Flying as Torture


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.