America Up in the Air

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, fear of flying went hand in hand with fear of al-Qaida. After the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and years of building a counter-terrorism system, fear of flying, baruch Hashem, while certainly not gone completely, is much less pervasive than it was.

Today, the biggest source of anxiety in America’s airways is not from foreign fanatics who seek to take down planes but, arguably, from other people just like ourselves. These law-abiding citizens wield not knives or guns but carry-on bags, which threaten not our lives but something almost equally precious — our overhead baggage-stowing space.

The great threat to our comfort zone is other passengers themselves, with whom we must compete for seat locations. The greatest dread is of that moment when the passenger in front of us tilts his seat back, taking away the precious little leg room allotted to us.

Actually, the anxiety begins even before boarding the plane. That’s because there’s often no good way to get to the airport. Airports in major cities are world wonders of inaccessibility. Americans like to pride themselves on their innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, and look down on the Europeans who lack all get-up-and-go. Yet, in many European, and Asian, cities, they have found a way to build efficient, inexpensive links to their airports. It puts America to shame.

As Ray LaHood, a former Transportation secretary, said in an interview recently, “Our infrastructure is on life support right now.” Nor does the current leadership in Washington seem to have any idea how to solve the problem, if indeed they are even aware of it. The rebuilding of infrastructure, which could have provided employment for large numbers of Americans, must be ranked as one of the biggest missed opportunities ever.

The grievances are legitimate. The airlines do seem to be favoring the big spenders over the little guy more and more, and are packing the non-elite classes in knee-to-back discomfort. And now there’s a fee for every little thing, from pillows to potato chips.

Definitely there is room for complaint, and the airlines should — and do — hear it. But does it justify the kind of scrimmaging and squabbling that goes on these days over seat locations and carry-on space? Does it explain what one observer described as “a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another…”?

Some might answer, “Yes, if you treat people badly, they will behave badly. You can’t expect civilized behavior in an uncivilized environment.”

But that doesn’t excuse it. If we have learned anything about technology, it is that technology alone, no matter how advanced, has no bearing on a human being’s conduct. Wherever you go, you take your middos with you.

If civilization is no more than a veneer, a thin covering on brutishness, then it doesn’t take much abrasion, much rubbing, to remove it. A little crowding, an occasional indignity, an unexpected delay, and voilà! —barbarity and class war at 30,000 feet.

Security personnel can screen for weapons but not for boorishness. There are no commercial or administrative solutions in sight. We are stuck with each other as we are.

However, it could help that on an individual basis, each of us realizes that, like anywhere else, as Jews our conduct is particularly noticed, and that we should include some special chizuk in our preparations for a trip. We can scale down our expectations of comfort and convenience, and try to think about what kindnesses we can do for our fellow passengers.

We can take inspiration from our own behavior in other trying situations, such as riding the subways during rush hour or, better yet, from the Yidden who stand in large, packed shuls on Yamim Nora’im and Yamim Tovim — without grumbling or complaining, and certainly without fighting.

It helps, too, to keep the stresses of contemporary travel in perspective. In the days before airplanes were invented, the hardships of traversing the continent by train, or before that, by bus, or before that, by covered wagon, were incomparably greater. As for getting to Eretz Yisrael, the journey by sea and overland was so arduous and dangerous that few ever made it. Today, we take jet travel for granted.

None of the above excuses the airlines. They must do their part. They have to take seriously the complaints about crowding and petty fees and reconsider the changes in their frequent-flyer schemes. Otherwise, the public will increasingly avoid the unfriendly skies by taking fewer plane trips and vacationing closer to home at destinations accessible by car, bus or train. It pays for the airlines to be nice to us.