Jan 182009

It wasn’t even a month ago that I found myself in the US Air terminal at LaGuardia, waiting endlessly to continue my journey up the East Coast. I was very grumpy about it, too, because it was due to US Air’s moronic stand-by policy, which I’ve complained about before. From an operations standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to prevent people from getting to their final destinations as expediently as possible if on the day of travel the passenger is ready and willing and the earlier flights have capacity. Last month I was trying to get from DC to Boston and was worried about approaching bad weather. But because the weather in DC at the time was fine, the agent made me go to LaGuardia to catch my connection. Where I got naturally got delayed by the weather there. I could have paid to change my ticket, but as I noted earlier, I refuse to pay for the privilege of solving their flight operations problems.

But even camped out in LaGuardia I acknowledged that as long as US Air eventually got me where I was going in one piece, I guess that would be ok. And it turns out that they’re pretty good at that part.

I write on my blog a lot about air travel, partly because I do a lot of it but also because I love to do a lot of it. I am at my happiest when I can log onto United’s website and see a list of upcoming booked itineraries laid out for me. It fills me with glee, not just knowing that soon I’ll be somewhere interesting but that I get to ride a plane to get there.

I’ve always been enamored with flight, and I subscribe to the philosophy of Patrick Smith, a pilot and columnist for Salon regarding air travel: isn’t it so cool we can do this?

In a way perhaps it’s the ease of plane travel that ruins plane travel. So ordinary is it that our jets become like flying buses, saddled with so much institutional bureaucracy that it strips it of its romanticism. But while dealing with airlines may be a pain in the ass, flying them is still amazing. Like Smith encourages, look out the window and marvel at the feat of human engineering that can launch human beings around the furthest corners of the globe.

Of course airlines could do their part to be less annoying. As a frequent flier I have enough status with United to not be nickel-and-dimed by extra fees, but if I weren’t, the grin would be wiped right off my face right at check-in, if not before. And even as a frequent flier I still get stymied by bad policies and policy gaps. Like on this last trip to London, I had a complicated itinerary (which I didn’t mind, since it was all part of the adventure) with an impossible connection in Frankfurt (which I did mind, because it was unclear if I’d get stuck in Germany if I inevitably missed my flight). Because it was a Star Alliance frequent flier award ticket (which is itself an amazing invention because it means you can get just about anywhere in the world thanks to the cooperation of multiple carriers) I was going to be passed off from one airline to another on this journey. Unfortunately there was a gap in their partnership policy, and none of the airlines involved seemed to want to take any responsibility for making sure it worked. Air Canada, for instance, hung up on me when I tried to address the connection problem.

But I decided to fling myself into the atmosphere anyway, hurling myself halfway around the globe and hoping for the best. And of course it all worked out. Because in the big scheme of things air travel transcends airlines. Air travel, unlike any other form of transportation, has this amazing capacity to inspire the imagination. To be able to enter an aircraft, ascend into the atmosphere, then land someplace otherwise effectively inaccessible… It is something to be encouraged.

So I wish in the public dialog about regulating and enhancing the air travel infrastructure a little more excitement would enter the conversation. There may be, for instance, good reasons against extending Heathrow, including the demolition of an existing village and the environmental impact airplanes cause. But on balance these costs might still be dwarfed by the benefits. In the bigger picture, there might be better harms to mitigate, and air travel should not be targeted just because it is politically expedient to. Air travel provides an enormous boon for humanity like few other innovations do, and we would do best to not forget that.

 Posted by at 10:41 am

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