I took my first commercial flight a bit later than a lot of folks nowadays — I think I was about 13 — but since then I've flown on everything from Boeing 747s in South Africa to twin-prop Cessna puddle jumpers between Hyannis and Nantucket. I've crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic. I've soared above flyover country countless times.
United Airlines' debacle with David Dao has highlighted the horrors of air travel. Some kind of barrier was crossed: for more than a decade, with greatly increased security and greatly decreased customer service, passengers have felt figuratively roughed up when they fly. Dao's experience took that to a whole new level. There was blood.
A cry has gone up to reform the airline business and restore some dignity to this once-romantic and exciting form of travel. But it's not going to happen.
The airlines have figured out that they can segregate budget-conscious passengers who just want to get from A to B and will endure any indignity along the way from fliers who will pay extra to avoid leg cramps and get to drink the entire can of Coke. That's a big part of the business now.
But really, the business has irreversibly changed from how it functioned when those first silvery birds took the skies and opened up the world.
Airlines make about $10 per passenger, and although that sounds dire, with cheap fuel costs and some efficient route management, as well as limited competition, the major US airlines have of late translated it into sturdy bottom lines.
They've also spent decades training the public to expect next to nothing in the way of service, a trend that's been accelerated by online ticket-buying sites that have driven down fares. Spirit Airlines has made this into a core brand value.
The good old days
I actually saw the way it used to be, back in the good old days before deregulation and ritual disrobement in the security lines. My father traveled about two weeks a month, and my brother and I would often accompany my mother when we took him to the small airport that served the town we grew up in.
The old man would check in, surrender his single suitcase, and then breeze through the metal detector, offloading his keys and loose change in a single practiced move, before ascending the steps to a 727 and zooming off. The entire process consumed about 15 minutes. When he returned, the wait for the suitcase and the baggage claim was usually ten minutes or less.
He could smoke all he wanted on the plane and depending on where he was going, they'd give him dinner. He never flew first class and business didn't really exist yet.
However, even the 1970s were a transitional period, with the glamorous 1960s Jet Set a vanishing memory. But compared with how I typically fly, my dad traveled like a king.
It is possible to do better. I flew to Paris last year on La Compagnie, a new all-business-class airline that's running just one route and charging prices that are miles below the usual business class fare. It was utterly worth it.
I also flew Los Angeles to New York exclusively on JetBlue back in the mid-2000s when the upstart was truly tackling the miserable flying experience. The airline offered comfy leather seats, decent snacks, and individual TVs. Flying JetBlue back then, you could still see a faint glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.
But let's be real. Unless you're willing to spend a ton of money, flying is an ordeal. From fighting traffic to getting to the airport right up to the non-reclining seat you're liable to encounter, the whole experience is an ordeal.
The thing is, it's pretty much always been like this. On the infrequent occasions when I've enjoyed a legit business-class or first-class seat, the contrast with my decades-long experience has been mind-warpingly dramatic. And don't even get me started on flying private, which gives you the sense of having joined a separate species.
Airports are providing some compensation. They now offer better food than anyone imagined in the 1980s, and many have seen whole terminals converted into shopping malls. Various unaffiliated lounges have sprung up, and even the ones connected with the big airlines will often let you hang out, for a daily fee.
But in watching United's PR mess unfold over the past few weeks, I was struck by how unsurprised I was by the chorus of dismay. Yes, Dr. Dao endured a level of mistreatment that led you to question humanity on several levels. But were we shocked that this happened on an airplane?
The last time I flew the Friendly Skies (actually, on a Continental plane absorbed with that airlines and United merged) I found that my usually advantageous 5'-7" frame was very spatially challenged in coach; it wasn't legroom so much as a slot into which to wedge my regrettable human limbs.
I usually fly because I have to. If I can figure out another way to get there, I'll usually take it. That's where my four decades of life with the airlines has led me. Admittedly, I always contrast this urge with my understanding that although air travel is astoundingly unpleasant, it's also astonishingly safe. We can't take this simple truth away from either the plane makers or the airlines. But that doesn't mean we can't be realistic about what boarding an aircraft circa 2017 is all about.
An understandable decline
My point here is that flying has gotten only worse since my maiden voyage. But even back then, it wasn't that great. I once took a long train trip, covering about half the USA in a two-week period. It wasn't like it was back in the glory days of rail travel, but it was magical by contrast with my plane voyages.
Fundamentally, the airline industry operates according to a pair of rudimentary objectives: get people to where they want to go fast, and get them there cheap. Deviate from this model, as the likes of JetBlue did for about 10 years, and pay the price (JetBlue has revamped it service-centric model to be more like everybody else). So we suffer in safety, for the most part, but we can cross oceans in less than a day and spend a fraction of what it cost when air travel was glorious.
There is some solace. A few flights back, crammed into my coach seat, wondering if I should ask for another Coke, my plane flew alongside a thunderstorm, miles and miles off the shoulder of the jet. The light show was a wonder to behold, impossible not to look at. I was among a tiny sliver of humans who have ever lived who got to witness this marvel of nature.
It reminded me of why we put up with all the crap.