October 13, 2021
This time last year I thought we’d be done with Covid-19 by now, shaking off the worst of it. I was looking forward to flying again around the world as countries recovered from the pandemic. Sixty-one years after my first flight and millions upon millions of miles in the air later, I like to believe myself a canny prognosticator of the ups and downs on flying.
But I crashed and burned on predicting today’s air travel realities. The pandemic persists, and I’m as exhausted as anyone after hunkering down for 18 months (and counting) of what feels like “house arrest” and damnable Zoom meetings. Nonetheless, I am vaccinated—including the third booster—so I started flying again. Trouble is, so did everyone else at the same time.
Too bad for me that airline execs were caught their pants down. The gods of air carrier board rooms clearly were not prepared for robust demand striking up against severely downsized fleets and workforces like a freight train (to mix my metaphors). Pick your reasons for why: can’t get planes in the air fast enough; reasonable, though unintentionally divisive, vaccination mandates; employees scared of getting sick from Covid; furloughed staff unwilling to return for the same crummy wages and even worse working conditions. All and more are probably contributory, yet no one cause is determinative. At the same time, airline management folks are paid well to make smart, nimble decisions, and they failed us. Anyway, knowing why doesn’t make it better: Flying in late 2021 sucks.
How so? Well, Southwest canceled thousands of flights last weekend and whined that the FAA did it (ATC problems) even though no other airline, governed by the same air traffic controllers, reported disruptions on that scale.
Southwest’s meltdown only partly explains scenes like this photo at Denver over the Columbus Day weekend, taken by a friend who was there:
And that wasn’t even the worst moment. Later, travelers were backed up the stairs to queue on the mezzanine in the background. You’d never guess we were still wallowing in a pandemic drawn out by politicizing medical science.
My own flying experiences of late echo such national news reports. Not one of the four Delta flights I flew recently was tolerable, let alone pleasant. “Relaxing” was a pipedream. Every flight was oversold with zero empty seats. My family flew to the Midwest to attend my wife’s dad’s funeral and paid over $2,000 for four tickets in coach. Not to mention nearly $400 for a midsize rental car for 3 days.
The best I can say about Delta is that the end-to-end experience was not as bad as United or American. Thank goodness that my American Express Platinum Card, which each member of my family carries, allows entry to Delta SkyClubs when flying on Delta tickets. The SkyClubs were welcome havens between sardine can flights.
The gates weren’t even too bad since Delta has cracked the secrets of less-stressful boarding. But the entire flying parts of the experience were uncomfortable and horribly cramped, made worse by the pervasive existential worry of getting Covid-19 and the 2021 habit of window-seat holders keeping the shades drawn gate-to-gate—a trend I ascribe to smartphone addiction nowadays. Wearing masks airport-to-airport is an added wrinkle of chronic discomfort and oddly disconcerting, too.
Over the years I’ve been writing this blog I have often railed against bad service aboard airplanes. It’s disheartening that flying is not qualitatively better as we tick off the years of the third decade of the 21st century. How about just a little relief from pain?