Recently, my older daughter was acting mutinous when asked to do her homework. Her father tried to explain that if she didn’t learn the basics now, she wouldn’t be able to go to college.

“I don’t want to go to college,” she retorted.

This was exactly what I had been waiting for. I looked at my husband with hope in my eyes: “Then can we go to India for a visit?”

You may think it’s an exaggeration to equate college expenses with airfare, but I don’t think so. A few years ago, the rationale in carting cranky kids all the way to India was that it would be a “learning experience.”

Last year, our family of four went to India and spent nearly $10,000 on tickets alone. That was when I realized that, at that rate, that was all the learning that our children were going to get.

Last year’s trip was really hard. We live in Montana, which means that we have to go to another city first before even leaving the country. We fly to either Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, or Minneapolis on a domestic carrier before boarding an international carrier. Thus the journey becomes inordinately expensive and excruciatingly long.

As a parent, you have to anticipate that you might not always be able to buy food when your child gets hungry. I always carry trail mix, candy bars, and even instant oatmeal packets with me in case my daughters don’t eat the food that comes around on the plane. Still, I was upset when they stopped serving food on domestic flights. I heard the CEO of an airline say that stopping food service on the planes wouldn’t affect passengers because now they could eat at home or before boarding. Really? Many times, on our return trips from India, my kids and I race from the international to the domestic terminal, get through security checks, and run to the gate to board our connections for Bozeman, without having time to get something to eat. What with long lines for security checks, sometimes twice or thrice in one airport, and being denied food once we were on board, airline companies were accomplishing something that no one had ever done before … caused me to miss meals. Even soft drinks and peanuts aren’t free any more. Is it any wonder then, that my carry-on bags have begun resembling a 7-Eleven?

Now with the global oil crisis, the airline industry has gone over the edge. Never mind that the planes are growing older, and the quality of service is growing worse, with baggage being misdirected with alarming regularity and the waiting time in terminals and on the tarmac having to be measured as a percentage of a human lifespan. The airline industry has taken a bad blow and needs funds to recover. Therefore, they are passing their pain on to us, their customers, in increasingly innovative ways.

To start with, they have increased fares. On top of that, we have to pay exorbitant taxes with an almost 40 percent fuel surcharge. They have increased the number of seats per flight to the highest permitted; one can be pardoned for mistaking a full flight for an Indian town bus during rush hour. They have reduced the weight of the bags that we can check-in, blithely reducing us to the level of backpackers. Now they are starting to charge to check in even the two standard bags. Other insidious charges include fees for booking your ticket, paper tickets, curbside check-ins, online seat selections, Wi-Fi use, seat preferences, and airport improvement, just to name a few.

But what truly gets me is the announcement that US Airways is going to charge $2 for water and $1 for coffee. Considering that they don’t allow us to carry water onto an airplane, it is a fantastic idea to charge for water and should send the airline’s stocks soaring. However, I wonder what they were thinking when they decided on the rates. Is water more expensive because it is essential for survival, or just because airplane coffee is so bad?

The other news is that JetBlue is going to be charging $7 for a blanket and a pillow that can apparently be reused. This story opened up the flood gates of nostalgia in my mind. Do you remember those train trips that we used to take in India in the good ol’ days? No overnight trip was complete without dinner: chapattis made without oil or ghee in a plastic bag, and a Tiffin carrier with curry in the upper compartment and curd rice with lemon pickles in the lower compartment. Bedding was also part of the luggage: a pillow and a bedsheet/blanket all rolled up in a carpet, or jamakalam, in stripes of psychedelic colors and tied with thick rope.

My family of inveterate coffee drinkers carried things even further. In the ’60s and ’70s, you couldn’t get coffee when you traveled to New Delhi on Jayanthi Janatha Express, since there were no pantry cars then, and everybody north of Arakkonam junction only drank chai. So, they would carry about a pint of coffee decoction in a Horlicks bottle. They would buy the hot, very dilute milk that was available at train stations, add the extract, and presto, they had coffee!

Now, I can see myself waddling through the air terminals with all my stuff, making it through security checks with carry-on bags filled with trail mix, squashed PBJ sandwiches, and instant oatmeal, my Tiffin-carriers filled with chapattis, tomato chutney, and curd rice by the pound. I can even see myself unrolling my jamakalam roll, though I may risk being escorted to a private room by the TSA, soon to be met by a Federal Agent wearing dark glasses to withstand the psychedelic colors. But I’m afraid that the Prego Chunky Veggie Pasta Sauce bottle filled with home-brewed French Roast espresso might not pass the airline’s regulations. A pity indeed, considering that even the airlines don’t think much of their coffee. Maybe that is precisely whythey won’t allow it on board.

Even as I consider the merchant navy as alternate way of getting to India, I ponder ways in which the airline industry can stay aloft. In my opinion, first off, they should all merge to form a monopoly and call it, say, “A la Carte Airlines.” The sky will literally be the limit to the fares they can charge. On board the planes, they should eliminate aisles by putting in more seats after passenger boarding and securing them with duct tape for the duration of the flight. Passengers seated in those seats could be asked to pay a “security fee” for the duct tape. Furthermore, the partitions between pairs of adjacent overhead lockers should be knocked out and sold as bunks for passengers. Of course, the bunk passengers will have to stay horizontal during the entire flight and won’t be able to sit up. But then, the sitting passengers don’t get to lie down for the same period of time, so it is quite fair.

It doesn’t have to end there. At A la Carte Airlines, nickel and diming passengers will be the standard operating procedure. Onboard every airplane, there will be a cashier in charge of the tills, while stewards will act in a manner similar to the wait staff in a restaurant. And just so that travelers know to clean out their retirement accounts and carry their entire financial worth on their person in small bills, they can be given a list of the charges in addition to food and drink that they may encounter during the flight, along with their ticket and a payment of $2.

Sample List of Charges travelers may expect during the course of their flight*:

1. Barf Bags

$5/bag. The staff will dispose used bags safely for an additional $5/bag. (Bringing Wal-Mart and Costco plastic baggies as vomit/throw-up receptacles will not be permitted.)

2. Magazines and Newspapers

30 percent off their market rate. You will kindly return perused reading material or pay the entire price at the airport terminal newsstand rates.

3. Trash Removal Surcharges

To be determined by the stewards who inspect your seat before you disembark.

4. Tissue/Paper Towel Usage Fee

$0.30 per serviette or $2.50 for a pack of 10.

5. Restroom Fee

$1 per use or $10 for a dozen visits. We recommend that you prepay this fee for obvious reasons.

6. Children’s Entertainment (set of 4 crayons and 2 sheets of paper)

$10. Additional paper: $1 per sheet. No coloring on tissue/paper towel allowed.

7. Use of lights, fan, seat adjustment fees

$5. Please do not read in the light from others’ lamps. It is impolite.

8. Use of console for above services


9. Preference for seating in the “eye candy” section (good-looking stewards/stewardesses)


10. Use of window (in case of window seating) or the aisle (in case of aisle seating)


11. Middle seat surcharge


Please Note: In case decompression occurs during the course of the flight, an oxygen mask will drop from the panel above your seat. Simply fit it snugly over your nose and mouth and press the big red button on your console. It will automatically check the credit limit on your biggest credit card and, if you are not maxed out, will authorize oxygen flow into the mask.

Please enjoy your flight since, as per our calculations, it will be the last trip you’ll take.

*Please be aware that our rates, fares, fees, charges, surcharges, and shakedowns are subject to change and do not need to be notified to you ahead of the flight date.

And remember our motto:

Of course, you’ll fly with us. What other option do you have?

Lakshmi Palecanda is a biology research technician turned freelance writer in Bozeman, Montana. Email: palecanda [at] msn [dot] com

Lakshmi worked for ten years in scientific research before becoming a freelance writer. She contributes regularly to publications in India and abroad. Lakshmi is an award winning short story writer who...