Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Flying Home

IT was one of those moments when you feel like you're a bug on the windshield of life.
I awoke last Thursday in my Washington, D.C., hotel room to the chilling news that dozens of Islamic militants had been arrested in a plot to blow up commercial airliners and that air traffic had been disrupted on both sides of the Atlantic.
As luck would have it, I was scheduled to fly to Los Angeles that very afternoon.
The images on CNN were not reassuring. Heathrow Airport looked to be populated with people who had just crossed the River Styx, condemned to a wait in line for eternity with no hope of escape. Armed troops patrolled airports in the United States, presumably ready to confiscate hair gel or hand lotion at gunpoint.
There was only one thing to do. Sort out luggage in accordance with new security measures and get to the airport as soon as possible, ready to endure unimaginable indignities as we fought through crowded check-in lines and air-tight security.
We arrived at Dulles Airport more than three hours before flight time and were greeted by a line of traffic as we approached the terminal.
My darkest fears were being realized. But the lines were not travelers nor additional security personnel but hordes of TV reporters who had descended on the airport like flies on a rib roast, their truck dish antennas pointed skyward as if praying for a few good quotes.
Then, as if the whole incident had been a practical joke, we checked our bags and got through security in no more than 15 minutes.
No toothpaste. No problem.
That gave me more than three hours, sitting in a sterile terminal, to contemplate two things: 1) Riding on an airplane with 200 people who may or may not have used deodorant (a banned substance), and 2) the status of commercial airline travel and what the future might hold.
A couple of thoughts right off. These are hard times for the airline industry. Aside from security concerns, high fuel costs have forced them to offer fewer flights packed with more people, certainly not user friendly but an understandable nuisance.
And people can be downright stupid. According to an Associated Press story, airport security people have confiscated a man-sized artificial palm tree and a sausage grinder along with piles of Swiss Army knives at airport checkpoints.
Pennsylvania turns a small profit by disposing of these castoff items, which it accepts from security contractors at 12 airports in five U.S. states, by selling them on eBay.
Most of the contraband merchandise is knives, nail clippers and cuticle scissors that were forbidden as carry-on items following the terror attacks 9/11. But there's also frosting-encrusted wedding cake servers, sex toys and a couple of chain saws.
OK, so there's enough blame to pass around.
But as grateful as we were to get on our flight back to Los Angeles, it was like hopping a westbound freight. Half the television monitors didn't work. There were no headsets available. Despite the fact that passengers had to dump their bottled water before they got on the plane, the servers were so short of beverages they asked for people to share soft drinks and served tap water. My seat reclined on its own.
Minor stuff, sure, but even in hard times, a well-functioning aircraft can make a five-hour flight tolerable.
The airline industry has in recent years encouraged people to purchase food and drink before boarding. That means the carrier saves money on food preparation. But new security measures could put and end to that. While cheeseburgers aren't on the banned list yet, they could be next.
When you think about where people could store explosive material, the possibilities are endless.
And carry-on luggage? That could be a thing of the past as well. All of which will most likely translate to higher prices.
For the near term, it looks like a bumpy ride. In the future, you may have two choices. The new Airbus A380 will carry 550 people in relative comfort. The new Boeing Sonic Cruiser will travel faster than today's jets, cutting travel time by 15 percent to 20 percent but in smaller planes.
And beyond that? Some futurists predict we'll all be piloting our own personal aircraft. Indeed, the Small Aircraft Transportation System, a joint project between NASA and the FAA, is trying to develop a system of more than 5,000 small airports connected by virtual "highways in the sky" for the use of a new generation of small, safe, easy-to-fly, and inexpensive airplanes.
At which time terrorism will be replaced by sky rage.

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