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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The Noisy, Sweaty Hell of Small Planes

Flying over Cape Cod in a cramped cockpit, I wanted nothing more than to be down on the beach. Call me a heretic.

The author on a flying lesson, circa 1980.

I spent the better part of five years — from, roughly, autumn of 1985 through the late summer 1990 —  immersed in the world of general aviation, as it’s also called, slowly building time and collecting the various add-on licenses and ratings I’d need for an airline job. My logbook records almost 1,500 flight hours at the controls of various single-engine Cessnas, Beechcrafts and Pipers. No fewer than 1,100 of those hours were logged as an instructor, teaching dentists and software engineers to fly in exchange for a poverty-level salary.

When I think back to those years, my memories aren’t especially fond.  Frankly, as I see it, those are 1,500 hours — two full months aloft — that I’m never getting back.

I feel that way about a lot of things, I suppose, and don’t we all.  And it’s not that I don’t savor the thrill of flight.  Just maybe in a different way than some. I love my job and the places it takes me; I’m doing exactly what I dreamed about doing when I was a seventh grader.  But this is commercial, international flying.  There was much about general aviation flying that I did not enjoy: the miserable pay, the tiny cramped cockpits that were either scorching hot or numbingly cold, the dismal suburban airports.

That makes me a snob, or a heretic, in the eyes of many private pilots.  But that’s all right.

Summers were the worst. It would be some steaming day in July or August, and I’d be giving instruction in some tattered old 172 over the shoreline of Plum Island or Cape Cod.  I’d be up there at 2,000 feet in that claustrophobic cockpit, sweat dripping down, literally banging elbows with my student, bouncing around in the hot gusts, ears ringing, hoarse from trying to shout over the din of the unmuffled pistons.  And there, directly below, would be this gorgeous beach.  Looking at the people playing frisbee and splashing in the surf, I wanted nothing more than to be out of that blasted contraption and down there with them.  It was all I could do not to grab the controls and aim for a landing on the sand, fling open the Cessna’s flimsy door and run for the water, free at last!

Those were some depressing moments.

Ironically, I imagine that many of the people below were looking up at us, jealously.  What a beautiful day for flying, right?  How splendid it must be on a clear summer day, up there in the breeze.

What the hell did they know?  Most people who look longingly at a small plane have never been in one.  It’s hot, it’s cold, its very tight and it’s noisy as all hell. Worse even than Southwest.

For the record, I’ll note that I always was a fan of the low-wing Piper series over the high-wing Cessnas.  The cockpit of the Piper Warrior was a better design, ergonomically. The Cessna was boxy, and the position of the wing cut hazardously into one’s view.

I had a student, though, Fred Shelton, who owned a clean and well-equipped Cessna 182 that I was quite fond of.  He would let me borrow it in exchange for instruction towards his instrument rating.  N9401X was the plane’s registration.  I will always remember that number.  In fact that plane was the last private plane I ever piloted — to Nantucket one weekend in August, 1990, shortly before going off to ground school at my first airline job.  Here’s a shot of it, proud and resplendent (so much as a Cessna can be either of those things) on the apron at Hanscom Field, outside Boston.

Nantucket was my favorite destination, and I landed there in N9401X many times.  I would bring John or Ben or Graham or Samantha Simpson  — or which ever girl I was trying (and failing) to impress at the time.  But the real thrill wasn’t the flight down, it was swimming out at Nobadeer. We’d grab our stuff, lock up the plane, scale the six-foot perimeter fence, and hike to the beach.

Of course, on the other hand, it was the airplane — the privilege of flight — that made those memories possible.  One of my big laments is that people have taken the airplane out of the travel equation.  Flying, in most people’s eyes, is but an inconvenient means to an end.  That, to me, is a terrible shame.  Once upon a time, it took months in a sailing ship to reach far-away countries and cultures that today are reachable in a matter of hours.  How is that not exciting?

That is what I love about flying today (New York to Hong Kong in a 747), and, on a much smaller scale, it’s what I loved about it then (Hanscom Field to Nantucket in a four-seater).

Getting there was half the fun. Or, maybe, slightly less.


This story originally ran in the magazine Salon.

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