The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare

For most of my alleged adult life I have wanted to live in a third world country, and now that my native United States has kindly accommodated this wish, all I do is bitch.  It’s bad enough that our income and wealth disparity rivals that of Guatemala, now our tax dollars are actively promoting this ever-deepening caste system.

In some airports there are two sets of TSA security lines, one for the one percenters in business and first classes, and one for the ever-expanding peasant class.  The former is of course shorter and faster.  OK, you say, fair enough – they paid more.  Wrong.  TSA is paid for with tax money, and as the rich no longer pay taxes just about anywhere on earth, you and I are paying for their fast-track through security.  Nice gig if you can get it.

So you stand there in line while the rich, often in horrid garb, breeze past you, and some TSA enforcer is yelling all day long, “Every last thing out of your pockets, belts off, all electronics out and in the bins,” and on and on, all day long.  Poor bastard.  Nowhere is there a sign explaining any of this – much better to be yelled at.  And off with your shoes, though no other country in the world seems to require this.

Then you step into the Michael Chirtoff Machine (MCM), where you get irradiated so that former TSA head turned lobbyist and corporate pimp can make boatloads of money for himself and all his buddies.  They’ve scrapped some or most of these contraptions – or so we’re told.  Why?  Because they were worthless, and a few pesky, paranoid travelers refused to be irradiated.  The thing is, they knew the things were worthless almost from the get-go.  Even the Israelis didn’t want them.  And who paid for this toxic boondoggle?  See paragraph two.

On to the next indignity.  Airport bathrooms, where technology run amok has somehow managed to completely destroy even this most basic of human functions.  As you sit there, ferocious torrents of water cascade beneath you over and over again like some kind Niagaran bidet, leaving you soaked from waist to knee.  Was this half-baked abomination invented to somehow save water, or to spare people with enough energy to leap entire continents the arduous task of flushing a toilet?

Now you must wash your hands, the only part of your anatomy that is not yet thoroughly drenched.  You place your hands under the faucet and wait for another wonder of technological progress to deliver water.  But it doesn’t.  You wave your hands about like some kind of inept imbecile, hoping to trip the magical sensor that is surely there somewhere.  Maybe you’ll succeed and maybe you won’t.

It gets worse.  You might need some soap to go with that non-existent water.  See above paragraph.

And throughout this ordeal, in which a modern-day Hal controls your hygiene options, your ears and your very nerves are under regular assault by horrid electric hand-dryers as loud as any widebody screaming down a runway, infernal contraptions that consume gargantuan quantities of electricity and pour vast sums of wealth into power company coffers.  The funny thing is, if you do nothing at all, your hands will dry in a mere 2-3 minutes, and what the hell, your flight’s late anyway.

And now you’re finally ready for the indignity of your actual flight.

First they make you run the narrow gauntlet back to steerage, down a long aisle so narrow as to have been designed by anorexic engineers.  Checked bags used to be free, but no more, the chief result of which is that everyone and their dog brings the kitchen sink aboard, and ahead of you half the oversized roller bags are crashing into every other seat as they careen down the aisle, and the occasional backpack slams into the heads and faces of passengers whose mental health is hanging by a thread as they, just like you, try desperately to convince themselves that all this is really ok and somehow worth it.

Before reaching your seat you must first pass the one percent, who have been allowed to enter the inner sanctum even before the diamond, ruby, gold, platinum, pearl, gold, silver and tourmaline (I’m from Maine) classes.  They are already well into their second martini.  I avoid eye contact, as this is the only form of protest I know of that will not lead to my arrest.

As I make my way to the back of the modern-day equivalent of Rosa Park’s bus, I, like everyone ahead of and behind me, am looking as many rows ahead as I can count, hoping I see no one in the seat next to mine that weighs so much as one ounce more than I.

Once in my seat, if my neighbor has not yet arrived, I desperately rush to put all my misery-reducing items in their proper place before my neighbor’s arrival makes this all but impossible.  In its frantic campaign to squeeze in as many seats as humanly possible, to maximize the profits of the martini-saturated one percent, the airline has even reduced the size of the seatback pocket in front of me, so I rush to jam my airline magazine into my neighbor’s seatback pocket, hoping I’m not caught.

What do I need this magazine for?  Its pages are full of articles of no value to a backpacker bound for Latin America whose only wish is to find edible meals for three bucks or less, rooms for twenty-dollars or less that are quieter than the cacophonous terminal I just endured, and class conflict worth writing about.  Painfully long articles describing in great detail the eternal joys of in-pool bars in gated, grossly overpriced hotels staffed by veritable slaves are of no use to me.

Hey, wait a minute.  Is it my imagination, or is my seat at a slight forward pitch?  And spying the seats around me, don’t they all look that way?  And then it hits me, my mother had told me she read that airlines were going to do this in order to cram even more seats into their winged sardine cans.  Suddenly I’m facing ten JFK-to-Rio hours in a seat that will all night try to deliver me to the floor beneath me.

And so begins The Grind.  Anything beyond about three hours of this avian hell simply chews you up and spits out a headache-laden entity that only faintly resembles a thinking, feeling human being.  By this time one’s dignity is on life support and is damn near flatlining.  I go to the bathroom, but I don’t know whether it’s out of need or sheer boredom – it’s hard to tell when my brain is in induced coma.

But I may not use the closer and unoccupied bathroom of the one percent. A curtain has been drawn across the entrance to their winged castle and I have been informed that I am not to enter there.  I have been arrested in many a protest against such class-apartheid, but in a cowardly act that would make Che spin in his grave I sheepishly make my way down the aisle to my assigned bathroom, where toilets have replaced hand-dryers as the ear-piercing instrument of choice.

And then, finally, you land.  You made it.  You survived every single indignity hurled at you.  But wait.  Not yet.  They saved the best for last.  On this flight the aircraft door is set back from the front of the plane and first and business classes are in front of the door and you must stand there while the one percent disembarks, held back by well-dressed enforcers of your own class.  Che spins again.  And as you stand there and wait, the oxygen level on the turned-off plane starts running precariously low.  But that’s ok – at this point asphyxiation would be an improvement.

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Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at lreichard@gmail.com.

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