In theory, it takes less than an hour, strapped into a CR7 or an MD-80, to fly from St. Louis to Chicago on a humid Thursday evening. Jets are a marvel, scooting from here to there somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 mph. But what we've done to shackle this modern ease is shameful. The one-hour flight has become the shortest segment of a six-hour scourge.
It starts with the arrogance of the airlines. They're so cavalier with their own time, yet so demanding of ours. Arrive 90 minutes before your 6pm departure, they say, or we might just take your nonrefundable seat away from you. If you're crossing an international border, be here two hours prior.
Airlines seem to delight in holding small freedoms hostage. No iPods during takeoff or landing. The small bag on your lap must be stowed. Don't queue up for the lavatory. No BYOB. Whenever they say these things, they invoke regulations of the FAA, that omnipotent big brother of the skies. I'm waiting for the flight when an octogenarian raises his hand and asks, "Can I leave my pacemaker on, or do I have to turn that off, too?" The flight attendant, smiling warmly like an enlightened despot, will reply, "You can leave it on. We'll let you live . . . this time."
And those canned announcements, full of middle-class euphemisms such as "lavatories" and "emergency landing." Call me crazy, but if they just said "toilets" and "plane crash" people would actually listen.
Security measures seem designed more to irritate than to secure. It's the tiny redundant steps, the small inefficiencies, that madden me most on my weekly commutes. You have to show your boarding pass at the beginning of the security line, and again at the end. Why? What could have possibly changed as I shuffled through the velvet rope maze?
Why does the list of prohibited items read like the inventory of a well-stocked Ace Hardware, yet I can bring a bottle of Snapple aboard and shatter it, yielding chunky shards of glass? Besides, if terrorists want to crash the plane, all they need to do is turn on their iPods.
Every time I have to take off my shoes, throw them in a filthy plastic bin, and skuttle across the gritty floor in my stocking feet, a little part of me dies inside. If I've booked a one-way flight, I'm doomed to the cavity search regardless of whether I beep. Here the FAA's logic borders on creepy: terrorists are just as thrifty as the rest of us, and who would book a roundtrip when the journey is going to be a one-way trip to hell?
It isn't just security policies that need an overhaul. A drop of rain splashing the tarmac in LAX sends shockwaves across the nation's aviation infrastructure. The 6pm flight pushes to 7:19, then 8:38. "We're hoping for wheels-up at 8:51," the barely audible statement crackles over speakers seemingly located three gates over.
And oh, the jockeying, the eager anticipation, of that moment when the gate clerk props open the jetway door and reaches for the microphone. We perk up like a kennel of dogs as our master opens the cabinet where the Purina is kept.
Other aspects of air travel are a study in poor design, in which the slowest common denominator becomes the critical path. Betty the snowbird, flummoxed by the whole process, holds up dozens of business travelers in the security line. Boeing 747s have several doors, but the jet bridge only allows usage of one. Combine this with boarding the plane from fore to aft, and catching your strap on an armchair as you squeeze down the aisle holds up everyone behind you. If your flight touches down early, inevitably another plane is occupying your gate.
We accept all of this. Late flights, poor service, and stolen dignity have become so commonplace that they've become the standard.
I'm calling for civil disobedience. A whole planeful of us should show up 47 minutes after planned departure, explain it was due to weather and mechanical problems, and board at our leisure. We'll recline our seats to 86.7 degrees, slam shots of whiskey we smuggled aboard, and ash our Cubans in the seat pockets. Upon takeoff, every person on the plane will brandish electronic gadgets, and, in a solemn display of solidarity, turn them on.