Getting the Blues Flying the Blue Skies

Written by Jill Chapin. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on December 31, 2011 with 4 Comments

Illustration courtesy David Dees, DDees.com.

By Jill Chapin

December 31, 2011

Wending my way through LAX recently made me recall days of yore – ok, decades of yore – when air travel provided a giddy sense of luxury and freedom to move quickly from one place to another, all the while feeling pampered and special.

Although we must now succumb to a certain police-state mentality on approach to airports, there are some of us who are old enough to recall what freedom of movement and expression used to mean in regard to air travel.

We were free to run into an airport at the last minute to catch a flight, free to walk right up to the gate to meet friends and relatives as they disembarked from their plane.

We were free to carry any size liquid containers, free to keep our shoes and belts and jackets on, free to keep our keys in our pockets, free from having strangers wearing plastic gloves open our carry ons and dig around in our personal effects.

Women were free from having to disclose to a perfect stranger that they were wearing underwire bras.

We were free to park at the curb to pick up a friend without fear of being ticketed or questioned for suspicious behavior. Recently I was dropped off at the airport. A security officer was watching me, and as my driver pulled away, he asked me if I knew him. It was such an Orwellian moment that I was at first too stunned to reply.

We were free to miss our flight and grab the next one – for free; no charge for re-scheduling.

We were free from fees for luggage, for food, for decent leg room.

We were free to speak with a real airline representative who was actually permitted to bend a few rules to get us the flight and price we wanted.

We were free from prying security to check our ID. Once my sister had to cancel a trip, so I used her ticket and went instead. No questions asked; the airline didn’t seem to care who used it inasmuch as we were never asked to show identification.

We were free to fly standby with the knowledge that, if all coach seats were full, we would be placed in first class – for free.

It is true that we are now more free to dress comfortably instead of having to wear formal looking clothes which included hats, gloves, nylons and high heels for women, and coats and ties for men. But since we have to practically strip down before approaching our gate, people are only half joking when they suggest maybe we should all just show up at the airport in our bathrobes.

What prompted this sentimental journey back in time when all of these freedoms were taken for granted was a twenty-something guy standing in line behind me who appeared to be taking all of these indignities in stride. At first I admired his good-natured acquiescence to all that we have lost in our precipitous slide into a quasi police state.

But it also made me sad that he has no idea, no memories, and no chance of ever knowing all the freedoms he and his generation have lost.

Jill Chapin

Jill Chapin

Jill Chapin has been a guest writer and columnist in several Los Angeles area papers for over fifteen years. She has written a bilingual parenting book titled, "If You Have Kids, Then Be a Parent!" and a children's book entitled, "My Magic Bubble."

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4 Comments

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  1. El Greco and Jules,
    I think you guys are missing the point a bit. I don’t read the piece as wanting to go back to the “good old days” when everything was better. Of course there are great things about traveling today. Back then, you were dependent on travel agents. Now, you can instantly find the best price on the net, and incidentally that price is probably going to be lower than it was back in the good old days, when you account for inflation. And now there’s Tripadvisor and such, so you almost never have to stay in a dump. All of this makes travel more accessible and enjoyable, at least once you get off the airplane.

    But we have truly lost some things, and the key point is that we didn’t have to. It is *not* the inevitable march of progress that has caused us to lose our liberty and our privacy along with advances in the internet. It was a conscious political choice made by our leaders. The shoe nonsense, the full body irradiation dispensers, the liquid police… none of that crap is the inevitable product of “changing times.” It is completely unnecessary “security theater.” Even if you buy into the idea that terrorism is a significant threat to our security (which I don’t… terrorism is an infitessimally small risk, which would be further reduced to practically zero if we just stopped screwing people all over the world)… but that aside, even if you buy into that nonsense, security theater is completely ineffective at stopping it. What it *is* effective at, is keeping Americans in a perpetual state of fear, which primes them for the acceptance of further erosion of civil liberties. And I suspect that this is the real purpose.

    The comfort issues are somewhat different… it’s partly economics. In a capitalist country where transportation is considered a commodity rather than a public good, a race to the bottom may be considered inevitable. But here again, it’s a choice, not an inevitability based on some vague, immutable notion of progress. The fact that it’s a choice can be seen if you’ve ever traveled on just about any airline that’s not US-based. Security theater is still present, a consequence of The Empire being able to dictate many of the international regulations which govern air travel. But at least you know you’ll get fed, even on the shortest internal one hour flights. And on long haul flights, you’ll get fed several times, and you’ll get fed well. Drinks are still free, not just in first class but in coach too. And they haven’t all perfected the American science of packing people in like sardines, so on those long haul flights, I can pick a seat near the back and know there’s a good chance I’ll be able to find a three-seat bench free somewhere and get a good night’s sleep. Better than first class!

    Unfortunately you’re limited in what you can do to fight, but over the years I’ve developed a few sneaky little things, big and small, to show my opposition to security theater and increase my level of comfort, including but not limited to the following:

    -Always refuse the radiation. At least molestation doesn’t give you cancer. And while I’m being molested, I politely tell the TSA agent that I’d be more upset about these scanners if I were them, considering that I have to go through the area for a few minutes, while *they* have to work there all day. Background radiation doesn’t obey clear plastic doors no matter how high-techy they look. At the very least, it fosters low morale in the workers of the state security apparatus. At best, it increases pressure to get rid of the scanners.

    -When traveling in pairs, pick an aisle and a window. Doesn’t matter if you have a seat between the two of you. At worst, the person who eventually picks that middle seat will gladly switch for an aisle or window and put you back together. But the real plan is that this lone middle seat between you will now be last priority for anyone else to pick, and in the best case scenario, no one picks it and you get the whole bench for the two of you.

    -If you have one of those passports with the privacy-invading RFID chip which can be easily read by anyone standing nearby with an RFID reader, and you value your privacy and security, google “faraday cage” to find a quick effective way to preserve your privacy and security.

    -Buy a nice lunch to bring onboard, outside of overpriced airports, and refuse anything that’s for sale on the plane, out of principle. Airplane food should be free. And bring an empty water bottle to fill at the fountain before boarding. For protest value, one could bring it full, knowing that state security will ask you to get rid of it. Then proceed to open it up and pour out the entire contents in the nearest trash can. This needs to be done quickly before they tell you there’s a receptacle for water, and then politely feign ignorance once the deed is done. Not that I’d personally do anything like that out of spite… but I’m just sayin’. Hope that trash bag doesn’t leak all over the floor now…

    -And never, EVER choose an American carrier when you have a choice. For international flights, a foreign carrier will always have a competitive price, and you get better service no matter what. Why put up with crap if you have a choice? The only exception to the “never ever” rule is reward travel. My miles are primarily through US-based carriers, but they invariably have foreign airline partners. That means that for rewards travel, they always stick you in a seat with the primary carrier if they have the seats available on that route. And I guess that’s fine in a way. I can build miles with Lufthansa, and I spend them with United. Which means I use my money to reward foreign carriers, and then give US carriers with poor service the middle finger by taking up free seats on their planes.

  2. Thanks Jill. This is a great reminder for many reasons. While it is a reminder of what we’ve lost, and (as I look at it) what the younger gen hasn’t lost since they never had it. Being able to write this online is another reminder of all that we have gained (often w/o ever re-acknowleging once we become accustomed to it). Many of our predecessors/ancestors never got to appreciate the speed of communication on the Internet. Many of our parents and grandparents lived before so many of the modern medical miracles became today’s standards, autos built to help protect us from ourselves, and even being free of 2nd-hand smoke during flights, and while dining in restaurants.

  3. Jill, I’m not sure if you just noticed these changes in flying since they’ve been around for a number of years but I appreciate your rant all the same. I, too, loved flying but remember an entirely different set of circumstances which you didn’t mention.

    The stewardesses (that’s what they were called then) were young and hot and after a certain age, they weren’t working as stewardesses any more. I used happily light up once I got seated (tobacco and yes the stewardesses would offer matches if you forgot yours). There were complimentary drinks in first class (if anyone remembers what THAT is). I happened to like all that stuff but the majority of folks (and probably most FCJ readers) had different ideas, so those things changed.

    I understand that you wish you didn’t have to produce an ID, just as I wish I could smoke on board. But neither of those things are changing and that’s how life goes, sometimes.

  4. Bravo Jill for telling it like it is! I remember those days too and I’m furious at the government for taking away our freedom, little by little. I’m not concerned about the infitessimally small chance that I’ll be victimized by terrorism. I’m much more concerned about those who are “protecting” us from said terrorism. Who will protect us from the “protectors?”