A Great Way to Fly

Once upon a time, air travel was different. It was more than a business, and more than a mode of transportation.

The airlines succeeded in presenting themselves as the symbol and substance of America in the American Century; commercial flight was technology wedded to esthetics and adventure. Everything noble about America seemed contained in the airline industry — it was “the wings of man,” “the friendly skies,” “a symbol of freedom.”

To fly was glamorous. It was something human beings had always dreamed of doing. Even the job of a flight attendant was something that young people all over the country aspired to. Just to travel by air was a status symbol; it meant you were part of a new era of jet travel. And if not every passenger was a member of “the jet set” (or wanted to be), there was an undeniable thrill in the experience.

These recollections are not just the nattering of nostalgia. The experience of air travel really used to be better, and it’s not so long ago that people have forgotten what it was like.

The skies are not as friendly as they used to be. They are bristling with baggage limits and extra fees for everything from leg room to storage space. Some airlines have resorted to “shaming” customers into buying back the frills that were trimmed away. The romance of flying has given way to the grubby bottom line, to penny pinching at 30,000 feet that has the public fuming.

As industry expert Henry Harteveldt put it recently, “The airlines are thinking more and more every day like retailers. They are thinking: ‘How do we maximize the profitability on every seat and every flight?’”

Airline customers can read their minds as they think those things, and the grumbling is getting louder and louder, like an engine of discontent revving up.

The air is a-roar with complaints: about hidden fees behind deceptive low prices; slim-line seats, a euphemism for crowding; thinner seat-back cushions to make room for an extra row of seats; charges for a cup of coffee or a pillow.

According to the Department of Transportation, airline consumer complaints rose more than 20 percent in the first six months of this year; the government received 9,542 consumer complaints, up from 7,935 received during the same period last year.

The charge-’em-for-everything policy could be rationalized for a while. After September 11, airlines were hard-hit by ballooning security costs, declining passenger volume and high fuel costs.

But those arguments are out of date. A number of major airlines reported record earnings in the three-month period that ended June 30.

A drop in fuel prices of nearly 30 percent has a lot to do with the brightening financial picture. But a hefty chunk of the profits came out of those nagging little fees and charges, which were not dropped.

If after 9/11 some felt it a patriotic duty to support the airlines in their time of crisis, that sentiment has passed. A mood of fed-upness has set in, and the airlines will soon feel an angry backlash in the form of plunging ticket sales if they don’t do something about it. People will find alternatives: they will fly less often, vacation closer to home, take the train when and where possible.

For those who must fly, who haven’t the leisure for a transcontinental journey overland, it’s a matter of gritting one’s teeth and bearing the discomforts and indignities.

As the airlines are apparently set for the time being on pampering their upper-tier passengers while the rest ride steerage, the level of frustration and of complaints will continue to rise.

All this means that for those of us who fly, it requires an extra effort to locate and appreciate the chessed in the vicissitudes of air travel.

A great deal of the frustration and anger stems from disappointed expectations. But Wilbur and Orville Wright never promised you a world of frills. There is no constitutional guarantee of unlimited carry-ons or a free pillow or cup of coffee.

If you don’t go to the check-in gate expecting such things, you won’t be disappointed or feel cheated. So when you make your low-cost booking, check carefully about what’s included and what’s not. Then you can decide beforehand what you’re willing to pay for and what you can do without.

What about the inconveniences that aren’t optional?

Like a delay in offloading your baggage? Well, you can be thankful there wasn’t a bomb in the baggage compartment.

Did the fellow at security screening treat your 85-year-old bubby like an escapee from Guantanamo? They’re just doing their job, and don’t you prefer them to err on the side of being overly cautious than being sloppy?

Stuck in traffic on the way to the airport? Sure, it’s frustrating, stressful. But there’s nothing you can do about. Accept it as Hashem’s Will and use it as an opportunity to learn the parashah or the daf or say Tehillim.

It’s a great way to fly!