I don't know if my relatively new found disdain for it has to do with me getting older (I am.) or if the experience is getting worse (It is.) but lately I look at the need to fly as an unwelcome necessity. In the past I looked forward to it and thought it was pretty cool. And let's face it, getting on a plane and being anywhere in the world in less than a day for a reasonable cost is amazing. This does little to mitigate the extent to which the experience blows these days.
We start with a long, traffic-filled drive to the airport, paying usurious fees to park a mile away from the terminal to which we are shuttled, bags in tow, in a malodorous bus. We wait in the first of many lines to pay for the privilege of having our luggage placed on the flight. Then we wait like cattle to be strip-searched by the TSA. After we finally reach Gate 47B we wait, visibly unhappy, to be packed away like sardines on ever-smaller planes.
Once on the plane we are essentially told to hurry up, cram into a 17" wide seat (seriously, that's the industry average) and shut the hell up once we are done mastering the live action Tetris necessary to fit anything in the overhead bins. Here we will spend between one and a dozen hours wedged between strangers with radically different ideas about personal hygiene. My favorite, and in my experience the most likely combination, is between the massively overweight person and the tubercular hillbilly. I get to battle the former's overspilling paunch while trying to guess the virus that the latter is communicating. Aside from the company of our fellow passengers, the only in-flight amenities are half of a can of Coke, a tiny bag of pretzels, and the open contempt of the flight attendants.
Life Magazine – which apparently still exists, by the way – recently posted this photo album entitled "When flying was fun." It shows a variety of aspects of flying from the pre-deregulation and pre-9/11 days. Under regulation, all of the prices were the same so the airlines had to compete with service and amenities. Some of the "amenities", like the flight attendants forced to do their jobs in hot pants, are dated to the point of inducing cringing. But others, like passengers being able to say goodbye to their departing friends without a SWAT team impounding their vehicle for daring to stop in front of the terminal, have given way to our paranoia and cynicism. The biggest changes, of course, have been motivated by cost. The white tablecloth food service has been replaced by the tiny bag of Anger Pretzels because, well, low fares are all that matter.
The changes in air travel illustrate quite nicely one of the basic dilemmas of living in post-New Deal, deregulated America. Of course the Life Magazine photos are idyllic and completely overlook the fact that flying was too expensive for many people during that era; the posh service reflected the mostly upper- and upper-middle class clientele who could afford to fly with any regularity. Deregulation has done two things to air travel. First, it has democratized it, driving down prices to the point that most Americans above the poverty line could afford a ticket if flying became necessary or merely desirable. Second, it has made the experience horrible. The unencumbered free market is only good at one thing: lowering prices. Everything else is sacrificed to that end. It will give you a $149 round-trip ticket from Chicago to New York, but it won't make much of an effort to hide the corner-cutting that makes it possible.
I see this debate in a lot of different social issues these days: do we want something made or done right if it means that many people won't be able to afford it, or do we want cheap shit that everyone can afford? Regardless of which one of those options we prefer individually or collectively, our system can only produce one of them.