Creative Destruction

March 23, 2007

Like an Episode of Gulliver’s Travels

Filed under: Content-lite — Brutus @ 1:46 am

For the first time in a year, I took a trip via airplane last weekend. Man oh man oh man, if it’s another year before I fly again, I can stand the wait. I didn’t feel so much like I’m a giant or superhuman among the Liliputans, that I’m superior especially, but air travel has gotten to be a very strange culture that I no longer understand. That’s what makes me feel like Gulliver: the unfamiliarity of it all.

To start with, the general public announcements at the airport made a point of mentioning that the terrorism alert level had been raised to orange. Um, does that have any effect on anyone? Is there anything that we could or should do differently once a trip is underway? In some ways, that warning creates a niggling unease that’s probably worse than the preposterously intrusive charade that passes for airport security. (Maybe those folks know something I don’t about hiding dangerous stuff in personal hygiene products larger than 3 oz., but I rather doubt it.)

Many other travellers are just like me, getting from point A to point B with the least obtrusive and unremarkable behaviors possible. The thing is, though, they pass mostly unnoticed. It’s the ones that behave like nincompoops who attract all the attention and cause me to wonder what planet I’m living on. The first thing to notice is the utter lack of personal space. People crowd and jostle and act like their own place in line or in waiting areas is unrelated to anyone else. I also can’t get over the conversations folks have, usually on cell phones, fully within earshot of everyone and without the slightest sense of decorum. No doubt, there is a lot of needless “I’m at the gate” and “we just arrived” chatter that is merely functional or the usual banalities about weather and delays and getting to and fro. But the number of just insanely stupid things being said that I had the misfortune of overhearing was breathtaking. I also wonder whether folks can even choke out a sentence without using the word fuck at least twice. (“I left my fucking hair dryer back at the fucking apartment. Fuck.”)

Inevitably, airports struggle to manage the connecting flight situation very well. Outbound, I had 45 mins. to traverse 3 terminals — which felt like it was halfway across the state — to get to the second plane, and I was the last on to board (the door closed just behind me). Inbound, I had a 2.5 hour layover (I paid $19 for two tacos and beer, woo hoo!) and the gates were side-by-side. The herd of people stampeding the gate at boarding time is frankly embarassing. But I gues it’s no worse that the difficulty of getting your carry-on stowed and sitting down in the narrow confines of the passenger compartment. Again, most folks are quite cooperative and accomodating; it’s the idiots that rivet my attention, though they’re blithely unaware of anyone else.

The in-flight service is fine, I guess. It hasn’t changed much, other than peanuts being outlawed. In fact, the basics of flight really haven’t changed much in 30 years. It’s just the trappings and the behaviors of fellow passengers that now make it so foreign to me. Nowdays, the overhead bins have LCD screens to pacify the passengers during flight, just as the terminals have massive arrays of flat screens everywhere to ward off any hint of boredom. (Ironically, most of what’s broadcast is stultifying anyway, as evidenced by travellers’ blank stares and the pools of drool formed under them). It’s actually difficult to find a quiet place to escape the din of announcements and media vying for your attention. I was also disheartened (I’ve conditioned myself, unwittingly) that when I lowered my tray table, I was face with — what else? — an advertisement. I stewed over that for about 45 mins. Oh, and in the terminals, I saw pay-per-use recharging kiosks that I railed against in a post about Exciting New Market Opportunities.

The one positive comment I have to make is that the Internet and travel sites like Orbitz and Travelocity make booking travel, hotels, and rental cars much simpler and probably cheaper than in the past. It all worked seamlessly for me, except that I rather dislike the sense that I’m a number, some disembodied demographic, interacting with a computer rather than a person. The security and airline personnel certainly treat you as though you’re a cow or a pig being shuttled from pen to pen. That’s the price of being one of a mass of people. Crowd management becomes dehumanizing.

11 Comments »

  1. Air travel is indeed weird.

    It has the feel of the stereotypical management consultant hit job. Someone swoops in, makes radical changes to how things have been done, and then leaves without seeing how it works out and impacts those involved. Participants, of course, have no authority to change any of it.

    On a typical flight, I typically spend 1.5 hours going to and from the airport, about 2.5 hours making my way to and from the gate (via check in, security, interterminal transport and baggage claim) and maybe 1-3 hours actually flying. A good part of the flight is going to and from the runway. On most of the trips I take, the plane could be going two or three times the speed of sound when actually flying and it would barely make a dent in the total trip time. One of the main advantages of rail in the Northeast Corridor is that the security and check in measures are less intense.

    Security and public announcements are just weird.

    Does it make us any safer to have security check ins when we have more people than could fit on any plane, packed tight in the check in created bottleneck, at a point in the process where everyone is carrying unscreened bags? Can’t someone (or a group of people each with their own bomb) just carry their 70 pound duffle bag into the middle of the winding security line and blow themselves up there, killing more people than a car bomb in an Iraqi market or mosque? Done simultaneously in many busy airports on a holiday departure date, it would be more devistating than 9-11. Is that risk really smaller than the risk of a shoe bomb or a shampoo bottle bomb that inconveniences tens of millions of people every week?

    Why must we keep our eyes on our bags at every moment when everyone in the terminal has a boarding pass or a job at the airport, and everyone has been screened for everything from shoe bombs to laptop bombs to liquid gel bombs to firearms to large metal wrenches to boy scout knives?

    Why do they bother to announce “we are boarding in five minutes” notices in the main terminal where someone in a security line hearing it couldn’t dream of making it to the gate for another half an hour?

    Can’t at least one airport in the world have a non-profit or cooperative concession shop offering real world prices, instead of subjecting a captive audience to captive audience prices? After all, most airports are themselves non-profits owned by governments whose mission is to serve the local community, not snack and book vendors.

    Similarly, why do airports always underestimate parking demand and hence require for profit companies to set up their own operations nearby? It isn’t as if there is a lack of empirical evidence, easily gathered, about parking demand at airports. You’d have to hire a consultant, but it wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do.

    Comment by ohwilleke — March 23, 2007 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  2. Can’t at least one airport in the world have a non-profit or cooperative concession shop offering real world prices, instead of subjecting a captive audience to captive audience prices?

    Shops in, IIRC, Newark Airport claim that their prices are the same as those in their shops elsewhere. For what that’s worth.

    I actually think that TSA is something of an improvement over the old airport screeners. At least the TSA people seem to have some idea of what they’re doing. Though the taking off shoes and discarding liquids routine slows things down considerably.

    One question about transportation issues: My impression is that most really deadly bombings worldwide are car bombings. The US has seen at least two nasty car bombings as well (the OK City bombing and the initial attempt on the WTC.) There has been a total of one (or, depending on how you count it, three) successful use of a plane in a terrorist attack. So why are planes subject to all these draconian measures while car drivers are not subject to any inconvenience at all? At the very least, shouldn’t parking in large buildings be forbidden, lest someone come in with a van (or two) full of explosives and drop another building? Maybe some inspections at bridges and tunnels to make sure that no one is bringing explosives in to destroy them? If it is constitutional to inspect backpacks in the subway, surely inspection of cars is allowable too. Plus it might discourage people from driving in large cities, always a positive side effect.

    Comment by Dianne — March 23, 2007 @ 12:03 pm | Reply

  3. There have been quite a few airplane hijackings and bombings, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s. For an example of a bombing, consider Lockerbie Scotland.

    When you note the widespread use commercial jets for travel dates to the 1960s, this does look like an issue that has impacted the industry a lot historically.

    Comment by ohwilleke — March 23, 2007 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  4. Perhaps the reason why air travel seems so strange to me is largely due to the additional security measures in the post-9/11 world. It certainly creates a bunker mentality, as though we are constantly under imminent threat of attack. Little or nothing is accomplished by that, really.

    The other aspects I spoke to are the commercialization of public space by making every bit of the travel experience for profit and the bonehead behaviors of a highly visible (though perhaps minority) group of fellow passengers who behave as though the world is an extension of the living room, with attendant lax standards of decorum.

    It’s a mix that causes me to want to retreat to the confines of my own living room to escape the offensiveness of it all.

    Comment by Brutus — March 23, 2007 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  5. Flying anywhere, especially overseas, is a LOT cheaper than it was 30 years ago (in inflation-adjusted dollars). In spite of increased fuel costs, they’re practically giving tickets to Europe away, and now I hear that yesterday some restrictions on where airlines may fly were lifted both in the States and in Europe, “to bring about lower prices.” Lower prices yet? Incredible, but I like it.

    Since the alleged London we-mix-liquids-you-die incident last August, flying has actually become marginally more pleasant, especially if you’re going to Europe, because the airlines no longer allow everyone to carry on two elephantine steamer trunks, which then hold up boarding while they try to shove everything in the overhead rack. I hope they continue the restrictions on carry-ons. Check your luggage, guys.

    “Security” is problematic. Always has been. I am certain that any would-be bomber who had two brain cells to rub together could easily evade the restrictions currently in place – and this is about as strict as we can get without having the entire air travel flow jam up completely.

    So why are there not more bombings? I’m guessing that it’s a combination of two factors:

    1. Most terrorists, like most other criminals, really DON’T have a lot of brain cells to spare, or at all, and
    2. Someone is doing a good job at espionage, catching these guys and foiling these plots before they get to the airport.

    Comment by Susan — March 23, 2007 @ 6:02 pm | Reply

  6. Shops in, IIRC, Newark Airport claim that their prices are the same as those in their shops elsewhere. For what that’s worth.

    “Elsewhere” for these purposes being New York City? That won’t help. 🙂

    Comment by Susan — March 23, 2007 @ 6:04 pm | Reply

  7. If I were flying to Europe, I’d probably check a bag. Flying domestically, I pack an extremely modest shoulder bag and carry it on. Preferences may vary, but I’m happy not carting around needless stuff. Besides, my outbound flight left at 5:00 AM, I arrived at the airport at 3:45 AM, and there were already over 100 people queued for one ticket agent. No thanks. I went to the automated check-in, where you’re not allowed to check a bag, got my boarding passes, and went to the gate. This bit of automation is so streamlines I’m willing to overlook the facelessness of it.

    Comment by Brutus — March 23, 2007 @ 11:04 pm | Reply

  8. Of course, it all depends on the length of stay. If it’s an overnighter, possibly two nights, the shoulder bag works well. But all of my most recent trips via airplane have been closer to a week than an overnight. (Of course, the most recent of those was in 2001, pre-9/11.)

    Comment by Off Colfax — March 24, 2007 @ 2:39 am | Reply

  9. The one positive comment I have to make is that the Internet and travel sites like Orbitz and Travelocity make booking travel, hotels, and rental cars much simpler and probably cheaper than in the past. It all worked seamlessly for me, except that I rather dislike the sense that I’m a number, some disembodied demographic, interacting with a computer rather than a person.

    You know, if you really want to spend the extra time and money just to have a chat with a stranger about his daughter’s soccer game, you can always call up a travel agent. But really, the world runs a lot more smoothly when we don’t insist on making a box social out of every transaction. Then we can take the time and money we save on faceless transactions like these and spend them with the people we really care about.

    Regarding the high prices in the stores, I doubt very much that the people operating the stores are making money hand over fist. I believe that the airport charges high rent for retail space and then uses it to subsidize airport upkeep. If we didn’t pay for upkeep in high markups, we’d pay for it in ticket surcharges. Just do what I do: Don’t buy anything, and enjoy the free ride.

    Comment by Brandon Berg — March 24, 2007 @ 4:53 am | Reply

  10. Of course, it all depends on the length of stay. If it’s an overnighter, possibly two nights, the shoulder bag works well.

    Definitely. But when I’m going to Scotland for two weeks – especially in the winter – a shoulder bag just doesn’t cut it. (I go to Scotland for two week stays twice a year.)

    My beef is not with the shoulder-bag crowd, my beef is with the Giant Rolly-Bag crowd, the ones with the enormous bloated suitcases which, if they fit in that little box to judge carryons I will eat the box. Before last August the airlines were criminally lax on this, and very often the whole passenger compartment, overheads and under seats, was stuffed with these things. It took forever to get onto the plane (and off) and sometimes people dropped these things on or near your head trying to wrestle them into the overhead. And I was always praying that overhead bin was stronger than it looks.

    Now, thanks to some fumbling lunatics in England, all that is over. You can have ONE carryon and one “personal item” (they’re trying to say “purse”) and that’s it, and they check to see that the one carryon is within specs. That means that boarding and deboarding times have been cut in half, that you can actually find a place for your coat, that maybe you can have the space under the seat ahead of you free for your feet. Imagine!

    Comment by Susan — March 24, 2007 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

  11. …that maybe you can have the space under the seat ahead of you free for your feet.

    Once the plane is in the air, I usually take my carry-on bag out from under the seat in front of me, put my feet in its place, and then stow my bag behind my feet. It seems pretty secure to me, and I’ve never had a complaint from the flight crew.

    Comment by Brandon Berg — March 24, 2007 @ 8:48 pm | Reply


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