the sorrow of flight

Posted on April 22, 2008

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Twenty years ago, air travel was exciting, fun and exotic.

Taking a plane to one’s destination was part of the journey and signaled the start of the vacation. People would dress well to board a plane. The flight attendants were courteous and helpful. Meals were not great, of course, but it was not the joke that it is now, if one even gets meal services on board these days.

Planes would take off on time and get to the designation on schedule, or at times, even early. The state of the airplanes’ interiors was usually immaculate, seats would recline smoothly and things on the plane actually worked.

Upon disembarkation, bags that were checked would show up at the designated carousel and the passenger goes off to continue with the business or vacation that the plane had pleasantly taken him to.

But of course, things are no longer these rosy scenarios anymore.

Air travel passengers nowadays are forced to start their journey hours before the time the plane is scheduled to depart, often having to arrive at least two hours ahead so that they could go through the chaotic scenes and long lines at the check-in counters, endure the mind-numbingly tedious process of airport security, stripping off jackets/ outerwear, shoes, belts, watches and what-nots, putting up with rude TSA officers and “random checks”, rushing to the gate, only to find that the flight is, inevitably, delayed.

Once the passenger is lucky enough to get on the plane, he might be trapped on the tarmac for easily half to an hour waiting for the plane’s turn to take-off, tolerate more surly service from the flight attendant who won’t give him a glass of water, cramped in a seat that was built for anorexic midgets.

Upon surviving the flight where one had to pay for a drink and meal, luggage retrieval could induce more blood pressure elevation as the passenger realizes that the checked luggage is lost.

Why do we endure the nightmare of air travel anymore?

Why has it become so painful?

Is there hope of things getting better any time soon?

Just recently, Delta and Northwest announced their merger and claim that they had to, in the face of higher oil prices and better weather more turbulence ahead for the industry. More airlines are reportedly following in their footsteps, such as United and Continental. 

But it does not look like mergers are the answers.

What benefits are there for passengers when there are fewer choices and fuller planes from reduced flights as airlines cut back duplication? Isn’t competition usually an incentive for lower prices and better service?

But with the mergers, prices are likely to go up while service could get worse. Passengers will soon be slapped with $25 surcharge for checking a second bag. What choices have they but to cough up and swallow the anger, since five out of the six major airlines are introducing it?

Mergers do not make for better in-flight service either. In fact, already substandard service by flight attendants might get worse as discontented employees feel more enraged by worse deals foisted on them from the mergers and their unions get more toothless, losing members’ benefits and pensions.

Flights are even less likely to be on schedule, as disgruntled pilots pay the companies back for the lousy deals and lower pay they might get after mergers by enacting legal work slow-downs and other industrial action. 

The state of air travel does not have to be such a disaster. US carriers could take a leaf from Asian carriers, who are constantly beating them in service, punctuality and price. Even with the heightened fears of terrorism, foreign airports put in place security checks that are a lot more discreet and hassle-free than those in US airports. Why not make flying less painful if it is possible?

Governments at all levels could also play a part by either building or upgrading more runways so that more planes can take off on time (bad for the environment, unfortunately), or stop airlines from cramming too many flights into existing airports, which make schedules impossible to keep and delays or cancellations the norm.

While the US works out an improvement in air travel, it is high time to revisit the introduction of a high-speed, efficient railway system that could serve as an alternative to flying.

Good models include the Swiss, French or Japanese systems. Those methods of traveling within the country are truly a breeze — show up at the station just a few minutes before the scheduled train, hop on and arrive in the middle of the destination city, not some outlying airport that requires a long drive to get to. The same way the will to build the nation’s systems of roads and freeways was summoned could be duplicated to create railways and tracks.

In the meantime, almost everybody has to fly one time or another, be it for leisure or business. It might not go back to the magical experience it used to be, but flying really does not have to remain in the sad state it has sunk to. Here’s another thought — if US airlines don’t shape up soon, the open-sky agreement that has just come into effect with Europe might make more travelers chose European carriers. Then, no amount of merger would be able to save them from their lousy business models or laughable lack of service standards. 

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