Kim Brown Seely

Writer. Mariner. Coffee-drinker. Leaver-of-town.

Fear of Flying:  Adios, United!

Fear of Flying: Adios, United!

It’s shocking how far the "friendly skies" have fallen.  Flying used to be a delight. An adventure people even dressed up for.  Now, in the U.S. at least, “it has become something to dread,” read the lead editorial in yesterday’s New York Times.  “You wait in endless lines for the chance to be poked, patted, X-rayed, interrogated, generally insulted and, in the final indignity, separated by class as you, at last, board.”

The now infamous footage of a bloodied doctor being physically dragged off an oversold United flight for refusing to surrender his seat has gone viral not only because it’s so extreme, but because it captures how so many of us feel these days flying in this country:  like cattle. The level of most U.S. airlines’ basic service as fallen so low, and the Big Four’s contempt for their passengers so visceral, that this kind of epic fail and utter lack of civility is standard operating procedure. 

Only 36 percent of Americans have passports.  But what’s even more shocking, and sad, is the contrast between the experience of flying in the U.S. and the experience of flying in places many of us fear to go: Mexico, Latin America, South America, the Middle East. As a travel journalist, I’ve had the privilege to fly to many places we somehow still think of as “emerging” destinations. And each time I’m not only surprised by the brand-new jet fleets – sleek Embraers slicing between small towns in the Mexican highlands – glowing Dreamliners and 777’s making long-haul flights to Santiago, Chile, or Amman, Jordan – but by these countries’ stunning new airports. 

It’s surreal: watch too much FOX news or CNN and you’ll soon be afraid to travel anywhere.  But land in Mexico City or Seoul and you’re blown away by rows of shiny new planes and acres of enviable infrastucture.  Even more striking?  The realization that it’s not just about soaring glass terminals but an entirely different level of service.  From the moment you pass through security – which, let’s face it, is degrading everywhere – service is still, well, service. 

In many of these countries there is still a certain level of formality when traveling. And a recognition that it is, indeed, a privilege to fly.  Flight attendants are courteous and speak several languages.  No one tosses a bag of peanuts at you and calls it a meal. If you are flying short distances in Chile, LAN Airlines offers a choice of three snacks and a chocolate bon-bon wrapped in sparkly paper.  I flew many short legs up and down Chile’s spine last month and rarely ate my chocolate.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that the bon-bon is the kind of celebratory gesture that still says:  it’s not every day you’re soaring over the Andes.  So true!

There are a few airlines in the U.S. that do get it right. Alaska Airlines and JetBlue do a terrific job.  I feel ridiculously fortunate to live outside Seattle, Washington, an Alaska Air hub.  By contrast, landing in Terminal B of Newark Airport or flying from many regional airports in the states is hell. 

The misery endured by passengers waiting to board a coast-to-coast nonstop out of Newark last week was indescribable:  no air conditioning, ripped carpets taped down in the halls, cheap vendor stalls blocking those halls, ONE restroom for six gates crammed with hundreds of passengers and a line of 30-40 women and children waiting to use that restroom. The situation was so bad, you almost had to laugh…

But it was also sad because this is our country.  This is what we've come to.

I ordered a beer at the sweltering airport bar and tried to endure.  The most overheard comments?  “Don’t touch anything!” (moms in the restroom line to their kids), and “Can you pass the Purell?”  (in the pizza and sweat-stained bar).   Way to go Chris Christie!

But the thing that’s most sad isn’t the state of our crumbling airport infrastructure, or that foreign passengers landing at JFK are greeted by guard dogs or detained by immigration authorities or if you’re from one of six targeted countries no longer even welcome here (in Santiago, Chile, last month foreign passengers waiting in baggage claim were greeted by an upbeat recording of “Florence and the Machine,” not TSA security warnings). But I digress.

The thing that’s truly shocking when you take a big step back and look at it for what it is, the thing that really kills me, is this: that United Airlines' fiasco and CEO Oscar Munoz’s tragically tone-deaf response (and commensurate drop in his company’s stock price), is America today:  a society where capitalism trumps civility, where this is allowed to happen because Munoz after all was just doing his job. We live in a nation where the “value” of a publicly traded stock far outweighs the value we put on people.

Dr. Dao, who suffered not only the indignity of being dragged off the plane but a broken nose and the loss of two front teeth, was just one person.  I challenge you, United, and American, and Delta, and Southwest to survive in an increasingly globalized world.

We're crazy lucky to live in the U.S.  And even luckier to be among the small minority of people on this planet who can afford to fly.  But that number is growing - and so is the list of places they'll want to fly to.  I hope our country remains one of those places.  Right now with our "America 1st" attitude we're slipping... The good news? If you can't take flying from Chicago or New Jersey, there's always Chile.

Just Back from the Jordan Trail

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