How did air travel, which once seemed so glamorous and exciting, turn into a sadomasochistic pas de deux between the industry and the passenger?
To understand the forces defining air travel in America today, I spent eight days crisscrossing the country in economy class. Four airlines. Twelve flights (half of them delayed). Twelve cities. Twelve cups of tomato juice. Three trips through whole-body scanners. One alarming use of the words “groin area.” Eight testy conversations with authority figures. One lost bag. Two broken entertainment systems. And a reporter who went a week without washing her hair.
The trip had its share of surreal moments — interrogated by a security agent at one point, I forgot what city I was flying to — and I felt increasingly removed from myself, dehumanized and disaffected. Due to a grim twist of fate, every flight seemed to leave from a gate in a distant corner of the terminal. Sitting again and again at the back of the plane, I wondered, am I getting enough oxygen?
But the week also showed people at their mordant best: helping each other wedge luggage into improbable overhead spaces, trading information about delays and exhibiting a bracing what-fresh-hell-is-this solidarity, at least when they were not squabbling over spots in the boarding line. I began to get a sense of the perverse forces that drive airlines, airports and security personnel to pursue seemingly customer-hostile policies in the name of profits and safety.
As bad as flying can be, more people are doing it. Some 24,000 commercial flights take off and land in the United States every day, most at or close to capacity. Last year, a record 719 million people flew on domestic flights, as compared with 696 million the year before.
To help their profits, airlines fit more passengers into smaller spaces, charge more for once-basic services like legroom, inveigle customers into joining frequent-flier programs, and lavish ever more perks on higher-revenue passengers at the front of the plane.
The result is a widening caste system that can turn an airplane into a microcosm of “The Hunger Games.” The elite bask in an airborne version of Panem, enjoying over-the-top frivolities distant from the tedium of normal life, while the masses scrap over scant resources, dreaming of revolution.
Some years ago, I wrote an article that followed a bag of garbage on a journey from Long Island to a landfill in Illinois. I thought of it as I disembarked in Phoenix, yogurt on my pants. The stories had a parallelism to them — the random travel from place to place, the studious tracking of the specimen. This time, perhaps, I was the specimen.
Day 1: The Caste System
• American Airlines Flight 85, New York to San Francisco, 7:55 p.m.
I can’t sleep on crowded late-night planes, so I pick a flight that leaves at a reasonable hour and duly present myself at Kennedy International Airport at 6 p.m. Right away, the passengers are funneled into two groups, one that will have a good experience and one that will not.
To the left is the regular check-in area, a scrum of anxiety where the regular travelers jostle and fret into ragged lines staffed by overburdened agents.
To the right is the priority area, a calm oasis of privilege where smaller numbers of high-status travelers are promptly ushered to check-in desks by smiling airline employees eager to help.
This pattern will continue throughout the trip, and it all makes perfect economic sense. Airlines make far more money from premium-class passengers than from economy passengers, and their focus is on making these customers as happy as possible.
At the gate, the flight is delayed for more than two hours, for whimsical reasons known only to the airline. Just under 80 percent of flights in the United States landed on time last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an independent agency that is part of the Transportation Department. In the last decade, the on-time rate has been as low as 70.91 percent and as high as 82.11 percent.
The mood changes as you go further along in a plane. It’s like starting at a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and traversing the city until you reach your own house, a tent shared by 20 people on the banks of the Gowanus Canal. I have a middle seat, which will prove to be a recurring theme.
A thin curtain separates us from first class, but it feels impenetrable. A passenger attempts to use the first-class bathrooms but is ordered to the back of the plane. As the flight attendants dole out our sole free snack on this flight of six and a half hours — a lone Lotus Biscoff (“Europe’s Favorite Cookie With Coffee”) — the aroma of something delicious that may or may not be lasagna wafts in from the front.
The flight lands two and a half hours late, at 2:04 a.m. By 3 a.m., I am in bed at the airport hotel. My alarm is set for five hours later — to catch the next flight.
Day 2: Boarding Nightmare
• Delta Flight 1106, San Francisco to Salt Lake City, 10:34 a.m.
• Delta Flight 2926, Salt Lake City to Denver, 3:20 p.m.
Half of America is furious at the other half, unable to agree on even previously uncontroversial topics like the weather. But if there’s one subject that unites the country, it is a loathing of what the airlines euphemistically call the boarding process.
I’m already grumpy because of fatigue and the fact that this flight, too, is unaccountably late. Besides, I fail to discard my water bottle at security, a rookie mistake that results in a walk of shame to the garbage bin reserved for people who do not understand what “no beverages” means.
At the gate, the mood is restive. The plane has not arrived.
A group of passengers — these people are known derisively as “gate lice” to frequent fliers — is surging toward the door anyway, jockeying for position in imaginary lines. This makes the others nervous, so they head over there, too.
“It gives me a sense of comfort to stand near the gate,” says Kristin Olson, who has left the lounge to stake out a prime position at the boarding area. “It can be chaotic and uncertain. I’m like, any time it’s set to board, I want to be here.”
Airlines have experimented with everything, including back-to-front boarding, window-seats-before-aisle-seats boarding, and what some people call “chaos boarding,” where passengers basically rush the gate en masse. Reasonable people can disagree on which is most efficient, but one thing seems clear: The current system — organized according to elaborate status-based hierarchies — is a highly irritating way to board a plane.
“On some flights, you have so many elite travelers that by the time they all board, there’s no one left,” Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the online publication Airline Weekly, said in an interview.
Each airline has its own way of calculating status, calibrating down to the most picayune distinction, just the way English people will tell you in all seriousness that they grew up upper lower-middle class, say, or lower upper-middle class.
It’s always startling to see how starkly this little slice of class warfare plays out. After boarding passengers who need extra help, Delta divides the remaining people into five “boarding zones” comprising 24 separate categories. If that seems like a lot, it is. The zones are cunningly arranged so that Zone One is actually the third group to board.
Zone Three is for passengers with the cheapest tickets. They are forbidden to get on the plane until everyone else — the Sky Team Elite Plus members, the Priority Boarding Trip Extra customers, and so on — has already boarded.
There’s something soul-destroying about actively caring whether you’ve achieved, say, Crossover Rewards SPG Platinum status. On the other hand, it’s uniquely dispiriting to be a member of Zone Three.
Our boarding passes might as well say “Loser” on them.
By the time we board, there’s no space left in the overhead bins, and we have to relinquish our suitcases at the gate. Some people try to argue, but resistance is futile. We bond by exchanging anti-airline pleasantries.
“I’m going to give them my bag,” one woman says, “because I don’t want to be dragged off the airplane.”
Day 3: Insecurity Lines
• United Flight 2049, Denver to Houston, 3:10 p.m.
Having successfully completed the latest task in the growing category of “Things Airline Employees Used to Do” — printing out and affixing my own bag-routing tag — I proceed to security.
Security, of course, is one of the main features of the modern airport, its operation bolstered by more than 44,000 security officers employed by the Transportation Security Administration. The agency screens some two million passengers a day. In 2016, its officers caught passengers attempting to sneak a total of 3,391 firearms onto airplanes.
I’m not that dumb, but that doesn’t mean I zip through security without incident. In fact, even if you qualify for expedited boarding or have T.S.A. PreCheck status, awarded to people who pay a fee and pass a background check, you cannot escape the possibility of the full-body scanner.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” an agent says to me, pointing me toward the device in question, also known as an advanced imaging technology machine. “You’ve been randomly selected.” (An agency spokesman said that for security reasons, he could not reveal how frequently this happens.)
Feet splayed to match the floor diagram, hands in the air as if you’ve been pulled over by the cops, you feel like both criminal and victim. I position my arms in the manner of Macaulay Culkin on the “Home Alone” poster, which is not correct. “Hands away from your head!” the official barks.
An alarm sounds. There appears to be an area of concern on my body.
“Let me tell you what I’m going to do,” a second agent says. She pulls on a pair of latex gloves that look like the ones doctors use for internal exams. “I’m going to need to check your groin area.”
O.K., I say.
“Lift your blouse so I can get underneath your waistband,” she continues.
It’s actually a sweater, but whatever. I am exposing half my stomach and back to my fellow passengers. I feel the way I would if the police strip-searched me in the newsroom, in front of my editors. The agent rummages around in there. “Widen your stance, please,” she says, checking the insides of my legs up to the top, over my pants.
It’s never fun to hear an authority figure use the words “widen” and “stance” in this context.
Day 4: Existential Hunger
• United Flight 1571, Houston to Jacksonville, Fla., 12:50 p.m.
It is perpetually dinner time at the airport, but I do not want the food. I do not want the pizza, hamburgers, tacos, bagels, buffalo chicken wings, Tex-Mex, Japanese, Chinese, Indian or Italian. I do not want the doughnuts, Cronuts, cupcakes, cookies or salads garnished with croutons that taste like soap. I do not want a Shake Shack shake.
I’m the Sam I Am of the airport.
Airport food is big business. The need to arrive far in advance of a flight presents food vendors with an array of captive potential customers. Bored people eat more, as do people worried they will be stuck in an enclosed space without a meal.
“Food is getting much better in the airport, and airports are getting much better at making food available,” Mr. Leff said. There are apps with which you can order food from terminal vendors while still on the plane, and iPads you can use to get food delivered to you while waiting at a gate.
I haven’t run into any of those, and I’m just not feeling the joy of food. On the flights, those of us sitting in the back tend to avoid buying from the snack cart, making do with the tiny free packets like Savory Snack Mix, blobs of crackerlike material coated with unpleasant flavoring.
Even the scant items are improvements. After dispensing with free snacks following the 2008 financial crisis, the main carriers have recently reinstated them. Providing even something like nuts for every passenger can cost an airline $10 million to $20 million a year, said Henry Harteveldt, an industry analyst at Atmosphere Research Group.
On one flight, the lady sitting on the aisle and I were tackling our Savory Snacks when our seatmate, Bela Nabulsi of Houston, magically received a free Tapas Snack box, containing crackers, dips and what appear to be chocolate-covered dehydrated blueberries. He offered us some blueberries. “No, thank you,” we said, wondering why he got the Tapas Snacks and we did not.
“I’m a 1K member” — whatever that is — “and so I get a free snack pack,” he explained.
On another flight, the lady by the window, who had raised our mutual armrest so as to better squeeze over the line into my seat, whipped out a Chick-fil-A fried-chicken sandwich.
The distressing scent of dill pickles and processed chicken wafted through the air. Finally she finished and stuffed the wrapper back into the Chick-fil-A bag, after which the lady on the aisle produced her own lunch: the exact same sandwich.
She said she had had the same thing the day before and liked it so much that she had it again.
Day 5: Status Anxiety
• Southwest 314, Jacksonville to Atlanta, 11:05 p.m.
• Southwest 757, Atlanta to Chicago, 12:50 p.m.
• Delta 6209, Chicago to Minneapolis, 5:27 p.m.
• Delta 3788, Minneapolis to Des Moines, 10:05 p.m.
The tall indignant man is telling his long, dull story to the desk clerk here at Chicago’s Midway Airport. I’ve arrived late, on a plane where half the passengers seem to have missed their connections.
The narrative involves a delayed flight; the purchase of a ticket on an alternative flight; the realization that the new flight is leaving in the morning instead of the evening; the certainty that his booking error is not his fault; and the purchase of a completely new ticket on the original flight.
The dramatic climax of the man’s tale is that he has plummeted on the upgrade list, to No. 6 from No. 2, and wants his old spot back.
The clerk, who is trying to appease the crowd by providing regular updates on the unexplained nonappearance of the plane, says she can’t deal with the subject of upgrades at the moment.
The man has Platinum status, he explains. He is so angry that he does not want to give me his name.
What’s so great about Platinum status, I ask.
“It’s second to the top!” he says. “Only Diamond is above it.”
I’m not suffused with sympathy, but there is a larger issue here. What’s the use of grubbing and scratching your way up an airline loyalty ladder if it exposes you to this sort of status-based distress?
Many passengers harbor suspicions that something strange has happened to air miles programs.
“It’s been years since I’ve been upgraded,” a passenger named Lynn Glynn tells me in Atlanta. “I keep using Delta — I’ve used it a couple of times internationally — but I never seem to get enough points.”
Ms. Glynn is right: Something is wrong.
Because airlines have lowered the prices in premium cabins in order to sell more of the seats, fewer such seats are available for upgrades.
As recently as 2010, Delta sold just 14 percent of its short-haul first class seats, according to Mr. Leff, the industry blogger. By mid-2015, that had increased to 57 percent, with the ultimate goal being 70 percent.
At the same time, it’s become harder to improve your frequent-flier status. Miles alone used to suffice. Now you have to spend a certain amount of money, too, or you’ll get bumped down a tier.
Day 6: Bags on the Run
• American Flight 1886, Des Moines to Phoenix, 2:40 p.m.
I wake up in the clothes I was wearing yesterday, since my flight landed after 11 p.m. and my bag got left behind in Minneapolis. It was 40 degrees in Des Moines, and I was too cold to undress before bed.
My morning is spent tracing the errant luggage — it’s now meant to be delivered to the hotel — and visiting a local eye doctor because I seem to have contracted some sort of eye infection. The doctor says that my eyes have become irritated from too much flying and tells me not to use Visine.
I return to the airport to hunt down my luggage, which never arrived at the hotel. The lost-luggage desk has the deserted feel of a warehouse on a weekend. I am not sure what to do, so I call the Delta customer-service number on my cellphone.
I reach a person. I am put on hold. After a while, she says she’s spoken to another person at the airport who has promised to ask a third person to come and help. This sounds dubious, and I keep her on the phone by whining for a bit about things she cannot help me with.
Someone does eventually arrive, and I’m reunited with my bag. I’ve been surprised at how efficiently the airlines have handled this suitcase, which is small and black and looks like every other suitcase.
More sophisticated technology, including the use of radio-frequency identification chips embedded in luggage tags, has helped airlines keep better track of bags. The rate of mishandled bags worldwide was 5.73 per thousand in 2016, the lowest ever recorded, according to the technology company SITA.
Day 7: The Great Unraveling
• United Airlines Flight 5435, Phoenix to Los Angeles, 10:50 a.m.
I’m down to my outfit of last resort, the one my children made me promise never to wear in public: an adult onesie I bought more than two years ago at the Sochi Olympics.
It’s appropriate that I’m dressed like a giant toddler, because I’m whiny, fractious and irrational. I’m tired and tearful. This food tastes awful. I do not want anyone to be the boss of me.
Here are some things I’ve done recently: challenged a T.S.A. agent who ordered me to remove a Kleenex from my pocket, sat in the wrong seat on a flight and claimed it was the other person’s fault, told a lost-bag agent that I was about to miss my next flight when it was not true, sat on the floor at a departure gate in order to charge my phone, and, at a low moment, jostled my seatmate’s arm right off our shared armrest while pretending I was doing something else.
Today I am inexplicably drawn into a passive-aggressive contretemps with a smirking man in cargo shorts who accuses me of failing to remove my items speedily enough from the security conveyor belt, and who calls me “lady.” I actually hiss, “What did you say to me?” as he walks off.
I’ve been asking flight attendants along the way what it is like to deal with customers who behave like children.
The problem, one told me earlier, is that people are already in a terrible mood when they get on the plane. (She did not want her name used because she isn’t supposed to speak to reporters.) “You’re crammed in like sardines, your independence is taken away from you, you’re paying for things that used to be free,” she said.
Day 8: Panem
• Delta Flight 1460, Los Angeles to New York, 12:50 p.m.
I’m on my way home. I’m in Seat 6B. My seat is capable of sliding out into a full-length bed. I have my own duvet, side table and reading lamp. I have a ceramic dish of almonds and cashews. If I want special unguents, there are some in my free amenities bag.
Having suffered the normal troubles of air travel, I’m now enjoying its abnormal delights. I’m in business class on a cross-country flight. I never want to leave this seat.
Who would not enjoy this cocoon of privilege? I have checked in via a special entrance at Los Angeles International Airport leading to an anteroom whose desk is decorated with an orchid. I have enjoyed cucumber-infused water and a slide show of dramatic landscapes in a post-check-in lounge.
I have breezed through a dedicated security line. I have waited in a second Delta lounge near the gate, under a Pop Art poster of a distressed cartoon woman saying: “Darling, you know I only travel first class!”
That’s how all of us feel. (We’re technically in business class, but there is no first class on this flight.) Relief, entitlement, schadenfreude and a mortal fear of having to fly economy again — these are the prevalent emotions. Maybe it’s better not to be here at all, because going back there will be so awful.
I’ve been having this discussion a lot. “I feel so sorry for them,” Albert Zahalka, a passenger I met earlier in the week, said. When he was younger, he, too, had to fly economy. “It’s hard to travel anyway,” he said. “But to sit back there, it’s soul-destroying.”
The economy passengers do seem unfortunate, huffing and heaving their wheelie bags and water bottles and bags of cheeseburgers down the aisle. How nice it is to be on this side of the curtain.
Airline executives have come to realize that they can do almost what they like in economy class, offering basic service — a seat, basically — at cut-rate prices and then charging for add-ons like legroom, checked bags and the right to choose a seat. The real competition comes in long-haul premium cabins, as the airlines rush to outperk each other to attract more lucrative customers.
On long-haul flights, business-class passengers generate at least five times as much profit as economy passengers, according to Mr. Harteveldt, the industry analyst. First-class passengers are worth perhaps 10 times as much as economy passengers.
That’s why I have a flatbed seat.
The video screen is pleasingly large, so I can finish watching “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” in comfort. I have room for all my stuff. No one is slamming a seat onto my knees, kicking me in the back or shoving me from the side. After lunch, I’m too full for my custom hot-fudge sundae, so the flight attendant offers to bring it later.
I wander into the galley, where the flight attendants are taking a break. It’s definitely easier to work in business class, they say. I tell them what a great time I’ve had, isolated from other people in this exclusive area.
They tell me that places of even more exclusivity exist, where V.I.P. customers can move through airports without coming into contact with other passengers. There are even lounges where you can sit alone.
Really, I say.
Yes, a flight attendant says. You have to pay a lot more. But if you pay enough, you can get whatever you want.