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.
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