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Unfriendly Skies


That United Video.  Who among us can board a plane again without worrying that it might happen to any one of us?  Dragged from our seats by the scruff of our necks down the aisle in ignominy because we won’t “volunteer” to give up a seat for which we paid hundreds of dollars because the airline staff made a mistake, or overbooked out of greed, or didn’t plan well enough for how to get their pilots from one city to another (they have other planes, you know…)…  The case is made that the “contract of carriage” permits these gigantic corporations to deny seats to paying customers… it’s there in the fine print way down in the stuff you don’t read when you book your trip.  But the legalese does not include “assault and humiliation” as part of the Faustian bargain of modern air travel.

We live in a bewildering world — a primitive dogfight looming just off to the side every day even as we are surrounded by extraordinary wealth and vast technology.  None of us knows when our thin mantles of dignity and intellectual pride will be torn to shreds by officious agents of our dystopian nightmares.  It’s not the fictional 1984, it’s the real 2017 slouching toward deepening anxiety and declining freedom, respect and simple courtesy.

(airport screening at Dulles, photo credit)

Folks, I don’t know about you, but I’ve recently realized that when I have to fly anywhere I become an entirely different person.  I admit it.  I get a little depressed, feel somewhat introverted, worry about long lines and being manhandled by some TSA agent for no other reason than that I have a bit of extra padding, if you know what I mean (yes, this has happened more than once to me!).  I don’t make eye contact.  I try to avoid crowds, which is almost impossible in an airport.  I keep my head down.  I get to a good seat at the gate and will sit there for hours just so I don’t have to be in the scrum when they start boarding.  I’ve started doing something even worse, much worse — and don’t worry, Trinity, I pay for all of this myself — I upgrade to get a better seat.  Ugh.  Yikes.  I’ve become the person I used to resent on the airplane!

I also drive a lot more — used to be if I could get there in six hours, then ten, now I’ll take a whole day on either side if I can get to my destination in a car.

It didn’t use to be this way.  When I first started flying for my job as a young development officer nearly 40 years ago I loved every minute.  Airport glamour.  Fly the friendly skies.  Eastern Shuttle to “LaGwage” and back twice a week.  Trains, are you kidding, those are for people with mundane lives.  I was a jet setter!  Loved it.

(Dulles at dusk: photo credit Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority)

I loved trekking to Dulles for a west coast flight — the gorgeous sweep of Eero Saarinen’s terminal looking like it, too, could soar into the clouds at any moment.  And those funky mobile lounges!  They were worth their own trips!

Now a trip to Dulles presages a descent into the manmade hell of post-9/11 air travel.  Down, down we go into a sterile subterranean landscape of frosted glass and long lines feeding into screening machines and grim-faced agents with blue gloves the better to pat you down, my dear.  We are naked in the screening machine and exhausted by the worry that maybe something will go wrong this time, maybe there’s some Kafkaesque plotline in which we all become Gregor Samsa by the time we get through the machine.

We have accepted all of the brutal airport security hassles and humiliations as part of what’s necessary to protect us from terrorists ever seizing control of airplanes again to commit mass murder and inflict a prolonged national psychosis that’s more than fear of individual death, it’s fear of the shattering of civilization.  But the shards of civilization are all around us already.  In our very quest for security we have empowered a mindset and culture that gives license to agents of power, mostly big men with guns and kevlar vests and baseball caps ready and willing to dislodge each and every one of us from our simple routines and necessary trips to relatively modest locales like Louisville.  The man on the plane was a doctor trying to get to Louisville to see a patient.  But United Airlines in its wisdom decided that the doctor was not nearly as important as its own staff, so the doctor had to give up his seat for the corporate staff.

But worse, much worse, the corporate agents decided that the doctor was less than a human being worthy of respect and care; that the man was simply an object that had to be removed, like a piece of luggage blocking the aisle.  The video of those police officers dragging that man up the airplane aisle is something we cannot unsee.  It is a statement of how dehumanized we have become, particularly in airports and on airplanes, and how far corporate behavior has fallen to the point where a customer and a terrorist are treated as equal kinds of problems to be solved by brute force.

I’m thinking about my next trip and looking at Googlemaps to see if I can get there and back in time for the rest of my life.  Travel was supposed to be simply a means to get from here to there; but the perils of air travel now overshadow the time commitment and purpose of the trip, itself.  And this  has nothing to do with the dangers of flying, itself. Those are nothing compared to the dangers of dealing with the the people who run the unfriendly skies.


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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: