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US Air Services, Step Up Your Game

19 Sep

This is Shanghai's subway. It is gorgeous.

This post has been smoldering on it’s own tab for a good four days now. I had written a long rant about the deficiencies of US air services and the terrible experience I had at Chicago O’Hare’s Terminal 5…  Which included piss poor crowd control by TSA and by discomfort structures (low, thick rails lining walls to prevent people from sitting on the floor against the wall), crappy SYSCO food offerings with disgruntled service, ego-tripping TSA barking out orders to passengers and generally treating us like cattle, non-functioning electrical outlets (so passengers can’t recharge their phones/comps/etc.). I also quoted President Obama’s Labor Day speech, about how transportation infrastructure, particularly railways and airways, need massive funding to bring us into the 21st Century — to be on par with the rest of the developed and developing nations. But it was a little too removed, a little too level headed for an impassioned blog post.

I understand there are systemic problems with our air service that include pitifully low wages, towering operating costs, aging airport structures and design, and oh yeah, “security.” But these issues do not preclude treating passengers like piggies at a trough or the next terror suspect. To make matters worse, none of these crowd control strategies are used at locations that desperately need it, i.e. right in front of security, where immigrant families and extended kin come see off their beloved’s return to the old home (老家).

China, whose population is known for poor manners compared to our East Asian neighbors, puts their airports about an hour outside downtown to discourage non-ticketed passengers from seeing off their travelers. The staff at security screening say “Please,” “Thank you,” and use the body language of a butler rather than of a police officer (officer, officer, over-seer). If you want to eat, Beijing’s domestic airport offers independent sit down coffee shops, a Thai restaurant, a Korean restaurant, a buffet, and fast food joints specializing in regional cuisine. And this pales in comparison to Tokyo’s Narita or Seoul’s Incheon airports. If you make even the slightest glance at an eatery while walking past, you are greeted and someone is immediately available to take you order.

It makes me so angry that our second largest airport is in such a disarray. That my $10 roast beef sandwich came on a styrofoam plate and was nothing more than two pieces of rye, three slices of roast beef, two watery tomatoes, and a pinch of shredded iceberg lettuce. That many airlines see it perfectly fine to use disposable plastic and paper everything during service. That a two hour flight in the US yields a “snack mix” and four ounces of a beverage.

And since this is a food (& beverage) blog, let me show you exactly how far we must improve. Let me start with the crappiest in flight meal I had this trip: the offering on a 90 minute flight between Shanghai and Beijing on Air China. The chicken and noodles were so-so but the saving grace was the four pieces of hami melon (similar in flavor to cantaloupe but crisper like an Asian pear).

Below is an example of one of Asiana’s non-big time meals, probably the lowest quality of the four I ate but still very delicious (‘cept the brownie cake). But the butter for the bread was from New Zealand and the fish nuggets in gravy were tender and delicious. Other ones included pickled daikon/carrots/cucumbers and cut fruit. Note, that fork is made of real stainless steel (and it has real tines!) and the white dish is real ceramic. O_o

Behold Asiana’s big time meals on long haul flights. This is Ssambap, it’s basically leaf wraps with rice, bulgogi (or kalbi, or anything else), and a condiment made from soy beans. On the side, a seaweed and egg soup, a container of kimchi, egg rolled with seaweed, and three slices of pineapple. The sheer variety and crispness (aka freshness) of the leaves was overwhelming! They included shiso/perilla, napa cabbage, and romaine. It was so much food and by far one of the best meals I’ve ever had on a flight (Emirates comes close).

Another one of Asiana’s big time meals: Bibimbap. The rice came in a sealed microwavable packet and was perfectly done, not mushy and not hard at all. So many fixings for the bibimbap! And kimchi, and egg drop soup, and soba noodles with sauce! And fruit! There was even a super cute tube of a chili paste. It may or may not have made it to my purse.

And the crowning glory? The airport food at Incheon was very very good. This (non-instant) ramen noodles in spicy seafood broth came from a fast food service type cafeteria. You order at the main counter, then you go up to one of a several stations that each specialize in something different. This came from the Japanese station. Enoki mushrooms and sliced hotdogs with rice cakes and dumplings too?  It was so very very good. The menu listed it as “hangover ramen” and I’m sure that I’d be revived with it’s spicy, rich, fishy and shrimpy, broth.

And lastly, after the 14 hour long haul flight from O’Hare to Incheon, this ox-bone soup warmed and relaxed from from within. If you’ve never had it before, it’s a very mild and (non-dairy) milky broth that is flavored simply with salt. A salt cellar is brought with the soup and customers add to their liking. The macaroni and mayo banchan was a little weird but the garlic scapes with baby shrimp shells was delicious.

There are definitely airports in the US that are on the up and up. CMH is one of them. Free wifi, Cup O’Joe, Columbus Brewing Company beers, and a Wolfgang Puck is not shabby. I just wish we had more flights to bigger destinations.