What's so fair about flying?
If you said "nothing," you're right. Air travel has become so Balkanized in the last few months that flying is -- and I want to be careful not to overstate this -- almost un-American.
But let's stay positive for a second. Airlines remain egalitarian in a few small but important ways. Everyone on a commercial air carrier -- from the triple-titanium elite flier to the prisoner shackled to the back row of economy class -- shares a plane. They breathe the same recycled air and experience the same intolerably long delays. As travel blogger Pam Mandel observes, "it's awful for everyone."
So we're suffering.
But are we suffering the same? No.
And here's how air travel has taken an incomprehensibly sharp turn for the worse and thrown social equality and many of the values we hold dear as Americans out the proverbial cabin door: It is profoundly inequitable, it is becoming increasingly unfair, and yes, it is time to do something about it.
This is how I see it: On the one hand, airlines have added perks for their best customers. For example, American Airlines earlier this fall introduced priority check-in, priority screening lanes and special boarding lanes for its best passengers, following the lead of several other big airlines.
Maybe you'd expect that from a legacy carrier like American. But when Southwest Airlines followed suit a few days later and added priority security lanes for its frequent fliers, it prompted my colleague Janice Hough to invoke George Orwell's classic "Animal Farm" and conclude that some passengers were more equal than others on a one-class airline like Southwest. I'm inclined to agree.
At the same time, air carriers have stripped away amenities that used to come with every ticket. Checking a first or second bag used to cost nothing extra, and on longer flights, even folks in the back of the plane could expect a meal without having to pay for it. No longer. Now, airlines are charging $15 for the first checked bag and as much as $50 for the second one. Even little things like advance seat assignments cost money -- unless, of course, you're a card-carrying frequent flier.
This kind of discussion makes the privileged among us profoundly uncomfortable. In fact, I've taken a lot of hits from elite travelers for having the nerve to ask whether frequent fliers are ruining air travel. But most of them missed my point. I don't have a problem with the pay-more/get-more model. It's the idea that the good people sitting in steerage class asked for less -- or even deserve less -- that is profoundly unsettling.
I'm also a little troubled by the apparent hypocrisy of critics who insist they're entitled to gourmet meals and lie-flat seats because they paid more for their ticket. That's complete nonsense. They didn't pay more -- their employers did, and only because the airlines figured out a way of extorting more money from them. Or maybe their corporate travel manager couldn't negotiate his or her way out of a paper bag. Or both.
Many travelers use highly addictive frequent flier miles to pay for upgrades. Airline loyalty programs, as everyone who reads this column already knows, is the greatest fraud perpetrated on the traveling public. Ever.
There's good news for these coddled airline passengers who disagree with my perfectly reasonable arguments. There is no shortage of bloggers, journalists, and airline experts who sincerely believe it's your right to be treated like royalty when you fly while the masses behind the curtain suffer unspeakable indignities. Why not read their puff pieces instead of my column?
But enough about me.
Back to the question at hand: How is air travel un-American, and what can we do to fix it? Three recent examples come to mind:
You Have the Right to Sit Down and Shut Up
Apparently, large sections of the Bill of Rights are suspended at 36,000 feet. Crewmembers stop us from assembling in certain areas of the plane (after all, we could be planning another terrorist attack while we're waiting for the bathroom) or even recording the flight on videotape. That's right, it looks like there's no freedom of the press at cruising altitude, at least not for one blogging grandmother who was detained after refusing JetBlue Airways' demand to delete her lawfully recorded tape. What's next, locks on our seatbelts?
Your Laptop -- and the Data on It -- Is Ours
Remember the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution -- the one about unreasonable searches and seizures? It doesn't apply at the border. The government can ask for your password and hold your laptop or personal digital assistant for as long as it wants. That attitude seems to extend to the plane and the airport, too. Airlines want to block certain websites that contain objectionable material. It's only a matter of time before airports start barring access to sites with content they disagree with. Oh, wait -- they already do. I was logged on to one airport's public Wi-Fi network last week, and my own blog was blocked.
They Wouldn't Even Treat Animals Like This
We like to say that we don't permit "cruel and unusual punishments" (See the Eighth Amendment for details) but the fact is, prisoners of war are often treated better than airline passengers. They have more personal space. They have access to food and water. The airline industry has fought all proposals that would force it to offer even the most basic amenities to its passengers, including successfully lobbying to overturn a New York state law that would have compelled it to offer food, drink and fresh air to passengers on a delayed flight. And that crack about animals having it better than economy-class passengers? That's very close to the truth. The Federal Aviation Administration has strict guidelines about the transportation of live animals but is strangely quiet when it comes to the comfort of human passengers. Maybe some animals really are more equal than others.
So how can air travel become more American? First, at the risk of repeating myself, I'm not objecting to the over-the-top amenities like ergonomic leather seats or in-flight showers, if there's a market for it, then why not? But there ought to be minimum standards set by the government that require air carriers to treat their customers better than cargo.
Likewise, a flight shouldn't begin or end with a customs agent stealing your password and confiscating your computer. The fix might be Sen. Russ Feingold's just-introduced Travelers' Privacy Protection Act, which would put an end to that nonsense.
Start treating passengers -- all passengers -- with dignity and respect, and I think everything else will fall into place. And then our domestic airlines will be something all Americans can be proud of.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2008 Christopher Elliott Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.