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Flying: A Lament

Bill Walsh’s question – just how far does my trip have to be for me to prefer flying to driving? – caught me at just the right time. A week ago Sunday, I flew from Detroit to JFK and on to Prague. This past Sunday, I returned to JFK, and, on Monday evening, I flew from Newark back to Detroit.

I am old enough to remember when flying was a joy – when airports were places of excitement, when the airlines did everything possible to assure one’s comfort. Those days are gone, I fear, forever.

Part of this is due, of course, to the friendly folks at TSA. The sheer number of things that one must do to get through security – take off shoes and belts, empty pockets, take out laptops, put medicines in sandwich bags, and so forth – makes that process a misery.

But there is something else involved as well. Airports today remind me of the bus stations of the 1950s. They are crowded, loud, and dirty (especially the rest rooms). Worst of all, one cannot escape the talking heads at CNN. This last irritant is especially egregious if one’s flight is delayed. Their patter does not improve with repetition.

Some airports are, of course, worse than others, and some airlines I try to avoid. The worst of the domestic carriers, in my view, is US Air. In part because their main hub is Philadelphia, which the worst of our unions controls, they are very apt to lose one’s luggage. Do not go through Philadelphia at Christmas. All of the baggage handlers call in sick.

The other airports I hate are Chicago, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and the three airports situated around New York City. They have this in common. Getting from one flight to another – especially if one of the two is an international flight – is difficult. Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Salt Lake City – these airports are better. They have made provisions that enable one to be whisked around.

Ordinarily, I take Delta – which, since absorbing Northwest, has Detroit (90 miles from Hillsdale) as a hub. Within the Delta system, my idea of hell is to fly through JFK (which I did twice in the last ten days). I did so a year or two ago shortly after the merger of Northwest and Delta. I flew into JFK from Detroit on what had been a Northwest flight. I flew, then, to Europe on Delta.

The first thing that went wrong was that the arriving flight sat on the tarmac for ninety minutes waiting for the alley leading to our gate to clear. JFK handles many more flights than it was designed to handle, and New York is such a mess that nothing of substance has been done about it. Terminals that were state of the art in the early 1960s are now slums.

When we finally entered the terminal, we learned that the bus drivers who ordinarily transported fliers from the old Northwest terminal to the Delta terminal were on strike. There was also bad blood of some sort between the staff of the two airlines – for no one intervened to provide help to passengers needing to shift terminals. In the end, we made the journey on foot, and when we got to the Delta terminal, we discovered that the nearby doors were all locked (it was evening, you see). So eventually we circumnavigated the terminal and came in the front door and had to go through a second screening from the employees of TSA. To describe those who made it through this obstacle course as anxious would be a considerable understatement. We all made our flights, but there was no reason for any of us to expect that we would.

When I passed through JFK a week ago Sunday, things had improved marginally. We sat in the alley this time for only forty-five minutes, and there was a bridge linking the two terminals. The number of people in the two terminals, the crowding, the din, the filth in the men’s rooms – all of this was shocking. And the place was a labyrinth. It all reminded me a bit of the airport in Cairo (and I do not mean Illinois). JFK – indeed, New York City itself – has a third-world feel about it.

My trip back to the US was, if anything, worse. Delta is a member of what is called Sky-Team. Its sister airlines include well-run operations like those of KLM and ill-run operations such as Air France. I had a talk to give at Princeton this last Monday, and so I had arranged to take Delta (meaning Air France) from Prague to Charles de Gaulle in Paris and then on to Newark, where a friend was to pick me up. I knew that this was risky – getting quickly from one flight to another at Charles de Gaulle is always a trial – but I had no idea how risky. Air France is not nicknamed Air Chance for nothing.

On the evening of 30 July, at my pension in Prague, I received the standard e-mail from Delta. “It is time to check in,” it told me. I had no printer with which to run off a boarding pass, but I thought that it might be a good idea to check in any way to guarantee that I got a seat. So I tried. I was redirected from www.delta.com to Air France – where I was told that they had no record of my e-ticket. Needless to say, I dug out the ticket to make sure that the number I had and the number Delta was passing to Air France were the same (which they were), and I tried to check-in two or three times – all to no avail.

The next morning I got up early and got to the airport three hours before my flight only to learn that it had been cancelled. Did Delta inform me of this? No. Was Delta willing to put me up in Prague? No. They sent me to Air Chance, which told me that I had been put on a Delta flight to Atlanta and gave me a meal voucher. No one at the airport would take the meal voucher, and, no, I was not on the Atlanta flight. I was wait-listed. I only later learned that my flight had been cancelled because of a strike. Mental note: never, ever – if you have a choice – take Air Chance. To make matters worse, there was no way in which to call or e-mail the friend who was slated to pick me up in Newark. My cell phone did not work in the Czech Republic. I had a mini-computer, and the airport offered free WiFi. But it blocked e-mail. I tried to use another WiFi operation that one had to pay for, but it would not take American Express or accept the Visa card I had.

In the end, I bought my own breakfast, and I pressed the folks at Delta to put me on the flight to JFK. Needless to say, on 31 July, that flight was full. But I will say this for the Delta staff. They were competent and helpful, and the lady in charge managed at the last second, after everyone else had checked in, to get me on the flight. For the first time in my life, I flew from Europe to the US in the first-class section. It is not, in my opinion, worth the money to do so (in my world the stuff does not grow on trees), but I was not paying that money. The food was good; I had plenty of leg-room. Had I been inclined to sleep, I could easily have done so. There was only one thing wrong. There was no way to call my friend and warn him that I would not be arriving in Newark. Nor is there WiFi on international flights (not even when one is flying over the US).

Eventually, of course, we arrived in JFK. Fortunately, we were on time, and I was able to catch my friend before he left for Newark. My luggage made it (mirabile dictu!) and came off first. I managed to get a ticket on the minibus to Newark, and I arrived there before the flight I would have been on actually came in. But JFK was, once again, a nightmare. The lines at the ground-transportation desk were long; the folks who worked there were slow. Everything was done by phone. It was as if no one had heard of computers and of ticket machines. Have the unions in New York blocked every form of progress?

My trip out of Newark on Monday night was no less instructive. I got there in plenty of time, thanks to my friend at Princeton. I checked in and discovered that I had been bumped up to what they called first class (on Atlantic Southeast, which flies puddle-jumpers from JFK to Detroit, this means nothing. The seats are the same as those in economy. One gets free drinks. That is about it). When I checked in, I neglected to ask whether those in first class would get a meal. In the terminal, because a previous flight to Detroit had been cancelled, there was a long line in front of the gate agent for my flight. Nearby sat two gate agents for a Cincinnati flight chatting with one another. They were at the time serving no one, and no one was in line. So I approached them and asked one of the two whether she could check whether there was food for those flying first class on my flight. She refused to help me. “I am not handling that flight,” she said. “Go over there,” she added, pointing to the long line in front of the gate agent for my flight, and turning back to her friend.

I regret one thing. I should have taken down her name. I have been flying for something like forty-five years. Never once in my experience have I been refused help in such a matter. The gate agent I approached simply could not be bothered, and she made it clear that she did not consider it a part of her job to help a passenger not on the particular flight that she was handling and that she resented being asked. In the New York area, Delta clearly has a personnel problem.

To be fair to Delta, most employers in the northeast have the same problem. Fourteen years ago, I was a visiting professor at Yale. When I arrived and moved into my apartment, I found that I could not get a telephone. I called Southern New England Telephone, and I plugged in my phone. They promised to send someone to turn on the line, and I waited in the apartment the entire day. No one came. When I called SNETCO again in the late afternoon, I was told that their people had come, that they had rung my doorbell (which worked very well, thank you very much), and that I had not been there. This went on for three weeks. The folks responsible for visiting the building and doing what was required simply lied and lied and lied again. I had a similar experience with the mail. In my building, no one ever got mail on Friday. The postmen picked up the mail downtown and took the day off. When I complained, nothing was done. On my last day in New Haven, I drove to Office Depot with a young lady not then but now my wife. We picked up some boxes and went to check out. The young woman doing the checking-out was on the phone with a friend. We stood there for nearly ten minutes while she conducted her private business (about which I learned more than I wanted to know). She simply could not be bothered to do her job. I could tell similar stories about the unionized staff at Yale University. “You owe us a salary” – that was their attitude. “We will work when we feel like it. So sit down and shut up.”

It is not, I think, an accident that states like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are in decline. In matters like these, attitude is everything, and the attitude of the functionaries one encounters – in the private sector as well as in the public sector – is one of entitlement. It would take a revolution of sorts to change attitudes. I do not doubt that such a revolution is coming. But it will reach places like New Haven, New York, Chicago, Boston, and California long after it transforms and enriches Indiana, Wisconsin, and the like. Texas and Oklahoma – that is to my mind the gold standard.

  1. iWc

    I agree entirely with the CNN comment. That background noise is horrible – it is hard to conduct a phone call, or even take a nap. And it is infuriating – I think flying is the only time I watch the MSM these days.

  2. Underground Conservative

    JFK is often the gateway for foreign visitors to take their first step into America. Unfortunately, that airport is a complete disgrace. To rebuild/renovate that airport would be an exercise in futility since the unions control every aspect of that facility.

  3. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    iWc: I agree entirely with the CNN comment. That background noise is horrible – it is hard to conduct a phone call, or even take a nap. And it is infuriating – I think flying is the only time I watch the MSM these days. · Aug 3 at 9:41am

    Me, too.

  4. Claire Berlinski
    C

    Paul, my last flight to the US was so awful in just the way you painfully describe that by the time I arrived I was nearly incoherent with exhaustion. And I asked myself–if it is this awful and draining and claustrophobic for me–a perfectly healthy woman who puts up all the time with developing-world crowds and lines–what must it be like for the elderly or the infirm? How could they get through it? And parents of small children? How do they cope? (My sympathy for them evaporated when the toddlers in the seats on either side of me developed a miserable gastric flu.) 

  5. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Paul, my last flight to the US was so awful in just the way you painfully describe that by the time I arrived I was nearly incoherent with exhaustion. And I asked myself–if it is this awful and draining and claustrophobic for me–a perfectly healthy woman who puts up all the time with developing-world crowds and lines–what must it be like for the elderly or the infirm? How could they get through it? And parents of small children? How do they cope? (My sympathy for them evaporated when the toddlers in the seats on either side of me developed a miserable gastric flu.)  · Aug 3 at 10:03am

    I have taken toddlers across the Atlantic two or three times. Usually, about halfway through the trip, there comes a time when it is too much for them, and they scream bloody murder for about a half hour. If I possessed as much self-control as they do, I would scream, too. Needless to say, this is hard on the parents and hard on anyone in the vicinity. Fortunately, my youngest is now three.

  6. Southern Pessimist

    Paul, I think that this might be the longest post you have ever posted on Ricochet. It resonates with me.

    “I regret one thing. I should have taken down her name.”

    “But I will say this for the Delta staff. They were competent and helpful, and the lady in charge managed at the last second, after everyone else had checked in, to get me on the flight.”

    The difference between flying as a frequent flyer from flying as the usual peon (peed-on) is very similar to having medical insurance or not. If you want good service, reward or at least thank, those who provide it.

  7. raycon and lindacon

    Paul:

    Here in Colorado we used to have it good.  Even the DMV is staffed with considerate and helpful people, and DIA and Colorado Springs airports are well operated.  I can already sense the undoing of a truly great state as the residents, in their electoral wisdom, have chosen to populate all levels of government with Democrats.

    We’re too old to pull up stakes and move to Texas, but we are surely already organizing our affairs to limit contact with government and union employees.  The coming economic crash in Colorado is something we’ll have to ride out.

  8. ctruppi

    You’ve touched on the two rules of travel for someone who lives in NJ and has easy access to the NY airports as well as Philly.  (1) Avoid JFK at all costs (2) Avoid Philly during the holidays which becomes one of the “circles of hell” from Dante’s Inferno!!

  9. Whiskey Sam

    What I find increasingly frustrating with air travel is that the more ticket prices rise, the less service you actually receive.  I’ve found no one airline has the monopoly on bad service.  They all have rude gate agents, ticket counter employees who couldn’t care less about their jobs, and flight attendants who were Gestapo agents in a past life.  Asking your questions in a polite way can go a long way towards getting them to help you, but there are a fair number who are beyond caring about getting their customers to their destination.  It doesn’t help that you can often call or check a flight status online there at the gate and have more up-to-date information than the gate agent themselves.  It’s no wonder passengers get upset when they’ve forked out hundreds of dollars to be stranded halfway to their destination due to cancellations or lose an entire day due to delays stranded in an airport that feels like it’s straight out of 1970s East Germany.

  10. David Williamson

    I forgot to answer Bill’s question – for me the threshold is Tucson to Vegas – I have both flown and driven, depending on circumstances.

    The Tucson airport is one of the nicest I travel through, and Phoenix is also good – both have free wi-fi, so you can mostly avoid CNN if you sit in the right place. In fact, many of the western airports are quite nice, with the notable exception of LAX.

    When I fly to the UK I try to avoid the eastern airports like the plague, especially in the winter. Fortunately, British Airways has a direct flight from Phoenix – the best :-)

  11. Diego Sun Devil

    I find that the opinion people have of many airlines is actually based more on their experience with a particular hub.  Many people on the west coast loath United because of SFO (San Francisco), while I go out of my way to try to fly through Denver whenever I use them, and because of that I think I’ve had better luck than many people who have experienced problems with SFO or O’Hare.

    Based on what I know about air travel, major cities with more than one airport should be avoided whenever possible.  NYC, SF, LA, Chicago, etc all have so much air traffic to deal with, that the slightest hiccup can have major ramifications.  It also helps to fly very early or late in the day when the airports aren’t as overloaded with people.  This tends to make everyone a little less stressed.

  12. The Great Adventure!
    Whiskey Sam: What I find increasingly frustrating with air travel is that the more ticket prices rise, the less service you actually receive.  

    Sam – I’m not trying to be argumentative or condescending, but I think you’ve been watching too many of the MSM reports on how dreadful flying is.  It IS dreadful, but the ticket prices have a long way to go to catch up to what they were pre-9/11.  

    I’ve been traveling the US for 15 years, earning Platinum level on Delta every year until last year (ended up Gold on Delta, Gold on Air Canada and Gold on Alaska).  Prior to 9/11, it was completely normal to pay $1500 – 1800 for a round trip from Portland to the east coast.  Routine.  From 97 through the first part of 01, I rarely ever got a ticket to anywhere for under $800.  

    In the past 10 years, however, I’ve only paid $1000 for a ticket twice.  The fares plunged significantly on that fateful day, and they’re still struggling to get even close to what they were pre-9/11.  Tell me another industry that has taken a similar hit.

  13. DocJay

    Reno to LA is a fun drive

  14. David Knights

     This post hits home for me since my better half is a Flight Attendant for Southwest Airlines.  Because I am on the “marry me, fly for free” program, I spent a fair amount of time in airports and had experience with quite a number of airlines.  I’ve only had to fly out of JFK once, to China.  It is one of the worst airports I’ve been in.

    I am amazed at the service, or lack thereof on some airlines.  On a flight to Tokyo in 2005 I was on a Northwest flight that had flight attendents who were so uncaring, I could have had a heart attack and they wouldn’t have cared in the least.  United at LAX was bad too.

    Overall, I think that a lot of airlines aren’t as picky about the people they hire up front, especially those who will deal directly with the customers.  SWA does a very good job of screening for personality on the front end and that seems to go along way to making sure that the customers end up haivng pleasant experiences.

  15. The Great Adventure!

    Some thoughts on airports:  JFK, LAX, PHI, and DFW could all serve just as well as sewage treatment plants, except they don’t treat their sewage.  ORD is a royal pain, but in all fairness it has a lot to do with weather and traffic.  ATL actually does a marvelous job considering their volume, and there is no better place in the world to people watch.   Denver’s only drawback is that you’re mostly stuck on United if you’re going there.  Detroit has a very nice facility since their renovation.  Orlando again does a good job considering the volume.

    It doesn’t rank as one of the “biggies”, but my home base of PDX (Portland) is one of the best facilities in the country (my tax dollars at work).  The concourses are remarkably spacious, there’s plenty of shops and restaurants for diversions, and it’s no where near capacity most of the time.  Add to that the fact that I’m always in a good mood when I land there (I’m going home, after all), and it’s a sight for sore eyes.

  16. Whiskey Sam
    The Great Adventure!

    In the past 10 years, however, I’ve only paid $1000 for a ticket twice.  The fares plunged significantly on that fateful day, and they’re still struggling to get even close to what they were pre-9/11.  Tell me another industry that has taken a similar hit. · Aug 3 at 11:30am

    I fly East Coast to Midwest frequently for work and pay anywhere from $300 to $1000 depending on how far in advance I book and where I’m flying to.  For that much, I ought to be able to count on getting where I’m going instead of burning half a day sitting in airports waiting for flights running late or getting cancelled without any notice.  The worst recent experience was sitting on the plane for 2 hours waiting to take off, having to go back to the terminal to refuel, then having to deplane because the flight was summarily cancelled.  Some airlines and airports are worse about this than others.  That’s before mentioning the flight itself where you have no leg room or someone spilling over into your seat.  At least the TSA hasn’t resorted to body cavity searches…yet.  

  17. Mike LaRoche
    Paul A. Rahe

    Texas and Oklahoma – that is to my mind the gold standard. ·

    I, of course, agree.

    And even though I am but a youthful 36, I too remember when flying was a pleasure, though those days were long gone by the time I was in my teens.

    One of the first priorities of the next Republican administration must be to abolish the TSA.

  18. Underground Conservative
    Forrest Cox

    The Great Adventure!: It doesn’t rank as one of the “biggies”, but my home base of PDX (Portland) is one of the best facilities in the country (my tax dollars at work). … 

    Couldn’t agree with you more re: PDX – it is a fantastic airport (hasn’t it won awards for timeliness and satisfaction?).

    Portland’s airport is fantastic and does well with various awards (#7 according to JD Power & Associates last year).  Of course, it isn’t a monstrosity, which helps, but it’s beautiful and easy to get around. Many Asian airports are wonderful since so many of them are new.  Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, etc. Beijing was nice, but enormously crowded (surprise surprise) I’ve had it with Frankfurt but Munich is awesome. 

    As for the drive or fly debate, I use the “door to door” rule. If driving is a reasonable amount longer than driving from home to a distant airport hours in advance and then arriving at a destination far from the city, then avoiding all the hassles of flying reduces stress exponentially.

  19. Denver Gentleman

     In June my family was lucky enough to get bumped from our United flight to Korea and re-booked on a Korean Air flight from Seattle to Seoul. We were greeted by a score of smiling attractive young ladies who went out of their way to ensure an exceptional flying experience. They arranged for us to sit together behind the bulkhead so our baby could sleep in a basinette, let us board first to get situated, handed out drinks and newspapers, served tasty food and stopped by every so often to see if we needed anything. This was all in economy class on a flight for which we didn’t even have tickets. On the way back to the States we were back on our original United flight where our requests were met with rolling eyeballs and exasperated sighs. I suppose there is a place for surly old grouches in the airline industry, but perhaps it’s not in the air interacting with customers.

  20. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Denver Gentleman:  In June my family was lucky enough to get bumped from our United flight to Korea and re-booked on a Korean Air flight from Seattle to Seoul. We were greeted by a score of smiling attractive young ladies who went out of their way to ensure an exceptional flying experience. They arranged for us to sit together behind the bulkhead so our baby could sleep in a basinette, let us board first to get situated, handed out drinks and newspapers, served tasty food and stopped by every so often to see if we needed anything. This was all in economy class on a flight for which we didn’t even have tickets. On the way back to the States we were back on our original United flight where our requests were met with rolling eyeballs and exasperated sighs. I suppose there is a place for surly old grouches in the airline industry, but perhaps it’s not in the air interacting with customers. · Aug 3 at 2:50pm

    This sounds like the good old days.