Flying sucks.

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.

29 thoughts on “PRETZELS AND SPITE”

  • You can buy much of the experience of flight's "golden era" by paying for first class tickets. Which is what pretty much every person who flew in the pre-deregulation era had to do. Now you have the choice, but it feels more elitist when you know there's the hordes in cattle class making do with what you describe here.

    Our system can and does produce both the "done right" and the "cheap shit" outcomes, but it forces you to pay the full cost of the "done right" if that's what you really want. Seems only fair to me…

  • OliverWendelHolmslice says:

    Ed, I recall you posting recently about American cities and the crumbling sewer/water/subway/ect systems and I couldn't help notice the similarities in Air travel. I fear the airline industry may be hitting critical mass just like American infrastructure in general. Privatized, free market capitalism, in its drive to lower prices, completely ignores basic infrastructure problems because it is not profitable to address them.

    I recently flew United Airlines on, I shit you not, a Boeing 737-200 which must have been built circa 1970. Some airlines have updated their fleets, but others seem to be gambling with our lives on completely obsolete technology because it isn't profitable for them to buy new planes. How long can they put duct tape over the wounds before it hits critical mass?

  • HoosierPoli says:

    Meh. Air travel is just a means to an end. Just get me there, I couldn't care less what happens on the way. Nobody LIKES flying, I'd imagine very few people "like" driving either. It's a tool you use to get where you're going.

    Cheap cattlecar flights have made REAL parts of my life (dating, living with, and marrying a woman from 5000 miles away, for example) much better.

  • I agree with HoosierPoli…it's like how each individual looks at cars…I look at mine as a way go get somewhere, others look at a car as a mode of conveyence where they must have all the comforts of home. It doesn't matter when it's over with in a matter of hours. You get over it. The fact that flying is not for the rich anymore is the most important point to make, regardless of how crappy of an experience it is. You aren't buying experience, you are buying transportation. And the cheapest means will do.

    Frankly I don't travel much or far, with the ordeal of flying and the time it consumes, it's nearly as productive for me to drive. Last time I flew it was to my grandmother's funeral and it blew a day…waiting and sitting…it was marginally better than the experience I might have had driving.

  • Oh and about old airplanes…just because they are old doesn't mean they are no good…old aircraft may have an old airframe, and sometimes they don't even have that, B-52's have been rebuild over and over for decades. But the electronics are usually state of the art. Yeah the free market is forcing the use of older aircraft but PROPERLY MAINTIANED they are perfectly safe.

  • It's worth noting that in the heyday of air travel in this country, it didn't very much matter that not everyone could afford to fly: in those days, it was still possible to get from pretty much any point A to any other point B via train. Trains take longer, but they are (were) less expensive.

    My ever-growing disappointment with the Obama presidency has a lot to do with their continued failure to push for the resurrection of our railways. Not high-speed maglev bullet trains, either: standard diesel-electric trains are fast enough for inter-city commuter travel, and far more efficient than tractor-trailer trucks for long-range freight. (Even better would be fully electric trains run on electricity generated by nuclear power, but that's a separate issue.)

    As it is, I travel by train as much as possible, and it is much more pleasant than air travel. Train stations are almost always easier and more pleasant to navigate than airports (Union Station in DC makes Dulles Airport look like the godforsaken hole that it, in fact, is), trains afford you the opportunity to get up and walk around, you have more legroom, the cafe car generally offers all sorts of things to eat… and of course it's a lot cheaper.

  • Oh I have to agree with the horrendous under utilization of our train infrastructure, but don't blame Obama…you have a trucking industry opposed to shipping by train…that is backed by what union? And the maglev is just a massive blow job to the maglev industry. I've seen it going on in FLA for 20 years, probably been going on longer than that. I might be off base but I think railroads are a perfect place to start using hydrogen cells, not deisel, though. But you aren't going to get passenger service boosted without the backing of a freight service boost, and thats not going to happen as long as we have a lockup on overland commercial shipping via truckers.

  • Pan Sapiens says:

    That goddamn maglev industry, trying to weaseldick their products into every aspect of our lives!

    As to the rest, I'd say its mostly whining from soft-as-shite pampered white people who have yet to see what LCD lifestyles are like in the USA.

    Remember, ~85% of your costs is maintenance. That's where you are going to see savings. There are complicated algorithms in use to determine the minimum required rebuilds and repairs vs. lawsuits from relatives of the maimed, disfigured, and dead. Gambling with real lives! Capitalism on the razor's edge! You can smell the realness of what would otherwise be boring game theory. Fucking more invigorating than a chimp game like Texas hold-em that's for sure!

  • Ed, you have got to stop flying on Northwest!!

    Recently we flew cross-country and when boarding the cattle car in Phoenix for the last leg, I did catch a whiff of cattle while hiking to my seat in the back.

    Deregulation created the bus stations of the skies and 9/11 the extra security measures. And all it takes is something like the Panty Bomber for TSA to go nutso and add more inconveniences to travel.

  • Shiyat! Ed, couldn't agree with you more.
    I remember the 60's and into the 70's. We used to wear sport jacket and tie to fly (to Europe) for instance. Flight attendants couldn't do enough to make you comfortable, remember "Coffee, tea or me"?
    Hell, TWA once held an international flight for my family and provided a chartered Piper Cherokee to fly the 5 of us from LaGuardia to JFK and the overseas connection and we were just flying tourist class!
    I once flew back from Germany on a 707 that I'll bet didn't have 35 passengers in the tourist cabin. I was able to switch seats when ever the notion struck.
    Flying in the "oughts" is a pile of cow dung. Can't walk in the aisles any more due to the presence of the service carts from take-off to landing. Line after friggin' line of security checks; the flight attendants surly attitudes and the "hell-hole" terminals; Newark, I'm lookin at you.

  • To OliverWendelHolmslice,

    United retired their last 737 months ago. They also just finished an order of 25 787s and 25 new Airbus A350s. They are also refitting their entire fleet of Ted planes with leather seats for economy. Business and first class seats for international flights are also being upgraded for every single 777 and every 747 and 767 was already upgraded.

    If you could be any more wrong I'd love to see how.

  • The capitalist system can, and does, produce quality products that not everyone can afford, and cheap shit that anyone can buy. What it can't do is produce cheap good shit for everyone.

  • I disagree about first class tickets being a way to opt out of this. It is a phenomenally expensive way to get a somewhat bigger seat while leaving the rest of the unpleasant experience essentially unchanged.

  • But the good news is that the pilots can now take prozac, zoloft and/or lexapro and drive a plane. They only get to do this if their dx is clinical depression and, of course, that would include all who fly the commuter biplanes because they are by definition clinically depressed over extremely low pay and no benefits.

    The expectation is that flying while loaded (why should only the passengers have fun?) will deemed to be a morale booster for all concerned because if the pilots don't care if two fat asses sit side by side or how the luggage is stowed, why should we?

  • One aspect you've completely ignored is the exploitation of workers in the airline industry. Most pilots and cabin crew work up to 100 hours a week for little more than minimum wage, they also have an incredibly high rate of suicide and drug addiction so flight attendants' 'open contempt' for you is more likely narcotic induced depression. Complaining about the service on flights is essentially blaming the victim for things caused by the capitalist structure which oppresses them.

  • Ed, I couldn't agree more. There has been a significant decline in the last decade alone. Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta – who bill themselves as the busiest airport in the world – will give Newark or O'Hare a run for their money on worst experience in air travel any day. I nearly missed my flight the last time I was there because the TSA had closed all of the security check points to hold a 45 minute meeting, even the military checkpoint was shut down! Needless to say the 200 or so early morning flyers behind me were pretty miffed too. Then I discovered that the airport had listed the wrong gate for my flight and didn't change it until after we had almost completed boarding (with half the customers missing).

    Even with the changes of the '80s and '90s I enjoyed flying, but I'm now convinced that the impotent Department of Homeland Security and quest for bottom of the barrel prices has destroyed it for me. I never thought that Amtrak would start to look like a good option….

  • The last time I flew (about 3 weeks ago) I was treated to the sight of duct tape — duct tape! — holding down the anti-chafe tape on the wing flaps. When major carriers start duct taping the planes together, I don't care if they're indulging in cosmetic upgrades in the cabin like leather seats. Duct tape on the wings is a sign it's time to go Greyhound.

  • Don't go Greyhound, Nan – last time my son went that way, the driver up and quit at Harrisburg, and an 11-hour trip turned into a 26-hour trip. Never even heard back from my (unusually polite) letter of disapproval to their HQ, either. Take the train or try one of the other bus lines. Drive even; it's longer, but you can at least stop wherever you want and do impromptu tours. Especially if you have a wonky GPS.

  • I fortunately don't fly a lot, but I really don't mind (much) the extra hassle. My worst passenger story had me crammed next to an Olympic wrestling champion (Bruce Baumgartner), whose ultra big chest and biceps had me, a modestly big guy, leaning way over into the aisle. Fortunately, there was an empty seat further back in the plane, to which I quickly dispatched.

    I do mind the minimalist aircraft maintenance regime, and the minimalist salaries and maximalists hours, all dictated by the God of Unregulated Capitalism, and the attendant philosophy, stated or not, that costs and maintenance and safety will continue to drop until there's an uptick in accidents. Some weeks ago you posted a piece about how the two ways oversight works in government, and this is an example of one of them: wait for something to blow up.

    An alternative I'm considering to first class (which is almost an order of magnitude more expensive than coach, by my research), is to simply buy two adjacent coach seats. Or travel at off hours/dates. It's astonishing how empty my plane was when leaving Erie Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, a few Januaries ago. Back when there were such things as travel agents, they would laugh at me (in Southern California) when I'd request such a trip. I and about two dozen others had this gigantic plane all to ourselves, flying over the frozen northeast.

    I still like flying. Get a window seat and be amazed at what you can see out there.

  • OliverWendelHolmslice says:

    Appologies, I meant US Airways. I later had a connection on United. Apparently they subcontract to eachother?

    Also Cerb, if you could be any more of a needle-dick nitpicker about it, I'd love to see how. Smug asshole…

  • smelter rat says:

    Trying to get anywhere using mass transit makes the movie "Planes Trains and Automobiles" look like utopia. Airports are the Greyhound bus depots of the skies, with the added benefit of $5 cokes and $3 bags of chips. People are treated like cattle with incurable diseases, and most security staff spent far too many years failing middle school. I await time travel with bated breath.

  • Homslice,

    You're talking about my employer, so it irks me when someone spouts off a bunch of false shit that reinforces the misconception that my employer is a bunch of garbage. If you'd like me to stop being a smug asshole then get your facts straight before you start hitting your keyboard.

    Nan, you need to report that to the FAA. While I know airlines are in the business of cutting costs that's just absurd. Sadly what comes to mind is an incident that happened with United last year stopping an oil leak with some rags:

    George, good point. That's a trademark of regional carriers, which really bothers me. PBS' Frontline did a very good investigation into this called Flying Cheap.

    That being said, whenever I explain to people what I do for a living and who I work for I do hear a lot of the same complaints being voiced here. I'm not going to lie to everyone here and say that flying is fucking awesome and all of you are wrong, but I really hope things get better and get better soon.

  • "…..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……"

    Basically; this is the argument from the 'quality triangle' where each apex is labled, 'best price', 'best quality' or 'best efficiency'. Any order is fine, but you can only select one side of the triangle so as to optimise two of the three qualities at most, but you can never have all three…..

  • Despite all of the changes in travel, it takes a seriously jaded person who can't marvel at the fact that you can be anywhere on the globe in twelve hours. 100 years ago, this notion was as absurd as the Jetsons are today.

    Yes, commercial flight has turned into a shittier version of Greyhound busses but seriously.. calm the fuck down. The fact that you can be ANYWHERE ON THE PLANET IN 12 HOURS deserves some serious reflection.

    Sidebar: "Oh no! I'm having three Thai hookers service me at the same time but I wasn't able to bring a bottle of lube over 3oz."

    The alternative is to sail there. Yeah, enjoy what you have. It's amazing.

  • Maintenance is soooo tightly regulated in airlines, it's the majority of their costs. Your complaints about Capitalists gambling with your lives is kind of ridiculous. Plane crashes are EXTREMELY rare, and the majority of them are caused by just random birds blowing up the engines. Frankly, if that manages to kill you, it was just your time.

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