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Why Air Travel Is Claustrophobic, Dehumanizing And Unlikely To Change

Just how uncomfortable does flying have to get before something changes? (Andrey Larin/Unsplash)closemore
Just how uncomfortable does flying have to get before something changes? (Andrey Larin/Unsplash)

I am standing in the jammed airplane aisle, my carry-on suitcase resting on my head because I can’t manage a single sweep from floor to overhead bin, and because someone’s very full backpack just doubled as a wrecking ball, collapsing my elbows in the very instant I was trying to straighten them for the final push.

I remember when flying was pleasant. Nowadays, I am beginning to feel that the only way to fly in comfort is to have an attendant hold ether vapors under my nose before boarding, and hope that I won’t come to until I’ve been “de-planed.” When Greyhound buses start waking your nostalgia, you know you’ve hit the bottom of the travel barrel.

When Greyhound buses start waking your nostalgia, you know you’ve hit the bottom of the travel barrel.

Perhaps you, too, have read that the four biggest American carriers (American, Southwest, Delta and United) together made $22 billion in profit last year? Falling oil prices and full flights buoyed their bottom line. As passengers, what improvements did we get as our share of this great bounty? We got ... bubkes. No lower airfares. No upgrade of services. No free ability to change flights when our schedules change. No restoration of more substantial snacks and meals. And no better seats.

We got the same old crowding and indifferent service served up with a large dollop of discomfort. A small, 50-something colleague who flies for her work told me that her doctor had tied her chronic upper back pain to her endless lifting of carry-ons into the baggage racks. A taller, older friend reflected that there are many places in the world she’d still like to visit, but she can’t manage the pain of the crushed-knee seating for more than an hour or two.

I have no fear of flying, but I do now have dread. Part of it is the whole TSA routine. I understand the ritual of safety it imposes. But, from what I can tell, it’s more bossy than thorough. Recently, an older woman with a cane, limping slowly ahead of me, accidentally left half a bottle of water in her carry on luggage. The security person found it. The woman was embarrassed, and explained that she’d forgotten it was there. She asked to drink the water and then proceed. Nope. She could only drink the water if she slowly limped back out, drank the water and then started the whole security process over again.

And yes, I confess, I’m still grouchy about the tiny Swiss army knife that belonged to my father before he died and that was taken away with a coldness intended to shame me for my lapse. And yes, I was told I could spend 45 minutes mailing it to my house and starting through security again. But there wasn’t time.

Meanwhile, it was reported last June that when people from Homeland Security attempted to smuggle explosives, hand guns,  and other truly dangerous stuff past these same checkpoints, they succeeded a terrifying 95 percent of the time. Maybe it’s time to refocus?

But TSA isn’t the half of it. I fly steerage. I don’t have any special forms of status that might let me board ahead. So I’m in the lowest caste. You know the drill. First Caste boards before Business Caste, boards before Platinum Caste boards before Emerald Caste, boards before Sapphire Caste, boards before World-Wide special Caste, boards before Super Frequent Fliers Caste, boards before Mediocre Frequent Fliers Caste, boards before the rest of us.

The airlines know that we have to fly -- for work or family if not for fun. It’s very hard to vote with our feet. So they don’t have much incentive to help us out.

Then there’s the carry-on misery — which I assume is money saving for the airlines — since it diminishes how much baggage they have to pay people to handle. Everyone knows that the space goes quickly. So everyone jockeys to be at the front of their mini-line. You rush down the gangway, and then you wait ... and wait, and pray that by the time you get to your seat you’ll still be able to stow your stuff. During busy times, before your row is even called, you’re told that the bins are full and you must check your bag. Then you have scored the sore-bodied, tired, hungry, 30 minutes plus of thumb-twiddling at the carousel that might just be the coup de grace.

The airlines know that we have to fly — for work or family if not for fun. It’s very hard to vote with our feet. So they don’t have much incentive to help us out. But wouldn’t it be great if they invested a teeny-weeny bit of their $22 billion making flying better for passengers?

Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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