James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Friday, June 01, 2007

Flying, the (way) downside of travel

Time now, before sinking all the way back into the murk and mire of U.S. domestic politics and international piracy, to talk about the act of travel.

Not the joys of being somewhere other than where you live, or of discovering other cultures and seeing new beauties, but the miseries involved in getting from one place to another, distant, place.

Between the airlines and our corporation-dominated Bushy/Republicrat government, the pain of travel has grown far worse in recent years.

Well, OK, that does involve politics, but it can't be helped. Under King George, there is no aspect of life in this country that has not been politicized.

I have been to Europe twice in the last two months. And, yes, I am greatly privileged to be able to say that, even though I am a successful travel bargain hunter, and my wife and I have made choices about discretionary spending that are different from those of many middle class Americans.

The first trip, in April, was a very quick one to France, where a long-time friend and I joined a tour of World War II D-Day invasion sites. It was enlightening, it was moving, and the getting to and from was so miserable I would not do it again unless I extended my stay in France by at least a week to make the misery more worthwhile.

We flew separately to Chicago, where we met and gave ourselves over to Lufthansa to get us from Chicago to Frankfurt, and thence to Paris.

I was late meeting my buddy, because my bags took a very, very long time to show up in Chicago, despite the fact that my Sun Country flight between here and there was nonstop. It was OK, though. His Northwest flight was late, so he didn't have to wait long for me.

Security checks in Chicago were time-consuming and as absurd as usual, with the snide and ill-tempered “security” people moving with exaggerated slowness, just to show who's boss.

Anybody who wanted to do evil but couldn't get the necessary tools past an airport check point is too stupid to breathe and walk at the same time. I do not believe those who want to harm us are that stupid.

(I realize that saying these things in public may put me on a watch list and make future travel even more difficult, but they have to be said. Airport “security” is a con job, designed to make the naïve believe they're safe, and to add considerable sums to the profits of large corporations that make major contributions to Bush & Co. Also to provide a very rich data mine for the administration, but more on that later.)

Lufthansa once was a quality airline. My experiences on its planes some 10 or 12 years ago were much better than we could get then on U.S. airlines. The food was better, the service, especially on the ground, was better and the seats and cabins more comfortable.

Now, sadly, Lufthansa provides a “service” that could deter the average person from ever flying again. It was, my old pal said halfway across the Atlantic, “sheer torture.”

I'm short, and I was feeling cramped and claustrophobic long before we hit the halfway point. My friend is of average height – five feet nine or ten inches tall. The woman seated ahead of him put her seat as far back as it would go immediately after takeoff and didn't move it forward until just before landing in Frankfurt. The space between his chest and the back of her seat was 10 inches.

Getting out of one's seat to go stand in line for the toilets required painful contortions. Eating was awkward and spills almost inevitable. We both felt like claustrophobes locked in a closet.

The plane from Frankfurt to Paris was much more spacious and comfortable, though a much smaller aircraft. Maybe they make the transAtlantic flights painful to make us Yanks feel at home.

Our return trips (he stayed longer, so we came back separately) were exactly the same, other than in direction.

First class and “business” class were roomy and service was great, of course. Those people pay five or six times what we coach passengers pay. That's the excuse for the abuse we take.

But, wait. Could they fly those planes with only the people in first and business classes as passengers? I very much doubt it. The upper class cabins are rarely full, but even if they were, I don't think they could afford to cross the Atlantic if we, the abused, weren't providing the airline tens of thousands of dollars on each flight.

Well...On to the second trip.

My wife and I generally avoid Northwest Airlines – Northworst as it is known to members of my family -- if it is possible to get where we're going on any other carrier. We hadn't flown the locally-based gouger airline for years, but sadly, with it's near-monopoly in the Twin Cities, it had the only flight that made any sense for us between here and New York, where we caught a British Airways flight to London and another from there to Budapest.

Our Northworst flight was held on the apron for almost four hours before it took off.

Why? Because traffic at JFK Airport in New York was too heavy, we were told, so flights heading there from other U.S. cities were ordered to stay on the ground.

Note: Our Northworst flight was a regularly scheduled flight. It leaves the Twin Cities at the same time every bloody day. Same goes for most or all the other flights around the country that were held up for hours. There were no weather problems in New York.

That, friends, means that the people scheduling flights, and scheduling landings and takeoffs at JFK, are bloody incompetent fools. If you can't land the damned planes, you shouldn't be scheduling the damned flights.

But that is the U.S. airlines business today. Gouge, cheat and screw the passengers; it's an unregulated con game.

Being so late caused a chain reaction, of course. As soon as we got to New York, we had to parlay with the folks at the British Airways counter for a new flight for London. The plane we were booked for already was in the air when we got to New York. We did OK on that, but were told we had to wait until we got to London before we could confirm our new flight from there to Budapest.

There was, shall we say, a degree of anxiety involved.

The people of B.A. Were far more friendly and efficient than we are used to with American airline service people, however, and we did all right, though it took 22 hours from the time he hit the airport in Minneapolis to reach Budapest -- five or six hours longer than scheduled. No sleep, lousy food eaten on the fly (so to speak), tired, dirty and shockingly overcharged at every airport for everything. Of course, no compensation offered or expected from Northworst.

Still, British Airways was considerably better than Lufthansa: Slightly more room per passenger, more comfortable seats and much better service. The real misery of cramped flying and lousy air to breathe didn't hit until we were only two or three hours from London.

Our return flights were much less eventful, thankfully.

But: Airport security, a bad joke everywhere, is horrendous in New York.

We stayed over one night in New York, and arrived at JFK in plenty of time for our flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul. We gave them more than the generally recommended time, in fact.


Our plane and just one other were leaving at approximately the same time from a short concourse at JFK. The Transport Security Administration (TSA) had just one security lane open. One X-ray machine for people, one for bags and pocket contents, one line for the several hundred passengers of the two flights.

It quickly became obvious that if nothing changed, at least 100 of us would miss our flights. A private security outfit was charged with handling the crowds outside the doors to that one functioning security check point. The poor security people took a little abuse, and then a great deal of abuse, and explained over and over that they had nothing to do with TSA and could do nothing about the situation.

Finally, however, one of the security company folks, close to panic, got on a cell phone, called the TSA office at the airport and pleaded that something be done before a nasty situation turned physical – which was very close to happening. Really. People were shouting, one guy started to reach for one of the security people once, but was barely dissuaded by others, and folks were threatening to rush the TSA checkpoint.

Here I should note that there actually was another lane held open by TSA. It was the lane reserved for frequent fliers who sign up for what currently is called the Clear Registered Traveler program.

Under that program, people who pay a fee of $99.95 (priced just like a toaster oven, you'll note...not $100) and who submit to a whole lot of privacy invasion can skip the regular security lines and go right to their flights. The price, by the way, is expected to rise annually, but you can lock in your price by paying for two or three years at a time.

So far, the program is in place in only a few airports, but the system -- and the nasty games to get you to join -- will spread soon to a city near you.

People who pay the fee and allow government snooping into their lives receive a “clear card,” which is read by a computer and matched with the passenger. Matched by biometric data such as fingerprints and iris imaging. To get the card, they must allow invasive background checks, similar to the checks made for security clearances, though presumably not as extensive. A gold mine for the enthusiastic domestic spies of the Bush administration.

There was no question in any passenger's mind the day we flew home from New York that the unconscionable squeeze at security, while the fast lane sat empty, was a deliberate attempt to push people into submitting to the background checks and the rest of the invasive snooping in order to get a free pass through security for future flights.

So. While the rest of us were sweating out the wait for the one security checkpoint, three TSA employees were in charge of the fast lane. Two, a man and a woman, chatted and flirted all the time we were stomping and waiting. The third dozed in a chair for at least the 20 minutes to half hour or so that she was within my sight. Not one passenger entered the concourse via that route.

Finally, and barely in time to allow us to make our flight, TSA sent a couple of other people in and snared one or two of those who were doing nothing at the fast lane and opened a second check point.

Our flight left on time, though it would have left many of us behind had the second checkpoint not opened. The other one, an international flight carrying folks on their way to Africa, was held at the gate on demand of its passengers until all could board. Since we left on time, I don't know how long it was held.

As someone who flies with some frequency, I have to tell you that such adventures now are the norm. If you have a nonstop domestic flight, you may leave and arrive on time, and get your baggage, too. It's maybe a 60-40 shot in your favor, at a guess. If you have connecting flights and, especially, if you're on an international trip, all bets are off. You throws the dice and takes yer chances.

(Monthly on-time reports, and statistics about lost baggage, sometimes published in newspapers, are essentially lies, but that's another story.)

The airlines now mostly have done their phony bankruptcy dances, music provided by right-wing judges put in place to make sure that corporations can stomp on their employees with only minimum fuss.

Northworst, as one miserable example, just emerged from a well-planned bankruptcy having cuts its employees' pay to the point that cabin attendants with only a few years experience actually make less than full-time fast food servers, and some pilots make about as much as city bus drivers. It also canned a bunch of mechanics and shipped their jobs to China.

As the airline was freed from its convenient bankruptcy, Northworst's chairman, Doug Steenland, was rewarded with a stock package worth $26.6 million over the next four years and other execs also got financial gifts the size of many employees' lifetime earnings. Some huge guaranteed pension programs also were tied up in pretty ribbons for them. And that's in addition to their salaries.

Some of you, being clever people, are thinking that being so close to Canada, it might save some pain to drive up there and fly from Winnipeg or maybe Ottawa to Europe or Asia.

Sorry. Tried that a few years ago. It's a long story, too, so just take my word for it: The U.S. government, in the form of U.S. Customs, has found a way to make a hell of re-entry to this country from another foreign country through Canada.

The public has been screwed. Again.

It is the way of American business these days, when you get right down to it. The airlines, with full cooperation from "our" government, simply are more open than most others about their complete disdain for the people whose pockets they pick.