Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sometimes it is just easier to walk

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, air travel, airline industry

I first rode an airplane in 1953, aged 5. I barely remember it. I am told it was a DC-6. At a cruising speed of 270 kts (311 mph or 501 kph), it would have taken about 2 hours to fly from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, assuming it went straight through. I probably slept through most of the flight.

I sure wish I could still sleep on airplanes. In my longest ordeal, we flew a 3-leg flight: Tokyo Narita to LAX, then to Dallas, then to OKC, where a friend picked us up for the drive home. I didn't even sleep in the car, nor during the layovers. Starting when my wife's brother drove us the 3 hours to Narita, 2 hours before flight time, I was awake and in one way or another on the move for 24 hours. My wife and our son did get some sleep. I am glad we weren't returning from Sydney! After that trip, I began to say, "The worst part of travelling is the travel." And this was years before 9/11! Security check-in was "show your ID and walk through", family members could sit with us at the gate until boarding, and there were real meals on board two of the flights.

Well, I won't go on about what has changed. That's the job of Mark Gerchick, in his new book Full Upright and Locked Position: Not-So-Comfortable Truths About Air Travel Today. He has been in the industry all his career, including some time as chief counsel to the FAA.

The author might have provided us a checklist of discomforts that now accompany air travel – and this would  be an even bigger book! Instead, he has focused on the important stuff, such as our changing status, from "guests" or even "clients" to "self-loading cargo"; or the tremendous economic effect of the steep rise in fuel cost plus a global recession, a double whammy that is still being ironed out.

You don't need me (or him) to tell you that even "business class" is less comfortable then the "coach" seats and service of the 1960s and '70s; that it might be better to be anesthetized upon arrival at the airport, and awoken at our destination (except we wouldn't be self loading any more!). But after going over all the changes of the past half century, he is actually hopeful that things are getting better. For example, newer planes, built of carbon fiber more than of aluminum, and thus more resistant to repeated stress, can house a higher cabin pressure and a bit more humidity. The airline keeps the pressure low, not so you'll be too groggy to make a pass at the attendant, but because an aluminum airframe develops cracks much more quickly if the pressure is like Denver's altitude rather than Nepal's. There is a bit of hope that airplanes will back off a little bit from being "flying buses".

And there are things that are better than before. Unless you are a total computer-phobic, online ticketing and online check-in really reduce the hassle we used to endure to get tickets and boarding passes. Imagine all that added to modern TSA procedures! We would need to arrive 3-4 hours early instead of just 1½ or 2. But our Internet advantage when finding tickets is eroding. I have noticed that Southwest was the first of several airlines that don't fully cooperate with Travelocity or its clones any more. You want the best deal, you go to their own website. That means I have 4-6 tabs open when I am looking for a flight. And I have to read a lot of fine print to unravel the surcharges and extras. It is an arms race.

Mark Twain said, "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." We actually have better control over the airlines than we do over the weather. They do depend on our good will to stay in business. So there is hope.

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