July 15, 2012

Air travel can be an insane hassle


---- — Summer is traditionally the busiest travel time of the year. Anyone who has traveled anywhere by air recently, however, knows that getting on a plane can be an insane hassle capable of ruining even the most carefully planned vacation

.I used to think it was poor customer service or pure greed that was turning the airline industry into a cesspool of broken travel dreams. The airport gauntlet has become so terrifying, though, that I no longer think it can be the result of accident or oversight.

For some reason, someone is actively trying to keep us from flying on planes.

Consider the airplane experience as currently configured.

First, you purchase your tickets for what you consider a reasonable price, then add in nuisance fees. A fee to choose your seat. A fee for two extra inches of space. A fee to board early. The biggest, of course, is the fee to actually bring luggage on vacation with you.

If you want to bring a suitcase, it will cost you. And if that suitcase contains more than three clean changes of underwear, it’s going to weigh more than the prescribed limit, which will cost you still more.

Carry-on bags are momentarily still free, though I haven’t been on a flight in three years in which there was enough room in the cabin for all the free carry-on bags — the excess always have to be placed in the storage compartment anyway, though you would have been charged for doing just that minutes earlier.

If you planned in advance, like a good traveler, you still face a 50/50 chance of the airline randomly changing your reservation. These changes come for no apparent reason, and the airline never calls to ask “Hey, is this OK with you?”

They could move your departure time up seven hours. They could give you a 17-hour layover in Detroit. They could swap your return destination from Burlington, Vt., to Istanbul.

Also remember that planes are deliberately overbooked, meaning some ticket-holding customers will be forced to stand on the tarmac, waving forlornly at their lost vacation. Unfortunately, compensation for being bumped isn’t what it used to be. A friend was recently offered 40 percent off a meal deal at Hardee’s for being stranded in Newark for two days.

Getting bumped, though, is still preferable to another favorite airline ploy: Inexplicably delaying one flight long enough to make you miss a connecting flight. Often this forces the traveler to accept the airline’s kind offer of overnight accommodations at the farmhouse from the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — which is, surprisingly enough, just 10 minutes from a major U.S. airport.

Just getting through the airport itself can be a trying experience. In the slow-moving security line, you have to take your belt off (so your pants fall down), take your shoes off (before walking through a tunnel of broken glass) and empty your pockets onto a conveyor belt (so the trained squirrels in the machine can steal your loose change and house keys).

Then you are subjected to the full body scan that can instantly see anything you’re hiding in your thong.

When you actually step into the plane — a metal tube of festering germs, viruses, disease and children, with no medical facilities or supplies — the experience gets exponentially worse.

The seats have been engineered to fit the derrieres of midgets from the 16th century. If you’re traveling alone, the airline will provide a 400-pound gentleman to sit next to you — two such gentleman, if you have the good luck to sit in a middle seat.

Flight attendants — once helpful and courteous — now sneer at passengers, deliberately spill hot coffee and will turn down any reasonable request. Blanket? No. Pillow? No. Glass of water? Wait your turn. Their stock response has become “Sit down in your seat, or we’ll turn this plane right around!”

If you want food on your flight, well, maybe you can have some peanuts or three Pringles chips ... for $4. Each. If you want a meal, however, you’ll have to try and sneak a can of Sterno and some beef stew past security.

Air travel simply couldn’t become this odious by accident. It is my belief that the airline industry has finally reached a point where it makes financial sense for them to drive away customers.

It’s possible that the government is paying the airlines a hefty subsidy in hopes of saving precious oil. I think, however, that it has to be private industry. Who, though, stands to benefit most if people stay at home on their couches instead of flying to far-flung locales? And who has the funds to pay for this kind of mass conspiracy?

Television, and its deep-pocket advertisers. Every minute you’re on a plane, you’re not watching commercials, you’re not buying consumer products. Ratings go down; advertising dollars and profits shrink.

It’s evil, but it’s working. I’d much rather watch “The Amazing Race” visit the Las Vegas strip than jump on a plane and go to Vegas myself. Please, anything but the plane.