There is almost no experience I dread more these days than flying from one city to another. It isn’t out of a fear of flying. It is out of a deep sadness for the loss of what used to be a fun and exciting way to travel. Air travel has found its lowest common denominator and from what I can tell, no one is happy.
I had an unusually busy travel year. I made six work-related trips by plane, five of which took me from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles. Air travel, these days, is all about attempting to minimize stress and anxieties. How hard will it be to find a parking place? How busy will the airport be? How much time do I need to leave to get into the airport proper? If you think that last is a silly question, talk to people traveling out of LAX, where the line of cars trying to get into the airport resembles the lines of cars on the 405 freeway at rush hour. How long will the lines be at security? Should I cough up the money to check my bags or roll the dice and hope that there will still be overhead space left in the plane by the time I board?
As far as I can tell, the airlines are doing nothing to improve their service or reputations. I can recall a time when even coach seats were relatively comfortable and spacious. I remember traveling on a DC-10 in the late 1980s when there was a lounge up front. Passengers looked as if they were setting about on some great adventure, bright teeth gleaming within smiles wherever you looked. People talked with their seat-mates about where they were going and what they were doing.
The airlines have changed all of this. I rarely see passengers talking with one another. Instead, they isolate themselves within the cocoons of their noise-cancelling headsets. No one ever bothers to look out the windows any more. Indeed, on most of the flights I was on this year, most of the window shades were shut, and the cabin was dim and gloomy, like a medieval prison.
Baggage limits and the cost to check bags breeds a poisonous competition, where passengers angle for the the earliest possible boarding on a plane in order to get prime overhead space. I’ve seen arguments break out over the inability of a passenger to fit their bags into the overhead.
You pay for every extra. And those with more means than others can buy advantages others can’t afford. You can pay to check your bags and avoid the stress of fighting for overhead space. You can pay for more leg room at your seat. You can pay for Internet access to distract you while you fly. You can pay for food and drink if you are hungry. You can even pay to move through the faster “premium” security lines. All this seems to do is annoy those who can’t afford to pay for these additions. It doesn’t seem to make those who do pay any happier, probably because they’ve already handed over a pretty penny for their ticket.
I’ve taken advantages of all of these amenities. As a frequent flier, I’ve upgrade my flights to first class, and I have access to the airline lounge. No one I see when I head to the airport looks happy, no one I see on the plane looks happy. No one in the airline lounge looks happy. Like me, they all look resigned to their fate. They are all anxious to get where they are going. It is all about the destination. We want to forget the journey.
The best parts of flying these days are those rare times when I have a window seat (I prefer an aisle seat ) and can spend time with my window shade up, observing the country as it passes below. This lasts until the flight attendant taps me on the shoulder and asks if I wouldn’t mind lowering my shade so that the glare won’t disturb the screens of the other passengers. I took the photograph above early in one flight. Those clouds cover the Los Angeles basin, not long after takeoff early in the morning.
The airlines have made flying extremely safe, which is a good thing for which they deserve some credit. They have also turned around their businesses from bankruptcy, or the brink thereof. They have achieved this rather remarkable turnaround by removing all of the glamour and pleasure from the experience.
I miss the way air travel used to be. I can’t stand the way it is today, and for many years now, I only travel by air for work. When we take our vacations, they have been exclusively road-trips, often taking us more than 2,000 miles roundtrip. We drive up to Maine in the summers. We drive down to Florida in the winters. Traveling by car has improved at least as much as traveling by plane has declined. We don’t have to worry about luggage. We have plenty of room in the minivan. We don’t have to pass through airport security or deal with long lines. We have comfortable seats, and these days the car practically drives itself. We can come and go as we please. We see the country up close. If there’s something interesting that catches our eye, we can stop.
It takes more time to travel by car than by plane, but it is immeasurably more pleasant, and less stressful. Sure, at times we hit traffic, but we can usually time our travel to avoid it. And besides, these days, the navigation software in the car knows about traffic and can re-route us around the bad stuff.
Driving also saves us a ton of money. It could cost anywhere between $1,000 – $2,000 to fly five of us from Washington, D.C. to Florida. Driving costs us about $500 in gas and hotels (we usually make one overnight stop each way), and meals. That’s anywhere from 50-75% less than what it costs to fly. But the costs of savings in terms of stress, anxiety, long lines, and canceled flights can’t be measured.