Friday, September 12, 2008

Flying on September 11: A Rant

Written on September 11, although -- for reasons which will be clear when you read it -- I was away from an internet connection and couldn't publish it until now.

For various reasons, my wife and I don't fly very much: we don't travel much to begin with, and when we do we tend to go places within driving distance. But we do fly a handful of times a year, and, as it happens, this year we flew on September 11 -- seven years after the 9/11.

And, as I always do when I fly, I thought about how much worse it's gotten in the last (now seven) years, and how, if I had my druthers, I'd never fly again.

There are a lot of aspects to this, of which only some have to do with the terrorist attacks of seven years ago. The price of fuel, obviously, has a lot to do with it. That is the excuse, anyway, for charging per checked bag, which the airlines have now started to do. I'd read about this, of course, but since we don't fly much, and try not to check bags when we do, I hadn't focused on how much they were charging. On U.S. airways, anyway, it's $15 for the first bag, $25 for the second -- and $100 for a third.

That strikes me as beyond any reasonable fuel surcharge, and well into price gouging (simply going by the relationship of the price between the bags). Once my wife and I start to check (and for various personal reasons, I anticipate that if we fly next year we'll have to), this starts to be serious money -- and yet another reason to think, hmm, maybe a twelve hour drive doesn't sound so bad after all.

By itself it wouldn't: but there are other advantages to driving.

You get there, for instance.

I've lost count, now, of how many stories I've heard from friends and family and acquaintances and random strangers shouting in subways about trying to fly and simply not getting where you were planning to go in any reasonable amount of time (defined as getting there in time for whatever you're traveling for). At this point, it's begun to seem like even odds: if you buy a plane ticket, you've got a coin-flip chance of getting where you're going. -- Each way, of course, so that if you're going round trip that's a total of 25% chance of arrival. (Personally, for us, the results have been about that, I'd say. For people we know overall, it's been a bit better -- but not much.)

My wife recently made a business trip: living as we do in a small town, she had to take a flight with a connection. Of the four plane flights she was scheduled to be on, she ended up on one. She got where she was going and back only by taking, in addition, a train, a $100-inter-state taxi ride, and by ending up at an airport over an hour away from our house, where I had to go get her at midnight.

And that was a good story, because she made her meeting and got back on time.

And, I should note, that one of the reasons we don't fly much is that a number of years ago we stopped taking flights for reasonably short trips (drives of 6 hours or so). We stopped after I noticed, on maybe a half-dozen trips, that I would have gotten to my destination sooner if I had simply started driving there instead of the airport.

Now, I'm not claiming this as statistics: that's simply perceptions from anecdotes. But even people who I would think of as pro-flying have long since started to notice it: flying is no longer reliable.

I don't know, really, how much this has to do with the events of seven years ago -- probably fairly little directly, although more in indirect effects. But cost-cutting has lead airlines into things beyond price-gouging for bags. Cutting crews and planes to the bone means that there isn't the slightest margin of error: if anything goes wrong, the schedule goes off. (We had a connecting flight canceled last year because -- purportedly: of course they lie, which is frustrating in and of itself -- a flight attendant didn't show up. About eight hours after our flight was supposed to take off they put us all onto two busses and drove us where we were going (four and a half hours away, by bus). Welcome to the new Delta.)

And it's this feeling, that flying is no longer reliable, that you can't count on getting where you're going, that makes everything else so bad. The price gouging, the petty cheapness,* the seats the size of packing crates, the thoroughness of utterly useless security checks,** all of that, would be bearable if you could at least count on ending up where you're going. But when you start missing meetings, missing family events, having vacations turn to smoke and spending nights in random cities, you start to wonder why you're doing this at all.

* On that flight I mentioned above -- the one that turned into a bus ride -- we were given dinner vouchers as we waited in JFK: five dollars each. An average dinner at the restaurants around was at least $7-8, if not more. Most couples got one good dinner for their combined two vouchers. There was a strong sense among all of us on that ill-fated flight that the vouchers were an out-and-out insult: giving us less than the cost of a meal was in some non-economic sense worse than doing nothing.

Then, on the business trip I mentioned, my wife (on the verge of spending a night in a stop-over city) was told that they wouldn't give her a hotel voucher because the cancellation wasn't their fault -- it was weather. (Somewhere. Sunny where she was.) Although, of course, it was their fault -- for not having any backup plans or slack in their system.

** This was the incident that set me off on this rant, although it was ultimately swamped by the main rant above which I've been hoarding for a while now. I have, as those of you who know me know, a serious medical skin problem. I use a lot of ointments and creams in my life. So the utterly pointless ban on "liquids" -- where I come from, toothpaste is not a liquid, and neither is vaseline or lubriderm -- hits me hard. If this helped prevent a repeat of the attacks seven years ago, I wouldn't really mind. But it's security theater, plugging a single hole in a leaking tanker because someone (inefficiently) tried to use it once in the intervening years -- and not very effectively at that. I suspect that a determined terrorist could get explosive liquid on a plane of he wanted to -- although I suspect a terrorist of even average intelligence would target something other than planes, since busses, trains, bridges, etc, are all wide open.

Talk about locking the barn door after the horse was stolen -- we're erecting a single, free-standing door on a vast field because the last horse we saw happened to run off in that particular direction.

While I'm talking about the "security", I noticed this time through the TSA's motto: "Your Security is Our Priority". At first it reminded me of Terry Gilliam's Brazil; but now I'm wondering if it isn't more similar to the ubiquitous motto used by the military in Dr. Strangelove, "Peace Is Our Profession".

Either way, it certainly gives a nice frisson of deception and sanctimoniousness to an otherwise pointless and aggravating process.

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