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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Coffee, Tea Without Me

November 30, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

We're forgetting one thing in our discussions about air travel. That is, some of us were plenty fed up before Sept. 11.

Congress, of course, hasn't faced facts. And airlines simply won't--which they have proved again lately. So, from a tragedy comes a moment of clarity: We don't have to take it anymore, or at least not so often.

I've spent most of my life on the move. I was bitten early and hard by the adventure bug. So you won't hear me complain that travel is arduous. That's where our stories come from, where we test our resourcefulness and learn our lessons. But air travel, and the whole industry built up around it, is less arduous than merely dehumanizing.

I used to keep an inventory of affronts, from the reduced breathing oxygen in airplanes to the flight crews with the countenance of prison guards, but it was too depressing.

There are no lessons to learn from these odious cattle drives, except that the person next to you paid half as much for a ticket. There are no tests of resourcefulness, except one's threshold for indignity. And the stories? We've heard them all.

Efficiency has ruined the airline industry: It's like a bird so ravenous for growth and profit that one day it opened its mouth too wide and began to swallow itself.

Single-minded price competition arising from deregulation eliminated what was pleasant about traveling. Like medieval gladiators, airlines defined the future as nothing more than a fight to the end. The single goal was and is to vanquish competitors so that survivors, eventually, can reap the boundless profits of monopolists. Thus, we watch the worst-ranked airline in the country spend its energy not on fixing service but on gobbling up another airline to expand market share.

Sept. 11 made headlines of this absurdity. The airlines, remember, had insisted that the traveling public could not be "inconvenienced" by real security checks. Imagine. Airlines worried about inconveniencing passengers.

The result? A compliant Congress slapped a $50 assessment (in cash and loan guarantees) on every man, woman and child to compensate the airlines for our loss of faith in them.

But this plunder of public resources won't serve for me. It's not just safety; travel is a game of odds, and the odds are still very good for airline passengers. Rather, this moment of clarity allows us to question the process, and consequently the purposes, of modern air travel.

I've decided I just don't want to fly. I will, of course, because sometimes I must. But for those discretionary trips, and I mean both business and recreation, I'll apply my resourcefulness to find ways and reasons not to.

You can join me in a new mileage program. Every time we get 20,000 miles, we'll reward ourselves by not taking a flight.

Flying had become a habit, a social fashion. Suddenly, the beaten-down holiday crowds at the airport now look to me like people in Nehru jackets and beehive hairdos.

The Travel Industry Assn. is spending a bundle on patriotic advertisements, insisting that we have a duty to travel and prove our "American character" and our "American courage."

Oh really? How about the duty of the airlines? This once-proud industry had the perfect chance to rethink its practices. Instead, it grabbed an easy bailout and offered nothing back. Just more of the stretched-thin logic where any flight that is not overbooked is undersold, where every seat must be smaller than the person who sits in it, where employees are chattel and customers are wallets, and where strong-arm lobbying makes up for management's misdeeds.

No thanks. I'll see less of my distant family, I know. And I'll miss some tropical beach time. I'll have to do my next interview on the telephone, not over lunch. But there is much to enjoy closer by, and I'll thank the airlines for reminding me of the wisdom of Thoreau, who said, "It takes a man of genius to travel in his own country, in his native village, to make any progress between his door and his gate."

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