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The Travails of Air Travel

I'm sitting in the Munich, Germany airport writing this, en route from the U.S. to Serbia. This trip, like every trip to one degree or another, leaves me with less than a positive attitude toward airlines.

On the long, boring flight from Washington Dulles to Munich, I found myself reflecting on the differences between air travel then and now. I suppose when you reach a certain age, those kinds of comparisons become both increasingly common and increasingly critical. Sometimes those are just expressions of yearning for the "good old days" that probably never were. Not in this case, I think.

The first time I left the ground on an aircraft was in an Ozark Airlines DC-3, like the one in the photo. That was in 1962, after I had finished basic training in Missouri (another tale of hell on earth) and was returning to Texas for a couple of weeks of leave. As a teenager excited to finally be flying, it was a great experience. Two years later I would be in training to be an Army pilot, and in later years I flew all over the world in just about every kind of airliner, not to mention flying a couple of dozen types of helicopters and airplanes as a pilot.

(This is yet another story, but I don't recommend Air Armenia or Air Namibia if you're flying from Moscow to Yerevan or South Africa to Botswana, even though the staff are more friendly.)

As far as airlines are concerned, from my perspective things have gotten steadily worse. There was more room for each passenger in the past, and flying was taken as a more serious social activity. Everyone dressed well, with men wearing suits or jackets and ties. And the stewardesses were happy, attractive young women living an envied life of travel and adventure. That was before we all learned that they were being oppressed by the male power structure, which they hadn't been aware of. Now we have female and male "flight attendants," some of them older and a bit angry, others hypersensitive drama queens.

There are also the ubiquitous security checks these days, of course. Since young Muslim men took to hijacking aircraft and flying them into buildings, we all have to be checked for explosives and weapons before boarding an airliner. I've gone through these shoeless exercises as many as five times to get from Europe to the U.S., along with grey-haired grannies who are no more likely to hijack an airplane than I am. But we have to check everyone equally, you see, lest someone think we're focusing more on the people who might actually harbor nefarious intent.

The flight over the ocean this time was on a United Airlines Boeing 777, another of those flying barns where the cattle (I'm sorry -- the passengers) are crowded in as tight as possible. That's to maximize revenue, of course, and it appears that no thought at all is given to passenger comfort. There's very little leg room, and the distance from the end of my nose to the back of the seat in front of me (with both seats in the "upright position") was about 16 inches. To make it worse, every seat in the barn had a butt in it. Under those conditions, even an astronaut would be claustrophobic. I have to report, however, that United offered me a better economy class seat with more room for an extra $97. Any questions about what they're up to?

I normally fly on Lufthansa because of where I am and the availability of flights. Some of those flights are on United or other airlines because they code-share and are part of the Star Alliance, a bunch of airlines that have gotten together to maximize revenue (always their prime goal) and to make life difficult and confusing for passengers. So, you never know what airline you'll be on for some part of your travel. On this trip, however, I bought my ticket from United Airlines (a mistake I won't make again).

While I was in the U.S., I attempted several times to change seat assignments so that I and a companion would be seated together on each flight. Try calling United Airlines on the phone. Just try it. After several failed attempts in which each call took at least 15 minutes of punching numbers and talking to a computer working its way through endless menus, I finally managed to talk to a human being. Turns out they can deal with seat assignments only on their aircraft. For the other Star Alliance flights, you have to call each airline. So much for the "alliance." The seats had to be changed at check-in, so late that the seats on the longest flight weren't very satisfactory.

All things considered, I think I'd prefer to take a ship across the ocean, if I ever have the time. I've never done that, though, and it might be just as bad.

All I can tell you for certain is that if you have a choice while traveling in Europe, fly Lufthansa (or some other European airline). You'll get a little more space, better service, easier access to someone with a pulse on the phone, and flight attendants who aren't quite as surly and apparently less oppressed.

(This article was also published at Opinion Forum.)