Air Travel: A Paradigm for Our Society

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I recently had occasion to travel by air, and, as always, I found the experience unpleasant. The trip itself was delightful. I very much enjoyed BEING there; it was GETTING there that so aggravated me that I considered never flying again.

There is, for example, the confusion. I’ve noticed that each contact with a passenger seems to be the ticket clerk’s first. You present your ticket — bought and paid for a month or more ago — and she eyes it with a frown. Beetle-browed, she taps away at her computer. More frowning, more tapping. Perhaps she’s writing a novel, or adding a poignant chapter to her memoirs. She picks up the phone and talks cryptically to someone. Then more typing. "Excuse me," she says, as she walks away. In a moment she returns, assumes a determined look, and assaults the keyboard still again. Then, suddenly, like a conjurer, she produces boarding passes and says, "There you are. Gate B-17." Gate B-17 is 1.7 kilometers away, but never mind. At least you’ve got your boarding pass.

But why a boarding pass? Doesn’t a valid ticket entitle you to board the plane? Why must you exchange it for a boarding pass? No one seems to ask that question, but I guess that’s understandable. "Don’t rock the boat" is the air traveler’s first principle.

Then there is the security charade. I had to remove my shoes so that they could be fluoroscoped. Has the government ever revealed the percentage of shoes that flunked the X-Ray test? And my camera bag was examined, after the X-Ray revealed an opaque, lead-lined shape within. That is a bag containing my film, of course, and in recent years it has caught the examiner’s eye, but only barely. The man who took me aside to check my bag exclaimed, "Ah, a Leica! I have one of those!" Gosh. He rhapsodized about his venerable M2 model, and asked me if I knew what the Safari model was. I did. While we chatted, he glanced through my bag, then closed it and said, "Ok. Nice talking to you." I could have had a pound of plastique explosive in there, and he wouldn’t have known. Some examiners check inside the lead bag, but they assume the rolls of film they see are actual rolls of film, not empty film containers stuffed with dangerous stuff. Phooey. It’s all for show.

The actual aircraft is a marvel of technology. Imagine: only two dozen years after the Wright brothers flew their flimsy craft a scant 120 feet, Lindberg flew across the Atlantic! Only sixty years after Orville and Wilber, man walked on the moon. It is, in fact, amazing and inspiring. But it ends there. While the airplane may be a mechanical masterpiece, as a means of comfortable public transportation it is a joke. Passengers are squeezed into a tacky beige-colored plastic tube with barely room to move. Should you decide to remove your jacket while seated, forget it. It would require the skills of a contortionist to manage such a maneuver in those tight quarters. The scream of the engines is relentless, combined with the loud hissing of the air circulation system. Vibration is subtle but constant. The airplane is a flying bus, and the motley passengers reflect that fact. My first airline flight, at age sixteen, was aboard a Constellation, and I just naturally wore a suit and tie. Everyone was dressed as though for Church. Come to think of it, though, passengers are still dressed as if for Church: blue jeans, T-shirts: whatever falls out of the closet.

That’s what I mean by air travel being a paradigm for society. The airlines are concerned about their bottom line, and keeping within the guidelines of the real management, government. And the government, as, I suspect, is often the case, installs regulations that have the effect of frustrating and humiliating the passenger. I think many government programs share this objective. Keep the people frustrated and annoyed, so they’ll know who’s boss. Rub their noses in it, and don’t let them forget it. It’s "do as I say, or else." If the public gets really angry, against whom will they rail? The airlines, of course. You see the advantages of fascism? Airlines in this country are private! You bet! Private enterprise! Of course, virtually every step of their operation is overseen by government, which regulates and controls and limits to a fare-thee-well. OK, so who’s concerned about the passenger? Come on, you know the answer to that! No one! The poor sap who makes the whole thing possible is the low man on the totem pole. He’s bullied, humiliated, aggravated, and physically abused in that flying sardine can. And if he dares raise a voice of protest at any stage of the debacle, God knows what will happen to him, but it won’t be pleasant!

Isn’t that modern American life? Who makes the country go? Who does the work, draws the plans, delivers the goods? A rhetorical question, of course. During our trip, a guide pointed to a row of tall palm trees. "Those are politician palms," he said. "They are stately and impressive, and they produce nothing." True, but they call the shots!

I happened to see Senator Lieberman being interviewed as I walked through the family room. The pompous ass said that he wanted to be the president who would make people’s lives happier and better! Senator, if you want to make lives happier and better, resign from the Senate and get an honest job!

On second thought, why should he? Passengers standing in line for an hour to get their shoes X-Rayed don’t complain: many joke and find the experience only slightly inconvenient. And those few who find government oppressive will admit, if asked, that we need government, and couldn’t get along without it. The problem, it seems, is with me. I’ve always felt that the workman is worth his pay; but society says that his is not to reason why, but to do or die. And evidently he agrees. So sad!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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