While boarding an international flight recently, I overheard a passenger ask a flight attendant for a blanket. 'Oh, we don't give out blankets anymore. Pillows either. But they are for sale.' The passenger balked, already uncomfortable in her last-row seat, which, we all know, do not recline. 'I'm sorry,' the flight attendant smiled. 'But the U.S. market started the whole thing and we're just following suit.'
Blankets and pillows for sale? Following suit? It seems to me that 9/11 is the best thing that ever happened to the airline industry, second only to the government bailout. What the airlines offer now is not so much a service as it is a racket. Air travel in general has become an entirely dreadable experience that begins with the ever-increasing cost of a ticket. But I'll get to that in a minute.
I can hardly think of anything more humiliating or angst-inducing than contemporary air travel. Bear in mind that I type this wearing a hospital gown open to the back, as I wait for my doctor to perform my annual pap. Moments from now, she'll knock on the door and come to me. I'll lay back, slip my feet into the hot-pad covered stirrups (ladies, can we not demand better than oven mitts, here?) and present my universe to her plastic speculum. She'll offer up the predictable 'Scoot your bottom down, just a bit more, just a biiiiiit more--good!' and then we'll chat about the weather. The imminent event notwithstanding, I'd rather endure a pelvic exam than be stranded on a tarmac for two-and-a-half hours.
Flying is demoralizing, starting with the inanity that is shoe removal. Thanks to Richard Reed's Neanderthal attempt a few years back to bring a plane down with nothing but a book of matches, we now compliantly remove our shoes and place them in dull gray bins before shuffling meekly toward our gate. Watching all the dutiful sheep slip out of their Jimmy Choos, unlace their Rockports and kick off their Crocs, I can't help but wonder if plantar warts will soon be a national epidemic. Should I buy stock in Compound W or Duct Tape?
But wait. Those geniuses over at Homeland Security, having realized the possible health threat of a shoeless public, now offer cute blue hospital booties. They're optional, but, really, nothing makes the Carefully Coordinated Travel Outfit more savvy, more now, than disposable paper socks. Or Crocs. Take your pick. They're equally appealing.
If you happen to trip the alarm as you scoot through the metal detector--that is, if you're 87 and/or in a wheelchair, or if you get randomly flagged for search as I did, you'll find yourself being patted down, frisked, wanded, fondled, swabbed and rubbed. That sounds fun in writing, sure, but in practice it's no bueno. Maybe the TSA will incorporate the hospital gown as mandatory attire for screening. It might make their job easier, and I know I'd feel safer. Or confused: Am I in an airport or an ICU?
Speaking of safety, we here in America now endure the All Liquids In A Ziplock Baggie rule. More ridiculous than an anxious, barefoot herd of sheeple is an anxious, barefoot herd of sheeple toting clear bags with lip-gloss, eye drops and mouthwash. What is this about? Truly. I'd like to know. Is my lens cleaner somehow more worthy of confiscation if it's found in the outside pocket of my camera bag than if it's in a Ziplock baggie in the outside pocket of my camera bag? It's still lens cleaner (or hairspray or toothpaste or combustible compound), whether it's in a see-through baggie or not, and no TSA drone can tell the damn difference with his bloodshot naked eye. I can only begin to imagine the corporate meeting at which this idea was scribbled on a white board. I bet there was a hearty laugh at the practical joke about to be leveled on a ball-gagged public.
Then there's that bottle of water you want to bring with you that doesn't fit in the Ziplock baggie, so you have to ditch it before going through security, which forces you to buy water on The Other Side. It's a brilliant side effect for opportunistic vendors. And at Lindbergh Field, they've got you by the ovaries because how can you not buy some See's Candy to go with your new bottle of Dasani?
The money hemorrhage is nothing at this point, the consumer having already been desensitized by the shock of the original ticket price. Perhaps you even had to change your reservations for some silly reason, like I did last December. Perhaps that silly reason was rioting in the streets of a city that the State Department added to its Do Not Visit list. No problem! The folks at AeroMexico are more than happy to divert you from Oaxaca to Cozumel or Zijuatanejo. But you have to pay the change fee ($150 per person) and the difference in fare from the time of original purchase ($700 per person). The hosing is so complete, what's a cup of coffee or a Filet-O-Fish before boarding? Come to think of it, you should hoard Value Meals for the flight because food is no longer included. On United Airlines, you can purchase any number of mouth-watering snack boxes for just $5. And if you'd like to enjoy your snack with an extra five inches of legroom, it's yours for an extra $50 or more, depending on the flight.
Air travel is more than one column's worth of maddening: I haven't any space left to discuss lost luggage.
The frustrated consumer is powerless unless, in protest, we stop flying. For modern-day families scattered around the country, there's no other reasonable option, and the airline industry deciders know this (expect price hikes this fall). They are screwing us, and no catchy slogan or sympathetic smile can ease the sting. Purchasing a blanket to be 'taken on all your future travels' is of little consolation and would be laughable were it not so deeply insulting. I worry that the day I'm asked to purchase my own speculum can't be far behind.