According to recent news reports, airlines are circulating less fresh air among passengers than they used to. This is a cost-cutting measure, of course, one of those bold capitalist leaps to the bottom line at which conservatives point with pride: "Ah! The marketplace in action!"
Gasping passengers and wheezing flight attendants may hold a different opinion about this frugality, but they're probably socialists anyway, unless they're in first class. The times I've flown first class (on someone else's nickel), I noticed that I was surrounded mainly by suspendered men cutting costs on costly PowerBooks. I didn't notice if they were breathing or not. Maybe if you have a laptop, breathing is optional.
Airline management is still shrewd enough to realize that hyperventilating pilots could lead to Major Asset Loss, and so pilots have their own air system, as swollen with oxygen as their salaries are with zeros. The airline business has become the motion-picture industry: movies stars (pilots) get paid well to drive a vehicle (movie), designed to make an audience (passengers) gasp.
I don't want to sound nostalgic about the good old days, but I do miss those times when shortness of breath came from fear of flying, not oxygen deprivation. What can be done?
Children, being smaller, use less air than adults. Why not have cheap, kids-only flights? If they do pass out at the end of a long journey, this might even be an incentive for harried parents to pay more.
Passengers already pay cash for headphones. Why not initiate a "You breathe, you pay" policy, making passengers rent their oxygen masks. Let the marketplace go to work. Stop serving free food. Don't strike a deal with fast-food chains, though (they'll want franchise fees); throw the planes open to small businesses: gyros, pizza and hot dog stands, pretzel vendors. Keep cutting fares, but charge passengers for the frills--magazines, playing cards, use of the lavatory, those little wings you stick in your lapels.
Either fire those winded, whining flight attendants or make them pay their own way. Let them live on tips, like waiters and waitresses. There are many ways they could supplement their off-the-ground income (renting videos, notarizing documents, making keys--these come immediately to mind). Maybe airlines should stop shipping unprofitable passengers altogether and get into uncomplaining livestock: lab rats, horses, cows, pigs, etc. After all, if they land at the slaughterhouse brain-damaged from oxygen deprivation, who's going to notice?
We could fire the pilots and replace them (at a quarter the salary) with laid-off intercity bus drivers, guys named Slim with greased-back hair and a half-pint of Jack Daniels in the hip pocket. In fact, if we issued half-pints of Jack to everybody in America, we might get the buzz we need to deal with the millennium.
Remember, airlines stick passengers on a rusty flying bus, then ask them to believe that the experience is glamorous. Air quality aside, that's enough to make anybody gasp.