Who hasn’t daydreamed about taking revenge on an industry that has managed to parlay the horrors of modern air travel into a multi-billion dollar federal bailout? Although in most cases, I would guess, the fantasy involves the ticket agent’s undies, not our own, going up in smoke.
As everyone knows, in response to the Northwest flameout, the Obama administration has adopted policies that are almost exactly the same as those of the Bush administration, turning the flying experience into a political advertisement for all the wonderful things that the president is doing to fight the war on terror.
Karl Rove’s great contribution to the political landscape was to remind travelers, at every security checkpoint, that unknown aliens were threatening the American way of life, and that the only way to keep jihadists off the USS Dreamliner was to vote Republican.
That re-election strategy clearly now appeals to the Obama administration, which decided, among other tactics, that an effective weapon in the war on terror is to keep Americans out of mile-high toilets in the last hour of flights.
The general assumption about the Northwest Airlines Underwear Bomber is that he sought to bring down the airliner in the name of Allah, those seventy-two virgins, and Osama bin Laden.
But is it possible that he was just another over-wrought airline passenger who has had it with strip searches by airport security agents, surcharges to take a bag on a trip, meal service that consists of peanuts and instant coffee, seats that feel like electric chairs, and those walks through arrival halls that feel like Mao’s Long March?
Wait until bin Laden hears that we’re coming at him with bladder-busting planes. That measure ought to turn the tide, since clearly banning economy-sized toothpaste tubes from the skies didn’t do the trick.
While the government uses the flying experience to broadcast political messages, the airlines see the war on terror as a chance to re-price a product that has consistently gone bankrupt, often thanks to corporate mismanagement.
Most businesses start from the assumption that it is a good idea to try to attract customers with good service and quality products. That is the logic behind the business strategy of a department store or a restaurant.
The airline business model, however, is based solely on being able to advertise low fares. Once the promotions are in place, the airlines take to the skies with cramped seats, mysterious food, nickel-and-dime charges, surly staff, un-hedged oil contracts, and furious customers, with the hope that the government, if need be, will bail out the industry in the name of national security.
As the government turns airports into prison lockdowns, the airlines’ response has been to convert their pricing policies into a shell game of bait-and-switch, insuring that travelers get it coming and going.
Airlines and governments alike conspire to use air tickets to bury all sorts of taxes, oil surcharges, fees, levies, new airport subsidies, and old-fashioned handouts under the banner of “passenger safety,” which has become a variation on a protection racket. Station a few x-ray machines in the nation’s airports, and then charge and tax anything you like for a “war on terror;” by my estimates, it’s a “war” that has taken, on average since 2001, less than 1500 American lives annually, and has cost approximately $500 billion a year in new federal agencies, programs, weapons, and appropriations.
Am I too cynical? Isn’t the goal safety for the traveling public? In the president’s primetime proclamations, that might seem to be the case, but then what explains the national indifference to the some 40,000 annual deaths, and millions of injuries, on the nation’s highways? Where is the war on automobilism? If the goal is to save American lives, Interstate 80 strikes me as a more accessible target than Yemen.
The problem with highway safety, as opposed to homeland security, is that it’s a financial and, more important, a political loser. Making car passengers wear crash helmets or body armor, logical as it would appear from the risks of the road, does not lead to as many rewards from the electorate as the specter of al Qaeda crouched in an Afghan cave. And which political party wants to run for re-election on the slogan: “Your Taurus: More Dangerous Than The Taliban.”
Left to their own devices and customer service, and without government handouts, most large airlines would go out of business. Take the decision on the part of most airlines (Southwest excepted, and bravo to them) to charge passengers for having the audacity to take luggage on a trip.
Airline bag policies tend to be more complicated than the Da Vinci code, and involve arcane formulas about weight, size, and contents that few travelers can understand. The goal is to lure passengers to an airport, read them obscure airline policies, and demand extortionate payments (“If you wanna see your bags again...”).
My own bag horror story began when, for an internship in Dubai, my daughter booked onto British Airways, which allows one bag on international flights and charges $50 for a second, which she had.
Her BA flight was cancelled due to snow in London, and the airline rerouted her on Air France, after an assurance that she could travel to Dubai with two bags. Instead, when she checked in with Air France, that airline demanded $320 to take her second bag (normal size and weight) to Dubai.
After Air France finished treating her like a shoe bomber, it took an hour for their staff and that of British Airways to arbitrate the second-bag crisis, while my daughter, having been subject to a twelve-hour delay, stood by in tears. I imagine that such unhappy scenes play out thousands of times every day in airports around the world. What other business alienates its customer base for $50?
Beyond bag hustles, what keeps many airlines in business today is that they have become accomplices in the National Security State, part of a daily pantomime to terrify the traveling public into subsidizing all sorts of undeclared wars, drone missile appropriations, and endless sweetheart contracts to the likes of Blackwater.
Under this Faustian bargain, the airlines get to charge $50 (if not $320) for extra bags, or $200 to change a reservation, and the government gets to charge $500 billion for homeland security.
Having tried and failed with Big Brother airlines and airports, why don’t we give the market a chance to sort out the security problem? How much worse could it be?
Leave it to each private company to decide whether they want to frisk their passengers or not (“Fly Freedom Airways, and Leave the Cavity Searches to Us!”), or charge for luggage, drinks, peanuts, or meals.
Let each airline decide if they want to take off with armed guards or not. Maybe one of the airlines could dress up its pilots to look like the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Finally, let the passengers handle in-flight security. After all, they put out the fires of the Underwear Bomber.