Summer, glorious summer, is upon us. It brings with it the anticipation of vacations, long weekends of sea and sand or mountains, and invigorating scenery.
Each to their own, but summer is spelled N-I-R-V-A-N-A for most Americans. It is the treasured time from Memorial Day to Labor Day when we can kick back and, for a couple of weeks and a few weekends, live the life of leisure and fullness we fantasize about the rest of the year.
But there is an impediment: the airlines.
If you have to fly to your Shangri-La, beware. Airline travel these days is a brief sojourn in the deepest circle of Hell.
I fly a lot, and I can report that you have no idea what you are in for if you haven’t sought to take a flight recently. The airports are obscenely crowded; the concession prices for terrible food aren’t only very high, but many don’t take cash; and the distance between gates is such that you may wonder if the first miles of your trip are on foot.
Making tight connections is a fraught business. A stressed system is breaking down. I saw a woman in tears in Charlotte because the wheelchair assistance person had abandoned her and her flight was leaving from a distant gate.
The electronic signs for departing flights are widely spaced, and if you don’t have the airline app on your phone, good luck getting information about your flight.
Don’t take the gate printed on your boarding pass as the gate you’ll leave from: These change quite often. Uniformed personnel are few and stressed. They appear to be suffering battle fatigue. You can’t be cross at them.
Then there is the willful price-gouging.
The airlines are now masters at hidden charges and outlandish fees. If you want to check a bag, that will be a hefty $35. If you want to sit somewhere other than at the rear by the toilets, you can pay about $50 for that privilege, but you’re still in economy.
Buying a ticket online is a computer game of rare complexity. You find a fare. Woe betide if you make a mistake and have to start over: That fare has disappeared, and a much higher one is on offer.
Of course, you have a bag. The airlines offer something called Basic Economy, which assumes you have no luggage whatsoever or you are going to pay a hefty baggage fee, usually $35 per item, to check your bag. You aren’t entitled to a bag in the cabin.
Or, if you aren’t a cheap-and-cheerless traveler, you can play bag roulette. That is when you’ve checked your bag, paid the fee and found at the gate that the airline is asking for volunteers to check their bags for free because there is no room on board. You can’t know if this will happen. If you’ve checked your bag and paid, you’ll be left seething with the injustice of the thing.
Let us assume you survived to that marvelous moment when you board, which means your flight hasn’t been canceled and even though it has been overbooked, you have a seat.
Ah, there is the rub — the thighs or knees rub. The seat is so small, so close to the one in front, that you are in for agony if you weigh more than 150 pounds and are more than 5 feet 10 inches tall.
Clearly, Procrustes, the robber and torturer of Greek mythology, who would either cut or stretch his victims to fit his iron bed, is alive and well in cabin design. It is also hard to believe that the huddled masses in coach class will make it to an exit in an emergency, squeezed as they are into their unyielding seats.
Finally, there are the toilets. They are so small that big people can’t use them. My advice: Go before you go. Otherwise, you may not be able to hygienically apply toilet paper.
None of this has to be. The Federal Aviation Administration can regulate cabin conditions for reasons of safety. While it has that authority, it is notoriously disinclined to lay down the law to the airlines. The FAA isn’t regulating the airlines, it is enabling them.