Jugoslovenski Aerotransport, or JAT (1927 – 2013), presented the traveler with a very clear set of rock-bottom expectations – bare minimum of operations, reasonably functioning if less than confidence-inspiring aircraft, fairly bad attitudes both on the ground and in the air, and disproportionately high prices.
That was JAT – it used to be nearly the only way in and out of Yugoslavia – and we loved to hate it.
In those days, the bar was set comfortably low. When you had excess luggage, a sad story would allow you to bring it on board without paying. If you had a tight connection, you could bring all six of your bags into the cabin. When JAT went non-smoking, you could have a cigarette in the back with the cabin crew. Landings were greeted with surprised and relieved applause. Takeoffs, sometimes, got the same.
And a heated argument was always only one word away.
Taking your life in your hands was part of the thrill of JAT. We all watched the viral videos of nuts and bolts flying off the wings during takeoff. We all experienced the troubling bouts of turbulence in clear weather.
Today everything is different. Today the beleaguered JAT has ceased to be and in its place, a new airline has risen. It is Air Serbia. Because it is part of Etihad, the bar has gone up significantly. Air Serbia is now the Balkan manifestation of a luxury airline.
This means that when we are wedged into economy seating, we grumble. We ask for new seating and are dismissed offhandedly. Arranged on a 6-hour flight to the Abu Dhabi hub like passengers on a Lasta bus to Vranje, we are expected to smile and shut up. This is not my natural state, as some of you may well imagine.
On JAT, it was par for the course. Discomfort and rudeness were built in and we expected it.
My first misgivings were misgiven at the airport before departure. I arrived at the counter and had my passport ripped from my hand before I could give it. I was issued a boarding pass before I could ask for an aisle seat. And my request was greeted with a disgusted sigh and the ceremonious tearing up of the boarding card (but I did get reassigned).
Further, as we moved through security, the niceties of a luxury liner were sacrificed to efficiency. The voices were just a little too loud and sharp; the trays into which we had to deposit everything from keys to belts to shoes were shoved just a little too hard. Things were working. Things were moving. But the experience was more akin to cattle herding than to luxury.
None of this, mind you, rises to the level of mistreatment. I certainly would not accuse the new Air Serbia of attacking its passengers (now called ‘guests’). On the contrary, our needs were seen to in the overall structure of things. If it were JAT, I would have applauded and thanked them profusely.
But this is not JAT anymore. My expectations were much higher. A luxury airline gains its reputation by providing more personalized and attentive service. It worries about the details. It is all about making the ‘guest’ happy and comfortable. This, in my view, was not happening.
So, yes, I do miss the old JAT. I miss the old days when flying was like buying a bag of potatoes at the open market. The old JAT allowed us to be pleasantly surprised from time to time at a smile or a nice gesture – since NO ONE ever would have expected it.
The highly vaunted transformation of JAT into the jewel of the Emirates has not yet happened. And when it does, I will be back.