Stephen M. Walt

Top five things that make air travel infuriating

Jet travel still strikes me as slightly miraculous, and despite having visited over forty countries, I still get a certain gee-whiz feeling whenever I’m headed for the international terminal at Logan airport (even though the terminal itself is nothing for Boston to boast about). As you’ve probably noticed, however, the Powers That Be are doing ...

Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images
Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Jet travel still strikes me as slightly miraculous, and despite having visited over forty countries, I still get a certain gee-whiz feeling whenever I’m headed for the international terminal at Logan airport (even though the terminal itself is nothing for Boston to boast about).

As you’ve probably noticed, however, the Powers That Be are doing their best to destroy that pleasant tingle of anticipation. Just when you thought they couldn’t find another way to make air travel more annoying and degrading, somebody comes up with a new method to drive us crazy.  So having just flown twelve-plus hours from Boston to Kuwait (via London), I’m going to indulge in a short rant: the Top Five Things that Make Air Travel Infuriating.

1. The Whole Irrational Transportation Security Nightmare.
I have no objection to certain reasonable precautions about jet travel, but we’ve gone way, way, overboard in our effort to eliminate any and all risks. I’m with Yglesias here: The amount of time being wasted in TSA lines is unconscionable and is probably not making us significantly safer. Not only is an enormous amount of valuable time being wasted, but there’s also the sheer indignity of being herded like cattle, forced to partially disrobe, and then poked or patted to make sure we don’t have a box cutter or a lump of plastique hidden in our shorts. 

And what about the creepy symbolism of the latest scanner machines? You enter the booth and are told to assume the classic "hands-up" position. It’s a nice way of making the entire traveling population feel like suspects, thereby feeding our collective paranoia and giving al Qaeda and its ilk another symbolic victory. Osama may be hiding in a cave somewhere, but he’s still got us trembling in our socks, clutching our beltless pants, as we go through the checkpoints. And you just know that it’s going to get worse: no bureaucrat or elected official will ever relax the current procedures (for fear that a terrorist plot might succeed and make them look really, really, stupid). Instead, we’ll just keep adding layers and restrictions in response both to future attempts and to new dangers that we just dream up for ourselves.

But I’m a reasonable guy, and I understand that others have different cost-benefit calculations than I do. I’d be willing to walk through naked if they could just get us all through in a reasonable amount of time. At Logan yesterday, it took nearly 20 minutes to get through the TSA checkpoint, and this was at 6:45 in the morning and the line wasn’t even that long. And none of this is preventing a repeat of 9/11, because locking the cockpit doors has eliminated the danger that a terrorist will commander the aircraft and fly it into a building. It’s mostly our elected officials covering their tails: they don’t want to get blamed if one day a plane does go down due to terrorist action. But making it nearly impossible to attack an airplane isn’t going to stop terrorism, it will just lead them to go after other, softer targets.

2. Marginal Pricing Run Amok.
I’m hardly the first person to complain about this, but airlines have become masters at charging us for everything while doing less and less themselves. We check ourselves in at "self-serve" kiosks; we carry our own bags on and off the plane, and most of the time we bring our own food too. Having cut services to the bone, airlines do more "upselling" than a sleazy car salesman. I checked in at a self-service kiosk a few months ago, and was given three options for "upgrading" my flight (each for a different fee). If I had been willing to pay enough, those generous folks at the airline would have moved me to first class, let me check my bag for free, and zipped me through the VIP express line at the security checkpoint. This is another reason why the situation is only get worse: make air travel unpleasant enough, and some people will pay extra to reduce the irritation back to a bearable level. We are in effect being asked to trade money for sanity.

And then there’s my personal favorite: charging you a hefty chunk of change to go on an earlier flight. You show up early for your flight, and there’s an empty seat on an earlier departure. Nobody is going to use that seat if you don’t take it. It’s in the airline’s interest to put you on the earlier flight, because that will open up a seat on the later flight and maybe somebody else will want it (i.e., they had to make an unexpected trip, or they missed a connection and need a later flight). So everybody wins if they just put you on the earlier plane, except the airline will going to charge you at least $50 bucks for doing something that is already in their interest. Of course, they do have to cover the cost of printing another boarding pass, which means the net profit on this transaction is probably about $49.99. And yet still they keep losing money. And don’t get me started about the impenetrability (from the consumer’s point of view) of the whole ticket pricing policy…

3. The Nanny State Rules the Air.
Has anyone done a study of the number of fatalities that have been produced by someone landing with their seat backs reclined, or with their tray tables not in the "fully closed and locked position?" I doubt it, yet airlines keep going to enormous lengths to protect us from the most unlikely contingencies.  Airlines have long insisted that you can’t use PDAs during takeoff, landing, or in flight, based on the unverified idea that this might somehow affect the operation of the aircraft. Except that some carriers now want to equip airliners to allow people to talk on cell phones doing the flight, which I predict will eventually lead to fisticuffs at forty thousand feet.

And the latest indignity is the demand that you remove earbuds or headphones before takeoff or twenty minutes before landing. Presumably this is so you can hear the crew shout instructions in the event of a crash. Plus, the flight attendants now insist that you turn off your Kindle, presumably so that you’re not so engrossed reading when the plane goes down that you fail to heed the crew’s instructions. I don’t blame the flight crew; they are just doing their jobs and enforcing the rules. But can they just meet me halfway?  If the plane crashes, I promise that I’ll drop what I’m reading, take off my headphones, and do whatever you tell me.   Really.

4. You DON’T Control the Channel; You DON’T control the volume.
One feature that makes airports less and less appealing are those ubiquitous video monitors, usually set to either CNN or Fox. Instead of being allowed to read or converse in peace, you get bombarded by loud and grating announcers instead. There’s no escape unless you can go to a business class lounge, although sometimes you’ll find a TV on their too. Last week I was forced to sit through an entire episode of CNN’s "Parker/Spitzer," because that’s what was on the set above my seat in the waiting lounge. Moving does no good, because there are monitors everywhere. At least it wasn’t O’Reilly or Wolf Blitzer…..

The Brits, by the way, have a much better idea. At Heathrow’s Terminal 5, there are big video screens reporting the latest BBC news, with a video crawl providing text along with the images. You can watch if you want, but your eardrums don’t get pummeled while you’re either catching a nap or trying to concentrate on your book.

5. Forty pounds of Carry-On in a Twenty-Pound Overhead Compartment.
Now that airlines are charging us to check bags, it naturally makes more sense for people to use carry-on bags and avoid the fee. You also miss waiting around for your luggage and eliminate the chance that you end up in Seoul while your bag enjoys an unscheduled visit to Stockholm.   But the size of the overhead bins didn’t change along with this new pricing policy, and despite some half-hearted efforts to regulate the size of carry-on bags, every flight I’m on these days seems to feature a bunch of unhappy passengers trying to cram duffle bags the size of Madagascar into the overhead bin. Tempers flare, nerves fray, and it takes twice as long to get on and off the aircraft as it should.

Granted, none of these complaints are as significant as issues of war, peace, national prosperity, and the like, and I’m sure I’ll be less grumpy when my jet lag wears off. I fully realize that it’s a hell of lot easier and safer to visit far-flung places now than it was a few decades ago, to say nothing of a few centuries ago. So I’m genuinely thankful for what transportation technology has wrought. But now I’d like some geniuses to get to work on making the whole experience a little less corrosive to the human spirit. Like I said, I still like to travel, and even like to fly. But I have the distinct fear that by the time I retire, getting on an airplane will involve more preparations than open-heart surgery, and recovery will take about as long. 

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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