Flying: A Look on the Bright Side

May 28, 2017

Is Air Travel Really As Bad As Everybody Claims? Here Are Some Reasons Why Not.


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Some follow-up notes:

This is the sixth op-ed that I’ve had published in the Times, and I’m extremely grateful for their interest. I’m a little disappointed, though, at the headline they chose for this one. It’s misleading. The article isn’t about flying in the old days; it’s about flying today. I’m making a case that the golden age of air travel is in many ways happening right now, not in some mythologized past.

As expected, the angry and sarcastic letters have been pouring in. A lot of them are flip and fail to acknowledge the points I’m making. Here’s a typical example, sent anonymously…

We need to look at this objectively. Is flying cheaper than it used to be, yes or no? Is it safer, yes or no? Is it faster and, in a surprising number of ways, more comfortable and convenient? Either it is, or it isn’t. And the answer, in each case, is yes. That’s not me talking; it’s simply the facts. That doesn’t mean flying is a wonderful experience. And, if you’re at all familiar with my writing over the years, you’ll know that I have amply criticized the airlines when that criticism has been due. Poor communications, terrible customer service, lousy onboard products, our miserable airports — I’ve covered that stuff countless times without pulling my punches.

Duly Noted

What I’m doing in the Times piece, though, is pointing out a few of the good things that are seldom acknowledged.

No matter, a number of readers already have insisted that not only am I wrong, and that flying is truly awful, but in fact it’s never been worse. To which I ask: really, are you sure? And if so, let’s try this: Imagine that you’re planning an economy class trip from, I don’t know, Seattle to Paris. You have two theoretical options. Option number one is that you can fly the route tomorrow, on the carrier of your choice, and experience flying exactly as it is. Or, option two, you can travel back in time and do it in 1965. What’s your pick? Just keep in mind that if you choose the latter, you’ll get a couple of extra inches of legroom, shorter lines at the airport, and maybe a chirpier flight attendant. Your journey also will take several hours longer, cost more than twice as much, and you will sit in a cabin with no personal entertainment system, filled with people smoking. And, just for good measure, your chances of being in an accident will be about eight times higher.

Are you still down for it?

For what it’s worth, a colleague and I were talking the other day, and we both agreed that so much of what people hate about flying isn’t really airline-related, per se, but rather infrastructural. The decrepit state of our airports, for example, and our outdated air traffic control system, contribute significantly to delays and congestion. Then you’ve got TSA. Our security checkpoints are badly overcrowded and poorly designed. Customs and immigration procedures, too, are flyer-unfriendly. These are bureaucratic and government-funding issues more than anything else. Fix them, and I estimate that 75 percent of passengers’ frustrations would disappear.

In the meantime, how trendy has it become to bash the airlines? The New York Post even has a “Hell of Flying” section…

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