The Friendly Skies


Remember the friendly skies? Remember Delta is ready when you are? Remember up, up and away? That was TWA and if you’re old enough to remember TWA you may remember the pleasures of travel. Well, those days are gone the way of the Pan Am Clipper.

Had a round-trip Delta flight from BWI to Salt Lake City recently. On neither flight did my seat recline. Flight attendants shrugged. Said it was my proximity to an exit row, although the seats next to me reclined. (I’m not an aeronautical engineer, but I think the seat was broken.) They say that reclining seats on airplanes may be unheard of in another year—at least in coach, but then everything is really coach now more or less. Flying Greyhound.

There’s nothing to eat now either. Snacks, perhaps snackettes is a better word, are distributed with a flintiness that would have warmed a workhouse warder in Charles Dickens’ London.

But the worst part was getting on and off the plane. Our plane was at the gate long before the scheduled takeoff. But still we left late. Why? Any frequent flier could tell you. It’s the staggering amount of carry-on luggage. The airlines created this problem. When carriers began charging fees to check bags, Mr. and Mrs. America—looking like Jerry Lewis in “The Bellboy”—began dragging things on planes, stopping just short of live poultry.

And there’s security. Folks blame 9/11, but that’s not the problem. There’s no consistency from airport to airport. You might be strip-searched in Chicago, but they simply wave you through in Denver. A small carry-on passes through the X-ray machine in Baltimore no problem but the next day in Boston the same satchel results in my being pulled out of line. The charge: possession of Tom’s Toothpaste. They confiscated Tom. Took him down to Guantanamo. I’m lucky that I didn’t go with him.

Meanwhile, back in the no-longer friendly skies, the seats get smaller and more spartan. A recent New York Times headline “On Jammed Jets, Sardines Turn on One
Another” seems to capture the esprit du voyage. They say by 2017 passengers won’t actually be sitting on domestic flights of less than two hours but will be strapped together in a standing position like some sort of weird amusement park ride. OK, I made that up, but someone’s going to try it.

So where does this leave us? At the gate actually. Planes take off later and later. It now takes 30 to 40 minutes to board an aircraft today—more than twice what it was in the 1970s. I did not make that up.

Blame the “nachos factor. ” Travelers will carry anything on to a plane. I selected the ubiquitous nacho because there’s nothing more difficult to carry than a container of nachos slathered with an industrial solvent that resembles cheese. Face it, our problems have less to do with 9/11 than with
7-Eleven, so to speak.

And airlines not only charge too much to check bags but they fail to enforce the carry-on rule. This cripples boarding. (Travel tip: If you can’t lift a suitcase over your head, IT’S TOO HEAVY.)

The on-time performance rate of airlines would take off if only they would enforce the carry-on rules. Purses, lap- tops and briefcases are one thing, but anvils masquerading as suitcases are another. My solution: check all luggage.

There is NO WAY that you could not board planes more quickly and efficiently if you banned most carry-on items. There are legitimate reasons flights are late—bad weather, maintenance issues, pilot drunk. But those are occasional glitches. The nacho factor is a constant.

“What about convenience?” I hear some dim bulb ask.

How inconvenient would it be to check your luggage and leave the Slurpee behind? Security would be faster. Less to examine! And a more powerful screening process might be used to examine the checked luggage. And
with the money saved, airlines could hire more baggage handlers. Maybe even put in fewer seats to allow reclining?

Southwest Airlines, the nation’s largest domestic carrier (and BWI’s, too), should try this. I’m a huge fan. They changed the face of flying. They’ve made mistakes. Got mixed up with AirTran and altered their frequent flier program, which really ticked me off. But I still love them. This advice is my gift to them. Free. If it works, perhaps I can recline?

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