Undeniably, one of the most awesome aspects of life in the modern era is that if you can afford it, tomorrow you can be anywhere in the world.
In 1492, it took Columbus two months to cross the Atlantic and discover (How can you discover a continent that already had 7,000,000 people on it? That’s a topic for another day.) America, but now you can fly from Spain to Hispaniola in eight hours.
Sadly, it’s a far less comfortable experience than it could be, and the airlines are making it that way on purpose.
At no time in my life am I happier that I’m small in stature than when I’m flying. I stand a mere 5-feet 5-inches and have a short 27-inch inseam, yet I’m still cramped in an airline passenger seat.
This was painfully obvious on a recent trip to Italy, where the return transatlantic flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia left me sore and angry. I’ve learned since that the airlines want customers sore and angry. Because it makes them more money.
Like many aspects of the past, when in public life, people were more formal. Look at any photo of people attending a baseball game or boarding a train 100 years ago, and you’ll see men wearing ties and top-hats, and women wearing dresses, hats and make-up.
Train travel, even into the 1950s, was an elegant affair, with uniformed conductors and dining car waiters who polished fine silverware and china between meals. Manners and civility were practiced in every interaction, and the RR companies and emerging airlines treated customers with the utmost respect.
That’s all gone now. There was a point in time that must have slipped by me when profits overwhelmed humanity.
Today’s airlines have discovered that they can make more money and increase their profits by tacking on additional fees for things they routinely provided every customer in the price of their ticket. You want to take luggage with you? That’ll cost more. You want to eat something? That’ll cost more. You want legroom or a seat large enough for a standard human being? Still more.
The airlines are totally conscious of this abuse. They even have a name for it: calculated misery. They’re purposefully making us miserable because making us miserable makes them more profitable.
Sure, it’s antagonistic, baleful. But if you want to get somewhere distant in a reasonable period of time, you have few choices. Basically what they’re doing is making their baseline service, air travel, so wretched that you’ll pay more to avail yourself a happier experience.
Of all the sinister things the airline does, making their jets more crowded is tops. With each generation of new planes, they order seats that are marginally smaller and closer together than before and cram more seats inside.
Poor you if the person sitting next to you is, shall we charitably say, large, as his or her pulpy arms spill over onto your shared armrest. Pity you even more if YOU are that large person, because you’re miserable all around.
Not only are you fighting for side-by-side space, but your legs are jammed into the seat in front of you and whenever that passenger moves, it jars you. Movement up and down the hallways – god forbid you need to tinkle on an eight-hour flight – is similarly fraught with unpleasant interactions with other passengers.
Airlines do this because they can. You’d never return to a restaurant that seated you at a different table from your date, charged you for water, kicked you out if someone arrived willing to pay more, or forced you to pay to use the toilet.
Restaurants typically have competitors, and they know they’d lose your business if they treat you like vermin.
Conversely, with few exceptions, the airlines face little competition in their various routes. After decades of mergers, almost the entirety of the domestic market is comprised of only four airlines: Delta, American, United and Southwest.
So even if one of these airlines treats you and your traveling family like cockroaches, there’s little you can do about it. They know, and their computer models show, that one bad experience is enough to get many customers to fork over more money to avoid the next one. The skies are now distinctly unfriendly.
Maybe this is our fault. We’ve all bought into the Walmartization of consumerism, where the lowest price is everything. Shame on us; you get what you pay for. Still, it’s maddening.
You might be reading this, smugly thinking that you never (or seldom) fly, and are thus unaffected. Consider that Congress is now evaluating scrapping laws on Net Neutrality, meaning the Internet service providers will be able to monitor your usage and charge for services and upgrades accordingly. Prepare yourself for that calculated misery.
Next time I travel, I’m going to take a train.
Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.