Flying the Regulated Skies

Coffee or Tea in Your Agony?

by Burton S. Blumert by Burton S. Blumert

"For the past 20 years you've predicted the collapse of real estate values, the stock markets, and the entire political apparatus," a friend, beer in hand, complained. "I'm fed up with your gloom-and-doom view of the world."

"True," I responded meekly, "but you must admit it's all 20 years closer now than when I first started to tell you."

My critical friend misses the point. We are swept along by a whirlwind of technology that brings change by the minute. It is a revolution brought to us by young innovators in the great American tradition. Simultaneously, we endure a loss of quality in the everyday aspects of life. In spite of assurances from government officials and social engineers, things are not always better than they used to be.

The last time I took an international flight was six or seven years ago, and when I recently booked an overseas trip it was with some trepidation. Does the consumer get more for his airfare dollars today than he did in, say, 1965? No, and the evidence is overwhelming.

Like every passenger destined for steerage, there is the knowledge that conditions are better on the other side of the curtain. I did not have bonus miles nor time and energy to search out a "deal." If I wanted a better seat I'd have to buy it. The price of a roundtrip San Francisco-London business class ticket was $3500. I decided to suffer in economy, and suffer I did.

Thirty-five years ago a non-stop flight from San Francisco to London took approximately 11 hours. Today it remains 11 hours, but everything else is worse.

Today's "airbus" is austere, devoid of anything soft or comfortable. In fact, the interior seems designed to be cleaned between flights with a high-powered water hose.

Back in '65 an economy airline seat was fashioned for the average American male provided he was 4’11” and weighed less than 120 pounds. Seat #32F on my recent Swissair flight to London was configured for the backside of a marathon runner or a Tour de France cyclist.

As passenger space shrinks, one becomes territorial. My left arm-rest was shared with a gentleman from Cambodia, and for much of the flight we maneuvered for possession. At one point violence appeared likely, but western guile proved superior to Eastern mysticism and I prevailed for more than 50 percent of the time.

On the face of it, prices compared with years ago may appear at bargain levels, but many of today's passengers are "on the house." They are recipients of mileage-plus coupons. Upgrades, airline employees, their friends and family fill the bulk of the seats, often the choice ones up front. Someone has to pay the bills, and it's the poor bloke who doesn't have coupons or sufficient advance time who is the victim and pays through the nose.

An airport has been defined as a construction site where they land planes. That's always been true, but it's worse than ever today. Many overseas travelers will relate that their worst frustration involves getting in and around the airports. Delays plague almost every commercial carrier. Add to that the cumbersome and often unnecessary security measures bugging the traveler, which add hours to a scheduled flight.

In the old days they were called stewardesses, all single, husband-hunting attractive young women clearly on site to please the predominantly male clientele. Aka flight attendants, today they are more like matrons in a women's prison whose sole purpose is to herd the sheeple into compliance.

No, I have not forgotten airline food. Not only was what they served inedible, it was unidentifiable. My Swissair flight was under the auspices of Delta Airlines. The net result was that the Swiss have adopted Delta's menu and efficiency while Delta now exhibits Swiss charm and graciousness.

By hour six I was so degraded that a bag of peanuts seemed essential to my survival. Spirits rose as one of the prison guards appeared with a heavy cart filled with bags of peanuts lurching down the narrow aisle. An eighty-year-old woman headed for the lav had to dive to avoid being crushed by the deadly object. The rest of us were relieved. Had she been squashed, we might have been peanutless.

Needless to say, the passenger's mood darkens with each passing hour. I was unable to shake the notion that the air I was breathing had been filtered for everything but seven deadly viruses, and that we were on the radar screen of the missile-launching ships attached to the Seventh Fleet on maneuvers below.

The final hour of the ordeal becomes almost manageable. Survival seems assured and freedom imminent. For me, it meant I was an hour away from a steaming cup of strong English coffee, a package of Frothman's Biscuits, and the morning Telegraph.

The landing was bumpy, and on shaky legs we quickly cleared customs. In celebration, I rushed to get my coffee, biscuits, and Telegraph, quickly found a space at a long common table, and life seemed worth living again. I removed the wrappings from the Frothman's package, selected one, and was not disappointed. They were as delicious as I remembered.

Then my eye was distracted by the strangest occurrence. Seated across from me was a middle-aged gent wearing a bowler hat and certainly a denizen of Lombard Street in the old City.

He was taking one of my biscuits. He did it brazenly and deftly. I tried to dismiss what I had seen.

While consuming my second biscuit, I must admit, my focus was no longer drawn to the Telegraph but on my bowlered neighbor.

He seemed absorbed in his newspaper (the Guardian), and managed to extract the fourth biscuit in the package, his second. In New York or San Francisco, I might have fled the scene or summoned the police. But this was London.

We proceeded to complete the package of six biscuits, each in turn, without ever making eye contact. In a flash, he was gone, and I was left to consider the experience. I shrugged and concluded that even lunatics can wear bowler hats.

I crushed my empty coffee container and folded my newspaper in preparation to take leave. Covered by a section of the newspaper but now exposed was my unopened package of Frothman's biscuits.

Who knows? If the bowlered bloke has an Internet pal equivalent to, he may be relating his incredible encounter with a crazed American.

My short tour of London, Berlin, and Rome resulted in the same culture shock as always. A driver in Rome summed up a view that we encountered throughout our brief visit.

"You Americans are okay, but you don't have any culture."

He was wrong. His real complaint was that by comparison America has no history. We do have a culture, but it has fallen precipitously.

Now let me tell you about my return flight home…

Burt Blumert (1929–2009) was owner of Camino Coins, president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, chairman of the Mises Institute, publisher of, and the author of Bagels, Barry Bonds, & Rotten Politicians.