Air Worst

vintage airlinePerhaps you are as confused as I am about the recent mixed messages from the federal government about cell phone use on airplanes. (I know, you’re shocked that our government is sending mixed messages.)

Let’s just say this: I know what the policy should be – no cell phone calls on airplanes. None. Zilch.

With so very much glamor involved these days in hauling your body on to a Canadair regional jet – the planes with tiny overhead bins and a restroom right sized for the Munchkins from Oz – or spreading out in the sleek Airbus 310 with its expansive five inches of leg room (or less when the jerk in the row ahead of you insists on putting his seat all the way back) why risk diminishing the sophistication of modern air travel with something as crass as a public phone call originating from 11B?

If you have any doubt about how cell phones in the air might work just check out the boarding area for your next flight. The worst airport boarding area I know – west of Mogadishu – is the “E” concourse at Salt Lake City’s airport. My frequent air travel companion has dubbed the area “the Gulag,” as in the place were Stalin sent political prisoners to live out their days in mind-numbing discomfort, devoid of even a remnant of human dignity. If you hit the schedule just right in Salt Lake you might find a seat in this air travel prison camp, but if you do chances are that you’ll be next to the kind of chatty fellow I found myself involuntarily listening in on recently.

I now know that this total stranger, thanks to his very public cell phone call, was “headin’ for Billings.” I wasn’t really trying to listen in, but I couldn’t avoid hearing the weather report from every vantage point of his journey, I noted his reaction to the forecast for southern Montana – “damn cold, damn cold” – and listened with rapt interest as he speculated on college football bowl games and the fate of Obamacare. Then he called his wife. I’m delighted to report that the problem with their credit card has been cleared up. Someone in the family, also happy to report, with a serious medical condition has taken a turn for the better.

I’m not sure why the guy had to actually go to Billings, he seemed to have all the bases covered with a few cell phone calls from the E gate waiting area.

I’m old enough to remember when air travel actually did have the patina of glamor, when people wore their best clothes to make a flight and real food, as in the illustration, was available as part of the trip. My first flight was on Frontier Airlines – the old Frontier, not the current Frontier – in a Convair 580, a twin-engine 48-passenger prop plane that, as I recall, had big comfortable seats. It’s been downhill ever since. Actually, I date the real demise of decent air travel to an abysmal airline once owned by the weird billionaire Howard Hughes.

Hughes Airwest was really Hughes Air Worst. The airline went out of business in 1980 and somewhere they are still looking for checked bags. One running joke had it that Air Worst offered a tri-weekly flight to Lewiston, Idaho. The punchline: the plane goes up one week and tries to come back the next.

Others, including former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, date the decline in air travel quality and comfort to the deregulation of the industry in the late-1970′s. In 2008, admittedly a particularly bad time for airlines, Crandall said: “The consequences (of deregulation) have been very adverse. Our airlines, once world leaders, are now laggards in every category, including fleet age, service quality and international reputation. Fewer and fewer flights are on time. Airport congestion has become a staple of late-night comedy shows. An even higher percentage of bags are lost or misplaced. Last-minute seats are harder and harder to find. Passenger complaints have skyrocketed. Airline service, by any standard, has become unacceptable.”

Of course since Crandall made those comments his old airline has merged with US Airways to create “the world’s largest airline.” I hope never to fly with them.

The U.S. airline business is a trillion dollar industry that is vital to the country’s and the world’s economy. Air travel is safe, can be – if you’re careful booking your ticket – a relative bargain, and for much business and leisure travel it is really the only game in town. It is also uncomfortable, often unpleasant and almost always a hassle. It’s hard to think of a consumer-oriented business anywhere where the creature comfort of the consumer is given so little attention. For that reason alone – keep the cell phones off, but also think for a moment about a different kind of travel experience.

In virtually every other developed nation in the world there are serious competitors to airlines. They are called trains. The United States is so far behind the rest of the world in the development and implementation of a national passenger train system that we might as well be Argentina, a country like the U.S. that once had a working national rail system, largely funded by British investment, that has now mostly been dismantled.

In his lively and engaging recent book One Summer – America, 1927 author Bill Bryson recounts the kind of rail system the nation once had and should strive to have again. “The most extraordinary feature of rail travel was how much choice there was…a customer in 1927 could buy a ticket on twenty thousand scheduled services from any of 1,085 operating companies.”

Actually sleeping on a train in 1927 wasn’t all that glamorous, Bryson acknowledges. It was often noisy with plenty of bumps, but then again try sleeping on an airplane these days. “To keep customers distracted, and to generate extra income in a crowded market, nearly all trains put a great deal of emphasis on their food,” Bryson says. “On Union Pacific trains, for breakfast alone the discerning guest could choose among nearly forty dishes – sirloin or porterhouse steak, veal cutlet, mutton chop, wheat cakes, boiled salt mackerel, half a spring chicken, creamed potatoes, cornbread, bacon, ham, link or patty sausage, and eggs any style – and the rest of the meals of the day were just as commodious.” You’re lucky to get a tiny packet of pretzels on a flight today. Most airlines now insist on cash only and if you are lucky enough to be on a flight where you can buy a snack good luck navigating enough room to eat it on the tiny tray table. Remember that guy in the row ahead. His seat will be all the way back.

There are a multitude of reasons that contributed to the demise of a national passenger rail network, including the fact that, like airlines these days, railroads in the 1930′s and 1940′s were in awful financial shape. But the nation’s fixation with cars and planes, and the massive subsidies we lavish on both, also helped drive the passenger train off the tracks. The next time you hear a politician say we can’t afford to subsidize rail transport ask him what we’re doing with cars and airplanes? Who builds the runways and freeways? We have subsidized the modes of transportation we value and generally left passenger rail off the list. Nearly everywhere else in the world from Beijing to Berlin it’s a different story.

If you could go from Seattle to Portland or San Francisco to L.A. or Chicago to St. Louis as fast and comfortably as a French businessman goes from the heart of Paris to downtown London you’d never think of flying. And most trains, I should note, have quiet cars where the cell phones are always turned off.

I admit to getting a bit nostalgic at Christmas time, so it may be fair to write off my longing for time when travel was more comfortable, more elegant and more interesting to a certain yearning for the days when men wore hats and suits on intercity trains. Today you’ll more commonly find stocking caps and flip flops. Rather than the Pan-Am Clipper they seem dressed for a trip to the landfill, and not to worry – given the ubiquitous cell phone – you, dear traveler, will almost certainly hear about their trip.

And, of course, I’ll keep flying – what choice do I have – but, please I have no need for a weather update from Billings either in the boarding area or on board. I have a personal device for that. Which I will use. Quietly. Off in the corner.

 

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