Saturday, June 21, 2008

Air Sickness

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."


ghg said...

Well. It's my sense that we will be afforded the gift of an intelligent presence in the White House whether or not everybody gets to know Obama. It's going to be a popular and electoral landslide. And what a breath of oxygenated air that will be. Real ideas that make practical sense? Can you imagine someone really trying to help us? Of course, Obama is an adult. That helps.

Anonymous said...

Flying is scary enough now without all the airline hullabalew.Hell now you are made to feel like a criminal just for bringing a bottle of water on board.I'm done flying,if I need to go somewhere I'll go to the Travel Channel.Ya'll have a nice summer and stop on by some time,ya hear.chop

Anonymous said...

Light rail between cities is a great idea and will take decades to do. Like most democrats, Obama can't seem to solve any problems now. Working people need immediate solutions, while working on all the pie in the sky ideas too. I mean how many years have Dems been talking about alternative fuels. I'm still waiting on my car that runs on wheatgrass. Where is it?
While you work on that, how about if we increase our own refining capacity. I'd like to save some money on gas, while I wait for ya'll to squeeze the juice out of all that wheatgrass.

ghg said...

Only problem with solving the problem now by increasing our production is that'll take about 10 years to come on line. So, everybody who doesn't want to wait for pie in the sky may have to wait for the melted ice cream that will be ten years old that they thought would come just by pushing some "let's just get our own" button. No button exists.

Let's do something else. Oil's a big problem. Actually, McCain had an idea today. And I like the hell out of it. Throw some real money at the entrepreneurial mind of America and get that pie in the sky faster. 300 Million might get some shit done. How long did it take JFK to get to the moon, for God's sakes. And that was, count em, 50 years ago!!

Anonymous said...

If you knew you would have a car that ran on wheatgrass, but it would take ten years, would it be worth the effort?
If we had started drilling for oil ten years ago, we'd have it now.
It is stupid to abandon a solution because it might take ten years.
By the way, did you drive a car this week?

Father Farken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Father Farken said...

ANOTHER BRILLIANT BLOG! When ever I go through airline security I set off every thing...sirens go off & the security have me spread eagle with arms out & palms up. Back before I was ordained a priest
I always kissed the lady before I would cop a feel. Lord have mercy! Some of these savages love their job a wee bit too much....hands going places where the sun was never meant to shine. They think my c-pap machine(for sleep apnea) is a W M D & my titanium knee replacement sets off all the alarms(I tell'em its the plate in me noggin). But let's thank G*d for the high school musical dropouts...none of us have been blown to smithereens with Lucy in the sky with diamonds. The mouth breathing lady in front of me with 9 kids (all under 11) and a multitude of bags was asked if all the kids and bags belong to her. "Yes sir!" she said with a sigh. "They are all mine!" Then the inspector asked her if she had any weapons, contraband or illegal drugs in her possession. "sir she calmly answered, "If I had any of those item's I would have used them by now!" She was allowed to go through without further interrogation. The peace of the Lord! FatherFarken

Anonymous said...

So, we flew back to DC from Seattle, having to transfer in Newark with a 90 minute layover. No problem, except that our plane left Seattle two hours late, forcing us to miss our connection (the last flight of the night), and pay for lodging, food, etc. And, of course, to top it off, one of our suitcases was lost for 36 hours.

But that doesn't compare with the flight two years ago from Israel to DC through Newark (shouldn't we know better), where we were also forced to spend the night because of weather, and couldn't find a place to stay within 30 miles of the airport (and all that after a twelve hour overnight flight).

And then there was the cancelled flight from Nashville to DC because the crew decided not to show up.

And the flight from Ireland that was delayed for hours and hours because they couldn't close the baggage compartment (they eventually decided to solder it) and then we were stuck in customs in, of all places, Toronto, with no information because it took them 3 hours to unsolder the baggage.

Oh well, each time we got there safe and sound. That is what counts.

Arthur and Edie