Air Travel


March 14, 2010

I swore I would never write a piece about air travel, but I find myself on a flight home across the Atlantic with another three hours to go having just finished one book (Peter Brown’s Cult of the Saints — well, I am a historian), and reluctant to begin another. Even if I know only the inside of the coach cabin these days, I still have the knack of getting that seat with just a little more legroom — some of the time, at least. Today I managed to snag an exit row bulkhead seat on a full airplane, so there is actually room to open a laptop. On my way to and from the head I checked out my original assigned slot. You could scarcely open a book there, let alone a computer. Such seats are not designed for people impertinent enough to have retained their legs.

I used to have a whole patter with which to charm check-in agents. As often as not it worked, and I would find myself upgraded. I am, after all, a frequent flyer on just about every airline whose planes touch US soil, even though I don’t travel very much. Such was my success that I got to the point at which having to settle for coach was a torment, psychological as well as physical. After a while, though, I found that the anxiety involved in attempting to get upgraded was worse than not trying at all.

Then all the airlines got strict in various ways, either by instituting a hierarchy of claims favoring super-platinum executive presidential frequent flyers (I never get beyond mere silver), or by charging. I found I no longer cared, even on coast-to-coast flights, though Tokyo or Buenos Aires is another matter. Human beings adapt to circumstances, however rationally unacceptable, and the airlines know it. If I think of flying as a form of cruel imprisonment that affords no ease, I, like all the other airborne cattle, get by. Far worse things have been done in our name to others flown secretly from black site to black site. At least most of us on commercial flights are free to go at the other end, for now.