May 31, 2008

Fly the Friendly Skies, You Lowly Maggot.

(Via Insty, who keeps hitting my buttons with the topic of air travel suckage.)


A "New" Form of Transportation?

The only good I can imagine coming out of the slump in air travel is the possibility of high-speed rail (or even normal rail) taking over for some short flights: along the West Coast, for example, where passengers now share pokey trains with freight, and with town-to-town passengers. We can drive between Californian coastal cities, for example, much more quickly than we can get there by train.

And it would be excellent to have rail service between L.A. and Las Vegas / SF and Las Vegas—but, again: it would have to be nearly competitive with driving. If it were at least semi-equivalent to the drive (rather than nearly double the drive time), it would be especially attractive: people who want to start their drinking early would probably prefer to take a train—as would those who like to stay downtown, or on the Strip, and not bother with a car during their stay. (There are cabs in Las Vegas . . . and monorails! Just like Anaheim, but without having to cope with people who are dressed up like Mickey Mouse. In fact, Vegas is widely regarded as an amusement park for grownups . . . and grownups tend to prefer booze to cotton candy. Maybe they shouldn't, but they do.)

Making rail transportation attractive (in the West especially) would probably improve the U.S. public safety profile with respect to terrorism, since trains can't be made into flying bombs. One cannot force them off the tracks and into public facilities, government buildings, and national monuments. Can't be done, outside of action movies.

In case anyone hasn't noticed, though, the U.S. is too big a country to rely on rail. We need an air-travel renaissance so we can stop losing billions of dollars a year (see the first link in this entry).

But How Did We Get Into this High-Altitude Kettle of Fish? And What Can the Average Person Do To Make Flying Suck Less?

The problem with flying lately is the apparent unholy alliance between the TSA and some airlines, which use the need for "safety" as another excuse to essentially screw the customer. Although I do tend to shop by price, if there were an airline that made flying suck less, I'd pay more for a consistently less-bad (or even kind-of-good) experience. This is the danger and the opportunity presented by Virgin America, which I've never flown—but which is clearly going for the "fed up with flying" market. As is the express-security Flyclear service, which might be promising, but hasn't yet hit La La Land. (The blogger "Sack of Seattle," however, has high hopes for Flyclear.)

Personally, I liked the warm chocolate-chip cookies that Midwest Airlines was handing out for a while, because at least it indicated an effort to please the customer. (Have they stopped doing that? I thought I heard that they had: unfortunately, I don't have a lot of access to Midwest, since that means Going to the East Coast, which I generally only do once a year, and it's only if I luck out on the second "leg" of the journey after connecting to MW in Kansas City or wherever.)

Eric Classic points out that Southwest Airlines sucks less than most of the other airlines, whereas U.S. Air and American Airlines suck more.

Remember that Southwest isn't part of most Expedia/Hotwire/Priceline-type online booking services; neither is Continental, which also has great fares. One has to check out the "indies," in addition to seeing what the usual web sites can do for one. I believe Virgin America also has to be checked separately, apart from the Web Consortia—though I'm not positive about that.

I've had reasonably good success with Continental, provided that I know my plans a good 4-6 weeks in advance—preferably more. Their service is decent, but their fares spike when it's close to trip time.

But Surely Flying Isn't That Bad.

Vanderleun rather gloomily suggests that air travel suckage will simply get worse over time:

Food goes, blankets go, seats get jammed in, pillows vanish, oxygen is reduced, peanuts change into tasteless "freeze-baked crunchy things with salt" which come two to a pack and you only get one. Don't even get me started on Homeland Security which is just biding its time until you will be required to fly naked after an anal probe by uniformed dwarf.

I know I am far from alone when I say that after years of flying many times a year, often on a whim, I am now at the point where only the most powerful forces in life -- love and death -- can get me on a plane.

It is not that the whole experience is uncomfortable, which it is, but that the process has become -- through a Satanic collusion between the airlines and government -- utterly dehumanizing. Bean-counters and bureaucrats have combined to create the one central experience of American life in which you are reduced to a hunk of meat.

The situation for consumers is really dire. For example, I am a tiny woman. I shudder at how scrunched in I am in coach—at least with the Prozac, I'm no longer experiencing panic attacks, but I still feel like a sardine. And yet my spouse is more than a foot taller than I am, and he is still folded into the same space. We have taken to booking aisle seats across from each other, so I don't feel too hemmed in (and so I can get up to pee without crawling over people), and so A the H can stick his legs into the aisle. Of course, last time we flew it was a short flight in a small plane, and a warning was broadcast about keeping feet, knees, elbows, and shoulders out of the aisle so the beverage cart could go by. Good times for me; better times for my husband.

Flying has become a truly miserable undertaking, except for the rich, who can afford British Air and its ilk—or at least spring for first class on a normal plane. (And, of course, for the super-rich, who simply charter planes and lecture the rest of us about how we should be driving Priuses for environmental reasons.)

Back when we had money, A the H once flew business class to Southeast Asia, and swore he'd never go back to coach again. But we're very broke once more, so he flew coach to Chicago for a marathon this past summer—and came back the same way. (Keep in mind that it takes him days to gear up for a marathon, and nearly a week to recover therefrom: getting folded up for five or six hours before and after running over 26 miles is not a great idea.)

What Is To Be Done?

The point (and, as Ellen Degeneres would say, I do have one) is that the American flying industry is at a crisis point. Quality had fallen to a certain level prior to 9/11 in the name of cutting costs; just at the point when the market might have corrected that, eleven Islamofascists took out the World Trade Center—and made an attempt on the Capitol Building and the White House on the same day (once of which ended up in the side of the more-distinctive Pentagon building, and one of which ended up on a field in Pennsylvania).

After that, the airline industry hid behind the skirts of the FAA/TSA/Homeland Security, and vice versa. The entire industry began to act like a branch of the Federal government, complete with the "fuck you" undertone one sees in the worst Post Offices, the worst public schools, and the worst (that is, the most publicly subsidized) healthcare providers.

So the entire American approach to air travel must change, or wither / downsize considerably (bringing down with it the entire travel industry, and any number of tourist towns, tourist-dependent cities, and "resort communities" / vacation destinations).

I know Reynolds is always urging the rich to fly commercial, and I think that would change things a lot: fewer chartered planes would mean that the quality of flying would have to improve for those well-off folks who are flying with the hoi polloi. This is one of those situations in which doing the right thing for the environment would also mean doing the right thing for the economy. How many choices like that do we get to make? (At least the non-famous rich should try this; I do get that it's tougher for people in entertainment. I really do.)


Irrespective, there is a choice ahead for the airline industry. I hope it chooses wisely, and well. And I hope the Feds can back off enough to let it make the right decisions.

Or we are all going to be driving just about anywhere we need to go on the continental U.S.

In the meantime, figure out which airlines treat you the best, and stay loyal to them, whenever feasible. Figure out which airports have the stupidest, slowest, and surliest security staffers, and avoid them--sending letters to them to make sure they know why you're doing it. If you have particularly egregious experience with a particular airline--send a note regretfully stating that you won't be using them any more, and then blog about (in a way that will make it findable to the average curious person, such as using the phrase "XXXX Airline Sucks").

Try not the patronize the worst offenders--both in terms of airports, and in terms of airlines. They need to get the message.

UPDATE: Apparently, alliances aren't the answer, since for two airlines to communicate about price requires antitrust immunity. Heaven forfend that anyone do well in a dying industry.

One wants to weep.

UPDATE 2: There's an interesting little thread on flying here, which begins with Ed Morrissey rather uncharacteristically blaming the victim. The comments are very illuminating and instructive, though.

Posted by Attila Girl at May 31, 2008 12:38 AM | TrackBack
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