Thursday, December 19, 2013
Fly Or Drive?
A cable news channel did a segment on air travel. The point of departure for the discussion was a column by an industry observer which said "It's incredibly safe, cheap, dependable, and on-time--get over your complaints, even if the FAA soon allows passenger cell phone calls. Show me the complainer who meets his deadlines 90% of the time."
He also defended the airline practice of segmenting passengers by how much they pay ("unbundling" the levels of service). But he admitted that other service providers (restaurants, for example) don't tell their customers "Oh, you're not a big-tipping regular here, so we'll give you the crappy menu and service."
No sale to the other panelists and the host. One panelist was amused at how boarding attendants "call every mineral known to man: platinum, gold, silver, copper, brass; and then finally say 'OK, the rest of you cattle can board.'" She was angry about how many times she'd heard cabin crew say "no" when she knew for a fact that regulations allowed a "yes." She vouched for her own expertise as a passenger: "I fly 7 times a month on average--because I must."
The host wanted to know how airlines can operate at a loss, year after year, and continue to fly. I shouted at the TV: "I know, I know--call on me! They offloaded their losses over the past 30 years onto their employees through bankruptcy by downsizing, merging, outsourcing maintenance, and dumping their pension plans."
Another panelist said he could understand how flying has become more disagreeable over the decades. "It's a commodity now, like anything else sold cheaply in bulk. A lot more people fly, more often, than in the 1960's and 1970's. So you're gonna have some disagreeable seatmates with bad manners from time to time." Nobody stood for the proposition that flying is agreeable.
The airport experience itself was off the table. As someone observed on a different show, "If your choice is between inconvenient packing, long lines, delays, and indignities--and falling to your death from 30,000 feet, you're gonna put up with stupid rules, lines, delays, and indignities." Safety, or perceived safety, trumps all else.
I haven't flown (trans-Atlantic excepted) since I retired. My problem is that I remember flying in the pre-hijacking, pre-terrorist, days. Check your bag and walk onto a plane in Philadelphia, take off on-time, walk off the plane, claim your bag, and snag your ground transport in Pittsburgh. Total flight time: 40 minutes. Total travel time, including ground at both ends, 1.5 hours. Zero lines and security. As compared to 6.5 hours to drive it on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Now, to fly the same distance, the total travel time approaches 4 hours while the driving time is unchanged. If you drive, you can pack as you wish (and take a lot more, including bulky or awkward "stuff"). Depart when you like. There's adequate leg and spread-out room, a choice of where and what to eat, and an enjoyable drive with scenery. If you have a seatmate, he or she is a good friend or loved one. If you drive aggressively, as a National Safety Council self-assessment test assures me that I do, handling the car and traffic engages your mind and skills.
For me, if the distance is 700 miles or less, the call isn't even close: drive. A day in the car is far more agreeable than a half-day in airports and stuffed into an airliner's coach seat. Flying is statistically safer than driving; there's that to be said for it...