Air Travel

Air travelers are nature’s most nearly perfect victims. Virtually any atrocity is fair game because they are a captive audience. They don’t live, work, pay taxes or have any influence on or in the places they wind up. So there is no one to complain to and no influence that can be exerted to divert abuse. The potential for abuse has evolved to be completely bulletproof.

The “security” at airports is simply atrocious. Random searches are arbitrary and capricious. Checkpoints are duplicated one after another with the same drill. What they’re looking for is young mid-eastern or Arabic males, but profiling is unfashionable so they hassle everyone equally to get at their intended targets. Standing in line is an art form. Planes are rarely on time. The one out of Philly was an hour late. the pilot came on and said he didn’t know why. Hurry up and wait. Gate areas are crowded, miserable places full of stressed out, pissed off people. Shoes, belts, watches coins, keys out. Computers out of bag. Over and over and over again. And none of it is really effective. The next plane will come down from a shoulder mounted rocket launcher. they’re a dime a dozen.

Once on the plane, and this was a big plane, a 767 transcontinental, the seat ended exactly at my mid thigh, yielding the geometrically perfect pressure point of most discomfort. The seat in front of me was exactly 12 inches from my face, and that was before the occupant put the back down. The only way to read was to put my seat back. Both my knees were literally jammed into the seat ahead. I don’t have that fat an ass and I barely fit into the seat from the sides. None of this is accidental. They were designed that way to maximize the number of passengers that can be shoe horned into a plane, not comfort. And I also think they do it intentionally to push frustrated passengers up into more expensive Business Class, which has grown to about a third of the seats.

I used to think that I could put up with anything for seven hours for an affordable fare. I’m not so sure anymore. Seven hours of pure Hell, not counting the time wasted in and out of security, waiting in boarding areas is so incredibly miserable it is now a VERY strong incentive to purchase Business Class, and I think it’s carefully shaped to be that way by the Airlines, none of whom have any problem with gouging. And Business Class is interesting now, as it has entered the realm of manipulative gouging. The economy ticket round trip from Pittsburgh to Manchester, UK was somewhere around US$900.00 – US$1000.00 depending on when you leave and return. Pretty reasonable. Upgrade to Business Class is between US$4000.00 and US$5000.00 for the same flight. What do you get for the extra three- four thousand dollars for seven hours? Get on the plane faster. A bigger, wider seat in which the head goes down a little further, more foot room and a little more food, a few extra movies. The extra food probably costs the airline an extra US$20.00 per passenger, maybe. Otherwise it’s pure profit. And the expense follows the demand. These rates apply to anywhere in Europe where American tourists like to go. When I flew to Costa Rica, the same Business Class seat was US$1200.00 for essentially the same distance. I flew to Rio De Janario for about US$2000 as I recall, and that was a 13 hour trip.

Yes, the Pound and Euro are doing pretty well in the market and this translates to higher cost for everything. But this is not the reason for phenomenal prices of everything possible. It’s pure, unadulterated gouging of the dependent helpless. The exchange rate doesn’t expand to seven dollars for a glass of diet Coke in Paris and thirty dollars for a breakfast buffet in Manchester. London is worse. Don’t like it? Don’t eat or drink. Eighty dollars for a 20 minute cab ride. Don’t like it? Don’t go anywhere. Credit card companies charge a 3% “service fee” for every dime spent in Europe. If you need cash from a bank machine, there is a 15 cents on the dollar service fee plus whatever fee the bank charges to convert funds. Don’t like it? Don’t spend money in Europe.

I think that the combination of incredibly pernicious airport hassles combined with active and aggressive price gouging on the part of virtually everyone the traveler might come in contact with is going to have implications for the future of travel. The American tourist continues to head for Europe in dazzling numbers, but the peak travel season ain’t here yet. That will occur in June when schools let out. Then the number of people trying to get to highly hyped European vacation spots will go up dramatically, and what is now a horrible travel nightmare will become worse, if that’s possible. Airports jammed with pissed off travelers standing in line at every corner. Airplanes jammed like sardines. Price gouging elevated to an art form. I don’t think it will be pretty.

For me, I have just about decided to show my protest by giving up air travel to anywhere on the European continent. It’s such a horrible nightmare there is very little if anything on the other end that justifies the misery. Paris is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Beirut is the Paris of the East. If you could only go one place in the world, it should be either of these places. I would think twice about doing it. I have one more trip to Germany scheduled in Sept, past peak season, and if I stay as angry as I am now, that will be it for me unless I or someone else can figure out a way to decrease the misery. I don’t see much help on the horizon unless there is a full out revolt by the American traveler who just refuses to put up with it anymore. For now, the public has become numbed to it, as they have three dollar a gallon gasoline. CNN reports that not only is no one conserving fuel, demand continues to grow even as prices rise, and people are still buying gas guzzling SUVs. Travelers to Europe are in for a rude surprise in June. We’ll see what it generates. As long as Americans just knuckle under, it will never end.

David Crippen, MD, FCCM

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