Saturday, June 10, 2017

Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America

On the sixth day of my weeklong odyssey across America by air, I found myself wedged into a middle seat in the far reaches of a flight from Des Moines to Phoenix, wearing the sweatpants I had slept in. Angry at the in-flight movie system and feeling hungry, I turned to my carry-on lunch: a container of yogurt.

The yogurt had spent the flight in the seat pocket, building up internal pressure. As I removed the top, it exploded, spraying blobs onto me, the seat, the floor and a nearby man whose mood was not enhanced by the arrival of a wet vanilla-flavored substance in his hair. I never did have lunch that day.

As flights go, it was not a personal success. But anyone who travels knows that wretchedness on a plane is only a matter of degree and never confined to a single passenger. The unfriendliness of the skies seems to grow only more baroquely awful with each new incident immortalized on a cellphone. (...)

To understand the forces defining air travel in America today, I spent eight days crisscrossing the country in economy class. Four airlines. Twelve flights (half of them delayed). Twelve cities. Twelve cups of tomato juice. Three trips through whole-body scanners. One alarming use of the words “groin area.” Eight testy conversations with authority figures. One lost bag. Two broken entertainment systems. And a reporter who went a week without washing her hair.

The trip had its share of surreal moments — interrogated by a security agent at one point, I forgot what city I was flying to — and I felt increasingly removed from myself, dehumanized and disaffected. Through a grim twist of fate, every flight seemed to leave from a gate in a distant corner of the terminal. Sitting again and again at the back of the plane, I wondered, am I getting enough oxygen?

But the week also showed people at their mordant best: helping each other wedge luggage into overhead spaces, trading information about delays and exhibiting a bracing what-fresh-hell-is-this solidarity, at least when they were not squabbling over spots in the boarding line. I began to get a sense of the perverse forces that drive airlines, airports and security personnel to pursue seemingly customer-hostile policies in the name of profits and safety.

As bad as flying can be, more people are doing it. Some 24,000 commercial flights take off and land in the United States every day, most at or close to capacity. Last year, a record 719 million people flew on domestic flights, as compared with 696 million the year before.

To help their profits, airlines fit more passengers into smaller spaces, charge more for once-basic services like legroom, inveigle customers into joining frequent-flier programs, and lavish ever more perks on higher-revenue passengers at the front of the plane.

The result is a widening caste system that can turn an airplane into a microcosm of “The Hunger Games.” The elite bask in an airborne version of Panem, enjoying over-the-top frivolities distant from the tedium of normal life, while the masses scrap over scant resources, dreaming of revolution. (...)


• American Airlines Flight 85, New York to San Francisco, 7:55 p.m.

I can’t sleep on crowded late-night planes, so I pick a flight that leaves at a reasonable hour and duly present myself at Kennedy International Airport at 6 p.m. Right away, the passengers are funneled into two groups, one that will have a good experience and one that will not.

To the left is the regular check-in area, a scrum of anxiety where the regular travelers jostle and fret into ragged lines staffed by overburdened agents.

To the right is the priority area, a calm oasis of privilege where smaller numbers of high-status travelers are promptly ushered to check-in desks by smiling airline employees eager to help.

This pattern will continue throughout the trip, and it all makes perfect economic sense. Airlines make far more money from premium-class passengers than from economy passengers, and their focus is on making these customers as happy as possible.

At the gate, the flight is delayed for more than two hours, for whimsical reasons known only to the airline. Just under 80 percent of flights in the United States landed on time last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an independent agency that is part of the Transportation Department. In the last decade, the on-time rate has been as low as 70.91 percent and as high as 82.11 percent.

The mood changes as you go further along in a plane. It’s like starting at a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and traversing the city until you reach your own house, a tent shared by 20 people on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. I have a middle seat, which will prove to be a recurring theme.

A thin curtain separates us from first class, but it feels impenetrable. A passenger attempts to use the first-class bathrooms but is ordered to the back of the plane. As the flight attendants dole out our sole free snack on this flight of six and a half hours — a lone Lotus Biscoff (“Europe’s Favorite Cookie With Coffee”) — the aroma of something delicious that may or may not be lasagna wafts in from the front. (...)


• Delta Flight 1106, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, 10:34 a.m.

• Delta Flight 2926, Salt Lake City to Denver, 3:20 p.m.

Half of America is furious at the other half, unable to agree on even previously uncontroversial topics like the weather. But if there’s one subject that unites the country, it is a loathing of what the airlines euphemistically call the boarding process.

I’m already grumpy because of fatigue and the fact that this flight, too, is unaccountably late. Besides, I fail to discard my water bottle at security, a rookie mistake that results in a walk of shame to the garbage bin reserved for people who do not understand what “no beverages” means.

At the gate, the mood is restive. The plane has not arrived.

A group of passengers — these people are known derisively as “gate lice” to frequent fliers — is surging toward the door anyway, jockeying for position in imaginary lines. This makes the others nervous, so they head over there, too.

“It gives me a sense of comfort to stand near the gate,” says Kristin Olson, who has left the lounge to stake out a prime position at the boarding area. “It can be chaotic and uncertain. I’m like, any time it’s set to board, I want to be here.”

Airlines have experimented with everything, including back-to-front boarding, window-seats-before-aisle-seats boarding, and what some people call “chaos boarding,” where passengers basically rush the gate en masse. Reasonable people can disagree on which is most efficient, but one thing seems clear: The current system — organized according to elaborate status-based hierarchies — is a highly irritating way to board a plane.

“On some flights, you have so many elite travelers that by the time they all board, there’s no one left,” Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the online publication Airline Weekly, said in an interview.

Each airline has its own way of calculating status, calibrating down to the most picayune distinction, just the way English people will tell you in all seriousness that they grew up upper lower-middle class, say, or lower upper-middle class.

It’s always startling to see how starkly this little slice of class warfare plays out. After boarding passengers who need extra help, Delta divides the remaining people into five “boarding zones” comprising 24 separate categories. If that seems like a lot, it is. The zones are cunningly arranged so that Zone 1 is actually the third group to board.

Zone 3 is for passengers with the cheapest tickets. They are forbidden to get on the plane until everyone else — the Sky Team Elite Plus members, the Priority Boarding Trip Extra customers, and so on — has already boarded.

There’s something soul-destroying about actively caring whether you’ve achieved, say, Crossover Rewards SPG Platinum status. On the other hand, it’s uniquely dispiriting to be a member of Zone 3.

Our boarding passes might as well say “Loser” on them.

by Sarah Lyall, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Sarah Lyall