clutch of passengers who were losing the battle of the foreign-language Customs forms.

"They're not, Harry, they're not," one female voice complained. "I can't make this thing out. Tell the flight attendant."

I dove into my carry-on bag for the English-language Customs forms that I keep in my passport case. But before I could play Good Samaritan, a flight attendant was addressing the cabin.

"C'mon, people, this isn't rocket science," he said impatiently. "The forms we gave you are exactly like the English-language one printed in the in-flight magazine."

"No, it's not," I heard a couple of passengers from different sections of the cabin yell back.

That led me to locate the dreary-looking in-flight magazine in my seat-back pocket. It was dirty and dog-eared, but I found the appropriate page in the back of the magazine.

The passengers were right. The Customs form reprinted in the magazine was the newest version. It bore virtually no relationship to the out-of-date, foreign-language forms passed out by the flight attendants.

About a minute later, the PA system crackled back to life.

"Sorry, folks," said the voice of the purser. "The form in the magazine isn't the same as the ones that we gave you. Just ask us if you really need the help--or pick up an English-language form when you land at Kennedy."

During the meal, flight attendants came down the aisle offering a beverage. The passenger seated in the window seat next to me ordered a white wine.

"That's going to be $5, " said the distracted flight attendant. But he disappeared without collecting the fee. In fact, he never came back to collect--or to offer a refill.

About three hours into the flight, the purser announced that a flight attendant would be coming through the aisle with today's duty-free items.

"We have a wonderful selection and it's all explained in the brochure in your seat-back pocket," he promised.

A few minutes later, the persistent whine, the irritated, twangy drawl, was back. Apparently, there were no duty-free brochures in the seat-back pockets.

The flight attendant with the duty-free goods drifted listlessly up and down both aisles. I didn't see anyone buy. I didn't even see anyone look.

Halfway through the flight, passengers had settled into a dispirited rhythm. Some were dozing, others were talking among themselves and still others were gamely swapping newspapers, magazines and books in a valiant attempt to keep occupied. I watched a group of friends-by-seat-assignment rotate an Italian-language sports newspaper, a French fashion magazine, parts of a fat, British Saturday paper and a three-day-old copy of USA Today.

A few rows away, I heard a passenger ask a passing flight attendant for a deck of playing cards.

"Cards?" responded the surprised flight attendant. "We haven't had those for years."

That's about the time I wandered back to the galley. The bedraggled flight attendants were leaning against the bulkheads or propped uncomfortably in the jump seats.

"Tough flight," I said. "Not a lot going right today," I added, referring to the endless series of service glitches.

But the flight attendants apparently didn't hear it that way.

"Oh, I don't know," one replied. "These people look like a pretty good bunch. They aren't complaining all that much."

"Yeah," chimed in the flight attendant who had never bothered to collect the $5 liquor fee from my seatmate. "It's a good thing, too. We're all exhausted."

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.