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Works and Days

Flying as Torture

July 1st, 2013 - 12:03 am


As the Fourth of July nears, be careful of flying.

I have wondered lately whether a weekend in Guantanamo Bay would be all that much worse than flying in the United States. Imagine if we were to treat Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the manner we accord everyday passengers: put him in a tiny chair, with arms crammed together and tucked between the rests — with another inmate on each side. And then we bolt him down there for eight hours. He has to share his toilet with 100 others. The ceiling is about 5 feet high, the seat continually moving while he urinates. We feed him airline food, make him watch airline shorts on the video, and have him go through a TSA security routine twice a day, all the while telling him that he is scheduled to walk down the hall for his exercise at noon, while we cancel, delay, and reschedule his long anticipated walk.

I have flown a lot in the Third World — Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece in the 1970s, and lots to and fro from places like Egypt, Libya, and Mexico. But I am not sure anymore whether American air travel is much better. I flew three round trips the last month — California to Wisconsin, California to southern Europe, and California to Washington, D.C. Almost everything that could go wrong, of course, did.

The first trip from California to Wisconsin took 18 hours and five cancelled flights. The scheduled Fresno early morning flight on United Airlines was cancelled due to “mechanical difficulties.” (Or was it the “sequestration,” of which passengers gossiped?) No problem — I was to be re-routed on American to Los Angeles. Once there, I was told to go out of security and then back into security to catch a United flight at a different terminal, scheduled for Chicago and on to Madison. I might still make the evening event …

No such luck. The make-up flight to Chicago on United was delayed. But — no problem. (How the desperate and deluded air traveler clings to any dream of salvation!) There were two Chicago flights. And again, both were delayed.

OK. Still, no problem — I was sent back out of the United terminal security and back into American security to catch another American re-routed flight to Dallas. I was not quite doomed if I could run and make the connection. And who knows, maybe the American flight would be late?

It was, so I hopped on. I finally made it to Dallas twelve hours after arriving at the terminal that morning in Fresno. But if the Dallas flight was late, so was the final leg to Madison. In the end, it was not even close. I missed the evening appointment by seven hours. Six cancelled or delayed flights. Eighteen hours. Madison might as well have been Milan.

A year ago I bought an “economy plus” ticket on a United flight for my annual European trip in June. I paid a bit more and got an exit row seat. But when I arrived in San Francisco, the confirmed seat was mysteriously bumped into the back of the plane in regular economy. No explanation, with no refund for the lost “economy plus.”

The same thing happened on the way home.

Finally, I was told “personnel” needed the seats. Who are such persons? Sky marshals? United mechanics? Who knows? Who cares? Can we all, like United Airlines, simply sell a ticket and then not honor it? Perhaps I could get paid in advance for an essay and then never write it?

I never did find out.

Arriving into Newark from Lisbon for a transfer through customs to a final flight to San Francisco was a veritable descent into Dante’s Inferno. The plane dumped some 200 passengers into “customs.” But all customs turned out to be were two clerks in booths. The other ten windows remained empty. One poor officer clearly had no clue about what he was doing. For ten minutes, he struggled to get his computer working. I won’t repeat the commentary in the lengthening line.

“No problem” is my motto: after all, I had three hours between flights. I emerged out of security back to another terminal and back into security for the connection to California. But chaos awaited. The line of about 100 people snaked back and forth. Sweaty, hot passengers were livid. Forty percent of the TSA security lines were idle. Only five women were checking tickets; about five more were idling. A “supervisor” went back and forth: she talked, she laughed, she yelled, she stared down the irate passengers. She did everything … but open up a new security corridor. Meanwhile, the line still lengthened. Irate passengers kept snarling cruelties and crudities. (“Obamacare will make the TSA look professional.” “Can any of these people read?”)

I studied these harried flyers: they were as efficient in throwing their stuff on the conveyor belts as their federal monitors were incompetent in assessing them. Plastic baskets flew down the lines. Belts and shoes were torn off. Computers jumped out of the bags. If only the TSA could hire those who fly 50,000 miles a year, the agency would work. Instead, the feds almost assume that their clients’ efficiency in going through their cumbersome security procedures allows them a margin to idle.

I just got back from a third flight from D.C. The early morning TSA security line in Fresno almost went out the door of the terminal. One of the two machines was broken at 5:30 a.m. Half the TSA staff stood idle among the irate passengers, until someone ordered them to manually start opening bags. Many missed their flights.

Apparently no one knew how to fix the machines or had notified anyone that they had become inoperable a few hours earlier the prior night. Some passengers are wily: the line was on the verge of madness as a few entrepreneurs called out: “I am late!” But everyone was late. “Could you please let me cut ahead!”

I learned the TSA policy is a sort of luche libre: You can cut ahead if everyone you cut ahead of is “OK with it.” I appreciated the responses to the bold crowders: “Why didn’t you come earlier like I did?” “So I miss my flight, so you won’t miss yours?”

Note the crowders’ own response: they looked down ashamed, but not so ashamed as to crowd up anyway on the expectation that sticks and stones might break their bones but such words would never stop them from getting to L.A. that morning.

I am skipping lots of the petty humiliating details of these flights: the single clerk at the American Airlines counter while the customer line lengthened; the TSA agents who talked to friends while holding up the lines. In Dallas, the flight back to Fresno was delayed when a flight attendant had arrived late. One late attendant equals 80 late passengers.

I read that the American air travel system is safer than ever. I am sure the mechanics are superb who keep an aging fleet of jets in service without disasters. The pilots are skilled; they must be able to fly thousands of miles each day without mishap. I admire these professionals whose skills keep tens of thousands alive each day. But otherwise the entire system is something akin to psychological torture, and each second it seems on the edge of disaster.

If you are a left-winger, you certainly can fault the for-profit airlines. The ticketing staff is far too undermanned. Some ticket operators seem without any skills and struggle with their computers, clueless about what to do with about every fifth passenger. The flights are overbooked.

Well-paid executives have figured out how to run the airline with as few lowly paid employees as possible. Some of their protocols are senseless. The attendants rightly castigate inconsiderate passengers who stumble about in the aisles, cell phones in ears, as they try to cram two carry-on bags into overhead storage space designed for just one — and one is half the size of what is in their hand.

But the airlines are mostly to blame, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra fees by charging for checked-in baggage. If instead they offered a small bounty of, say, $10 for each piece of luggage checked in, boarding time would be cut in half. Why then penalize flyers for checking in their baggage only then to become exasperated with too much carried-on luggage?

If you are a right-winger, then the problem is not the airlines but the TSA, which is a federal, unionized group of incompetents who have no fear of failing and no incentive to succeed. After watching the TSA in five airports the past month, I would suggest the stereotypes are mostly correct: unmotivated, even with a certain class edge, as if the perhaps better-off passengers should be made to suffer a bit of comeuppance by workers who have the ability, if only for a brief moment, to make life miserable for anyone they chose. I have been flying a lot since 9/11, and I have never yet heard one “I’m sorry” from any TSA employee for thousands of lapses and gratuitous rudeness.

What is the common denominator of this rant? Air travel is too cheap. Flying far more resembles the local bus station of the 1960s than it does air travel just thirty years ago. The seats are not designed for anyone over six feet. Unfortunately, one in five travelers is much larger than that, and so spends minutes trying to fit an impossible frame and weight into the minuscule seats. Most bring all sorts of food to save money — the result is spilled food and drink as poor acrobats try to juggle the iPads, the chips, the Coke, the seat belt, the headphones, only to ask to go the bathroom from the middle seat.

Finally, there is the rude Darwinian passenger, who accepts that there is no law in the arena. The past 30 days, I saw two passengers go postal (no apologies for such a term), as they tried to get re-routed after a cancellation. Miss a connection, suffer a missing attendant, and you discover it’s better to be baggage than a living person. Both were alternately crying and screaming at the clerks at the ticketing desk (who, I confess, are well trained in anger-management), who sit there like the great stone face, immovable as the insults fly.

Once a flight vanishes, the makeup line at the desk becomes surreal. The pros in line flip open their cell phones to call the airlines for a re-route as they wait. Pity the poor sucker who waits patiently while the guy five places behind him has already booked via phone the last seat on the makeup flight, as the poor naïf discovers when he reaches the desk in an hour. About every 100 passengers, I spot the Big Leaguer: the perfect headphones, the memorized flight schedules, the briefcase with 100 gadgets, the encyclopedic knowledge of arcane airline rules. One told me once: “Just hop on flights in the right direction, and you’ll get there eventually.”

Passengers dress like homeless people these days — sweat suits, pajama-like leisure clothes, gym attire. Don’t open your computer while others are opening the overhead doors: their luggage often becomes projectiles that fall out and shatter anything below. Some zoom down the aisle, slamming anyone foolish to use the armrests. The attendants are sort of like the gatekeepers in the Roman games: open the door, let out the Thracian, Retiarius, and Murmillo along with the wild beasts, and then get out of their way. In truth, they are also a heroic lot. The air is not good — dry, smelly, and to be inhaled that way all day. Their warnings often go largely ignored (I saw a businessman in a suit keep playing his video game while the attendant explained it should have been off ten minutes earlier).

Flying is no longer travel, but more something out of Torquemada’s dark mind.

(Photograph by

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Top Rated Comments   
I thought United Airlines was really upping their customer service when my family's flight delayed for six hours because their crack engineering team underestimated the time to install new video screens, so we each got an entire can of soda for our troubles. Now that's high living.

Now maybe you can understand why my wife and I just drove 2,500 miles on vacation from Texas to Colorado and back. Giving up two days of vacation was a pain - having my cracka wife legally molested by Rachel Jeantel types was unbearable.

If I never flew another commercial flight again, it would be too soon.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
On the one hand, I have sworn off flying. I last flew commercial in 2008 and have no concrete plans to do so ever again so long as TSA exists either in name or in spirit.

On the other hand, I have little doubt that someday there will be a TSA checkpoint at the door from my kitchen to my garage.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In my opinion, this is part of a wider effort to condition the American population to accept invasive state authority. It is part of the same mindset that brought us the IRS scandal and the notion that government should build an apparatus that allows them to monitor the once private communications of the entire citizenry. Show me someone who is so foolish as to believe these powers will not be abused, and I will show you someone with no grasp of history.

The first objective is to turn America into a single party oligarchy, with a vast, unaccountable bureaucracy. To do that, the Obama cabal (which includes Republicans as well as foreigners), believes it must target political opponents for “special treatment” (who is foolish enough to believe it ends with aggressive IRS audits?), and acclimate the rest of us to accept that the state cannot be challenged. It also uses various language and thought control techniques. Of course, one risks being branded a “conspiracy theorist” for asserting such things, which is itself an application of language control to silence dissent.

Walter Hudson, a PJM contributor wrote an interesting article on conspiracy theories here:

It's true that the international Left has been working towards a global anti-capitalist system for generations now. That effort in itself is not a conspiracy because they often speak about it openly, especially to their own kind. Saul Alinksy published his book on how to topple democratic government on the open market. Obama employed the Alinksy model openly and legally during his years as a Community Organizer. In that sense it is not conspiracy therefore that Obama is now attempting to mold the US economy into a state-capitalist, crony system that exists to prop up a massive, authoritarian state. This has been the open objective of his ilk for decades.

Part 2 below...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (76)
All Comments   (76)
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I'm pretty much with Mike East Bay - haven't flown since late 1990's. Couldn't stand the terrible "security" efforts. Government pretended to keep us safe by confiscating everything from corkscrews and nail clippers to pocket knives, while doing nothing to prevent several really scary situations (panty bomber, shoe bomber, etc.).

I remember that the airlines ducked the responsibility for passenger screening and the government gladly took over. Nothing works as well as private enterprise.

Ditto on the comments about Southwest. Alaska also has a good reputation. Glad to know about Frontier. Not that I'll be booking on any of them. Have driven across country three times in order to avoid commercial aviaiton
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well, here’s one vote for United. I flew SFO – NYC round trip last October. Fantastic service, wonderful TSA, absolutely beautiful, courteous onboard services, great food. And to top it off, I finished my NYC business 1 day early. On a whim on my way to the Jamaica hotel I detoured to JFK to see if they could book me on an earlier flight. I exited the cab at 6:15 pm on a Monday, with my original reservation for a Tuesday afternoon flight. So help me, I was ON the plane buckling up at 6:30. This was because there wwas no one in line at the UAL counter, and the clerk said they could book me right now if I wanted. I said “yes.” One clerk grabbed my bag and started putting tags on it, while my clerk printed a new ticket. Then she motioned me to actually come behind their counter and through a door. Walking briskly, she escorted me through their back area, and opened another door. I found myself in the Security area, right in front of the long lines. She went directly to one of the TSA agents while directing me to start unbuckling. A few spoken words, a wave-on by the attendant, and I was next through the full body scan, and up the escalator to the gates. The gate attendant waved me through (clearly they were expecting me), and I walked down the ramp in a daze.

Wonderful. But maybe it helped that I had a full price Business Class ticket.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The last time I flew was in the year 1999. It was a fairly pleasant cross-country flight. I have no need to ever fly again, so it's best to remember things as they were. Besides, these days I can stay inside and order online and have groceries and catalog goodies delivered to my home. Shopping centers are as bad as airports, and being crammed into an airplane with the same slobbering human crud I see in stores would be Hell on earth.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And we need to thank all the unions for this "progress" into intolerable and more expensive air travel.
Aren't they great?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sunday night my wife and I had to fly from L.A. to Newark, NJ, on the red-eye. LAX was hell. United Airlines forgot to send boarding agents to our gate and even the pilots and crew had to wait an hour to board. The plane was chaotic and even when all the seating was sorted out we had to wait another hour and a half because the water system was not working. The plane was freezing cold. They weren't able to get it to work so we took off anyway with no running water. Since it was so late, there was no beverage or food service. Luckily, we had brought our own meals aboard. The video screen would not turn off, making it difficult to sleep - I folded the emergency instructions to cover it. The flying part was OK, slept most of the way, but our baggage was delayed one our because of a stuck cargo door. I met a family at the baggage carousel who missed their connection to South Africa. And what do they offer you for this inconvenience and aggravation? $100 off your next flight! Like I'm gonna fly United again...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Glippus- Absolutely spot on. Now, what are we going to do about it ? We have become a nation of sheeple. Can it be turned around ? There is certainly a groundswell of resentment building against the state, but will it ever become organized enough to effect change ?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We can do little without leadership. As Eric Hoffer mapped out for us, even if you have millions of people politically aroused, they will be ineffectual without the kind of leadership that reflects their mood (not necessarily their thoughts) and gives them a sense of cohesion. The GOP is incapable of rising to the moment so we need to find our leadership elsewhere. To me it seems like right now, it is conservative talk radio that is providing the most thoughtful analysis of what is going on, followed by conservative media sites like PJM, which is one of the best. They will have to play a key role since they are the only ones right now who are able to communicate with all of us, provided we do our share to amplify their ideas, and also provide them with steady feedback.

It is people like Mark Levin who are providing the true moral leadership on the conservative side right now. Not the GOP. He claims to have some ideas and how to address the current crisis, I am curious to hear what he has in mind... I think Michael Savage has a lot of interesting insights into what is happening, he tends to look at things from unusual angles, but sometimes you can gain some key tactical knowledge by doing that. I think Rush brings a lot of very clear thinking to the table, I like Hannity's hard driving style, and Alex Jones has no qualms about confronting the minions of the leftist-statist-globalist cabal (google Alex Jones Piers Morgan interview). I used to watch Glenn Beck with awe and admiration when he took on George Soros on FNC, but don't hear from him as much these days... And of course there is VDH (whom I was already reading back in the mid-90's - I am a fellow Phil-Hellene), with his sober, penetrating analysis, David Horrowitz and his deep insights into the agenda of the radical left, Dennis Prager and Hugh Hewitt, Michelle Malkin, not to mention guys like John Bolton and Frank Gaffney... the list is fairly short but very weighty. Their ideas diverge in many ways, but converge where it matters: That this administration is composed of fanatical leftists intent on destroying America as a confident, assertive and powerful champion of freedom, and that radical Islam also represents a civilization level threat. We could do little better as far as brain trust, these guys (and gals) are heavy hitters and could surely plot a successful path out of this mess.

But that still leaves the problem of leadership (too bad none of these guys are politicians, maybe that's why they have so much integrity!)

But there is hope. Eric Hoffer wrote that effective leadership rarely arises immediately after a crisis breaks. It takes time for enough of us, the people, to come to grips with what is happening and develop an understanding of it. We need to experiment a little bit, assess our options before we become emotionally primed for the potential disruption that comes with an uprising. The leader(s) is always in our midst, we just need to become ready to accept his / her leadership. It will not be someone who can convince us with his ideas alone, it will be someone who also connects with us on an emotional level, who we believe really feels what we feel (our love for the Constitution) with the same passion. That comes through body language and other emotional cues. Not fake one's like the teleprompter reader in chief displays, but real emotions that cannot be faked.

First we needed to convince ourselves that the GOP really was as useless as we suspected it might be. Now, many of us have concluded that, at least for now, we have to look elsewhere for a solution. That ground is being lain, and soon we (with a little help from fate) will decide if we are ready to stand up, or lie down, forever.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The TSA is awful. Another faceless bureaucracy that provides little semblance of actual security. Private airline security is the answer, and profiling of passengers has to be done---but this is not PC of course.

I recently flew Spirit airlines. My one carry-on to Vegas was literally 2 inches too long (18 in. vs. 16 in.) and they charged me $50 for it---each way! The seats were also created for midgets. Never flying that POS airline again.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Victor I think claiming the left likes the TSA isn't accurate either. I've never met one. I don't think anyone could enjoy a TSA experience.

I've been lucky with flying experiences lately. But it's all offensive and worthless with security that reportedly doesn't work. It is employment, I guess it gets that...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
VDH, love your articles, but this one is, well, pathetic. Try to only fly SW domestically, with Frontier as a backup. Do not fly US carriers internationally.
Do not accept TSA thuggery. Make them pat you down, they hate it and it makes my day. When you see them not working, call them on it. I have done that in Midway, Sky Harbor and Dulles. They get riled up, but what can they do? Drag you to a supervisor where you point out that 5 folks are standing around talking and not working?
As much as you fly get Clear only five airports now, one is SFO.
The best airport in the Bay area is SJ, followed by SFO with Oakland, as seemingly everything in that city, being badly run and a dump. Don't ever go there!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Southwest Airlines. After a few tries I never fly anyone else. No baggage fees, funny stewardesses, no first class, yes equal class. Their entire corporate philosophy reads like Works and Days.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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