Not for at least six months or so had I been in an airport. It was my choice. The trains are just too wonderful: no scans, solid internet at no extra charge, large seats, glorious scenery. There is a nice code of etiquette that emerges organically from passengers; it’s not piped in over loudspeakers. You get one announcement at each stop and nothing else.
Riding the train feels like you are living in an older, freer America. I would gladly double my travel time if it meant taking the train over the plane.
One can’t avoid flying forever. So setting out on plane travel this weekend, I decided to figure out precisely what it is that is so horrible about flying these days.
Why is it that I’ve come to dread the whole thing?
There are obvious annoyances like tiny seats and invasive scans, the confiscation of nail trimmers, and so on. But there are a lot more besides. In fact, it’s no one thing. It’s the cumulation of everything – one hundred or so petty exhortations from the time you arrive to the point where you are in the air, and then there are another few dozen after that.
At some point, human beings feel a sense of demoralization when they are treated like cattle. That is precisely the feeling one gets at airports today. Perhaps we are used to it. We shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be this way and wouldn’t be this way if markets were functioning as they should.
It begins just driving in and parking, with robot voices hectoring you about where to park, when to pay, how to keep up with your ticket, where to turn and so on. Think of these voices as the opposite of, for example, a home assistant or the gentle coaching you get from a GPS application on your cell phone. The squawk is severe and hortatory as if you are already in trouble.
Finally getting into the airport, you are greeted with a sea of signs, armed guards everywhere, and a loudspeaker telling you to love the troops more, not to human traffic, not accept bags from strangers (who does that?), and to say something if you see something, which makes you wonder if someone is busy reporting now for something you did or didn’t do.
It’s apparent: you are already caged.
This time there was something new: I was asked four different times, beginning with the airline employee who handed me my ticket, if I was carrying lithium batteries, vaping pens or tools, or otherwise had batteries attached to my bag. Glad I didn’t. I was asked again. No. The third time, just before boarding, I somehow shut down from exhaustion and just walked by. Not good. That was followed by a shout and a very intense demand. No, I said yet again.
Fortunately at this airport, I didn’t have to deal with drug-sniffing dogs examining my person, as is often the case in Atlanta. There is just something strange about subjecting one’s right to travel to the olfactory instincts of a random German Shepherd.
And as you are doing all this, there is no way to know whether the lines will be long or short, whether it will take 4 minutes or an entire hour. You have to arrive in plenty of time to prepare for the worst, and sometimes that’s not enough. If you miss your flight, you often have to eat the ticket and buy a new one.
Then there is the whole disrobing process at security, made more difficult in winter. Coats, hats, jackets, shoes, belts, scarves – it all must come off and put into bins. Computers and iPads too. All metal objects. Wait, no: all objects. By the time you enter the scanner, you can have on pants, shirt, and socks but nothing else. Then you have to redress while watching for your bags and making sure that someone doesn’t pick them up by mistake.
It’s a stressful moment when it suddenly feels like you are juggling half a dozen tasks at once, and you think you could forget something: keys, cellphone, computer. Then there is always the possibility that your bag will be flagged for deep inspection as was mine. Sure enough, the intrepid security officials found the offending object: a corkscrew with a tiny knife for opening the bottle seal. Nope, that has to go.
You aren’t even free from all this in the bars, which are now required to card absolutely everyone.
Then getting on the plane, you face the struggle over bags. Too large and you get a tag and have to surrender it and whether it shows up again outside the plane on landing or taken to baggage claim is entirely up to the crew.
We’ve all learned to live in a state of extreme minimalism when we travel but somehow the demand that we carry less and less seems to grow more intense all the time. I carry a small bag but it wouldn’t fit so I had to stick it under my seat, lifting my legs so high that there was no chance of putting down my tray table.
There you get another flurry of exhortations on the plane itself, plus two or three rounds of inspections to make sure you are in full compliance: seat straight up, laptop in the pocket in front of you whether it fits or not, seatbelt on, and then if you are sitting near the emergency exit, you must give verbal approval that you are willing to save people’s lives.
Now, nothing I listed above sounds terribly egregious on its own. It’s not one thing or five things. It’s the collection of more than a hundred exhortations.
Last year, the Business Travel Coalition conducted a survey of its members to see if they were traveling on planes. From 2012 to 2018, members reported traveling one third as much as they once did on a plane, and the main factor: airport hassles.
There is a tragedy associated with all this. The technology of flight is one of the great achievements of humankind. In the U.S. and many other parts of the world, we’ve turned over major aspects of commercial flights to government, with predictable results. And it’s about to get much worse: starting next year, you have to have your internal passport even to board a plane at all.
I can’t shake the sense that if markets had been in charge these last 50 years, flying would be as easy and graceful as getting an Uber. That’s a beautiful life that we’ve been denied thanks entirely to bureaucrats, regulations, and endless controls, and all to what end? They’ve ruined it for everyone.