Can the airlines possibly make it any more unpleasant to fly? I understand how nineteen guys with boxcutters altered our way of life, but the airline industry's reaction to the first multiple hijacking, in lock step with the government, is insane. Some fool tries to set his shoes on fire over the Atlantic and before you know it, we're all tiptoeing barefoot through a gauntlet of idiots who can prevent you from flying if you look at them cross-eyed. A rumor runs rampant that terrorists are individually smuggling various chemicals on a plane that will explode when mixed up together in the air-toilet, and suddenly a high school drop-out in a uniform is confiscating my Mother's hand lotion. And have you ever been in an airline toilet, much less consider mixing volatile salves in there? Soon enough, we'll all be required to wear pocketless, translucent leotards to board, making air travel not merely annoying, but disgusting too.
Because you have somewhere to go, you stand and silently accept their abuse as you are herded into a metal tube reeking of jet fuel, gaseous emissions, and body odors. Your cramped seat hasn't been wiped down in five years and there's an oil slick on the headrest, but you can't sit down until the aisle clears of passengers trying to stuff their oversized suitcases into the overhead bins to avoid the extra charge for luggage. You wish you had some water, but they took that away at the gate and the two dollar cokes won't be served until the plane is airborne. If your plane backs away from the gate quickly, there is no assurance that you will take-off anytime soon. In fact, if there is a long delay, the airline will not inform you in advance, but hold you hostage on the tarmac and not permit you to leave the plane for as long as it takes, even eight hours or more. I believe if an airline held me against my will that long, I would be either getting arrested, subdued, or faking a seizure.
My Uncle Gene's example is typical. He had accumulated enough points to qualify for a discounted ticket from Dallas to Memphis. In the past, that ticket would have cost $300-$400, but had my Uncle needed to walk up and buy a ticket, yesterday's price was $945 for coach on American Airlines. His early flight from Dallas was cancelled for unknown reasons and delayed Uncle Gene by four hours. There's a saying in Texas; "Fool me once...," so he called American in advance for his return trip and was assured the flight was on time. But when he got to the Memphis airport, it had been cancelled again, delaying him an additional four hours. Who needs this aggravation anymore? They treat you like cattle but charge you like kings. Ticket prices fluctuate wildly from day to day in unusual symmetry within the industry, so you're forced online to "phish" for a fare like a bidder at auction, but there is still the chance that the plane has been "oversold" and you'll be left at the gate, e-ticket in hand.
I understand that oil and oil products are at record highs, but the airlines have been in decline for thirty years, coinciding with their virtual monopoly on public travel. It was not an accident that the airlines soared while the railroads decayed and died. Harry Nilsson sang, "Nobody Cares About the Railroad Anymore," mainly because they lacked good Washington lobbyists. A collusion between the airline industry and the oil companies sounded the death knell for rail travel, and putting Amtrak under the government's supervision was a fool's errand. We became wholly dependent on the airlines while countries like Japan and France were developing light rail travel and bullet trains that arrived into the heart of the city without polluting the air.
The airlines were deregulated in 1978 to promote regional competition, but when Reagan took office in 1980 and fired striking air traffic controllers and busted their union, it was a clear sign that regulations were for sissies. Before 1980, the airlines provided student and military discounts, and there were enough vacant seats to fly "stand-by," and still get on the plane. Ticket prices did lower for a while, and personal service was acceptable, if spotty. But the establishment of monopolistic airline "hubs" and the popularity of regional airlines caused the giants to fall and, one by one: Braniff, Trans World Airways, Eastern, Pan American, the industry's pioneering companies, began to disappear. As in any unregulated business arena, corporate Darwinism then took affect and the big fish began to devour the little fish. What happened to the airlines is the same thing that happened to the music business, the entertainment industry, the printed press and broadcast media, the news networks, and the Mafia. It all got shrunken down and divided into the control of around five families.
So now, flying is a test of will and endurance, and worse, it's the only game around. Every time an airline decides to charge passengers by the pound and forces families on vacation to choose between packing the souvenirs or the shoes, they further alienate their customers. Can it get better? Yes. Barack Obama gave a speech in Flint, Michigan last Tuesday that was ignored by the mainstream media because it lasted an hour and went into great detail regarding his economic vision for the future. Thank goodness for the C-Span, because the only reason I saw it was that it was broadcast at 3 AM, and I was being diligent for my readers. Obama spoke for the first time as a candidate in 40 years of linking our major cities with light rail that will rival the speeds of an airplane while providing an alternative to air travel, minus the fuel costs. He spoke of creating these "green" jobs in cities like Flint, or Gary, or Allentown, that have suffered the worst from corporate abuse by being used up, discarded, and abandoned. Offer some competition to the airlines for the travellers' dollar and watch their services improve.
Still, the talking heads repeat that the populace doesn't know Obama. If any network, other than C-Span, would present the candidates in a forum undominated by the need for soundbites, perhaps we could know the candidates better. At 3 AM, however, Obama's vision for the future of this country was rich with possibility and delved deeply into the serious problems we face. His willingness to invest in clean rail travel in an age of airline dominance is reason enough to examine his other ideas, but you'd never know it reading or watching the news. Unless he peppered his speech with pander, it would not be considered newsworthy. Meanwhile, Melody and I will be spending our "staycation" in the backyard this year, watching the airlines overhead revert back to their original state, as purveyors of aristocratic travel. Welcome the return of the "Jet Set."