Tag Archives: Transportation

One Delta Flight That Highlights Why Air Travel Sucks So Bad

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

why air travel sucksOn Friday I traveled from Seattle to New York on Delta. By the standards of American air travel in the year 2015, flight 419 was fine.

My seatmates were nice, the woman in front of me didn’t recline her seat until halfway into the flight, the flight attendants were attentive, and we arrived at JFK 45 minutes early – during a snowstorm, no less.

Yet it totally sucked.

The unacceptable state of commercial aviation has become accepted. The insane has been normalized.

It was the best possible terrible experience — one that perfectly exemplified why air travel sucks these days — and everything that’s wrong with the airlines.

Knee Torture

As the guy next to me exclaimed upon sitting down, “They design these seats for midgets!” (It was early, so I didn’t inform him of the more politically correct terms “little people” or “persons of short stature.”) But he’s right: Delta is tied with United Airlines for the dubious distinction of offering the least legroom in coach.

why airtravel sucks

I’m 6’2″. At under 200 pounds, however, I’m a skinny dude. Especially by American standards. I can’t imagine what bigger people do. Or taller ones. Or pregnant ones.

Only the airlines could make me feel sorry for Dick Cheney and Dan Quayle, both of whom have suffered from deep-vein thrombosis associated with flying while stuck in cramped seats. (Don’t those guys get at least business class?)

Check out the photograph above: those are my knees, pressed totally against the seat ahead of me – before the person in front of me opted to recline. (Side rant: reclining should only be enabled on red-eyes.)

You can’t see it here, but my butt is pressed into the corner of my seat; I am sitting straight up. In other words, there is no way to scare an extra millimeter of knee room out of this torture contraption.

I know it could be worse. Someday, probably soon, it will be. A few years ago, you may recall, Ireland-based discount carrier Ryanair flirted with the idea of forcing passengers to stand rather than sit. I also know that the airlines have thin profit margins in a competitive business. However, you’ve got a problem when your customers are driven so crazy that they get into midair brawls over when or if it’s OK to push your seat back.

It’s an even bigger problem when your service is to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Which I might not even have thought about, much less written this piece about, if not for this charming ad on the seat in front of me:

why airtravel sucks

Grim chuckles emanated all around every time this thing cycled through, you know, 14 inches ahead of our faces because – we were definitely not comfortable.

It is hard to overstate how maddening an ad like this is when your knees look and feel like they do in the photo up above. Who’s handling PR for Delta? Howard Schultz of Starbucks? It’s not like we don’t all want to be in first class. It’s not a choice. We’re not riding in coach because we’re cheap.

We’re poor.

Being poor sucks. But you know what’s worse than being poor? Being reminded that other people are rich. Not to mention being told that your poverty is your own damn fault.

Never Saying Sorry

why-air-travel-sucksOne thing I love about flying is that it can be a great place to get work done, particularly if I get a window seat so no one is trying to get past me to go to the restroom.

Unless I can’t.

Friday’s flight would have been a bust the second the woman in front of me reclined her seat into my face; even Houdini couldn’t jam a MacBook Pro between my relatively flat stomach and a reclined seat on Delta. Anyway, it didn’t matter because the Wi-Fi didn’t work.

A five-hour flight is a long time to go without the Internet when you’re a writer, so I’m willing to cough up the outrageously extortionate rate of $33 for GoGo Inflight Internet. Unless, as happened Friday, that wasn’t an option.

As we taxied away from the gate, the pilot helpfully explained that an on-time departure was more important than “the part we would have needed to wait for” in order to get the Wi-Fi working.

Look, I get that stuff happens. Given the fact that it was starting to snow at our destination, I agreed with the pilot’s decision.

What’s annoying is that when the airline inconveniences you – in this case, denying five hours of potential online work time to over 200 passengers – they shrug it off with a glib “oh well.”

When we screw up, we’re expected to pay through the nose. If, for example, you get stuck in traffic and miss your flight, Delta will charge you at least $50 to change your ticket to a later flight the same day. Why can’t I charge them $50 because the Wi-Fi was busted on Friday’s flight? What’s with this unequal relationship?

Foul Food

I never thought I would say this, but I miss the old days of airline food mainly because it was warm.

The war historian John Keegan has remarked that, all things being equal, armies with access to hot food tend to defeat those without it. That’s because the calories and other nutrition inside food is absorbed more effectively when it’s cooked.

I hate the brave new world of airline food, and not only because you have to pay for it à la carte. Morning noon and night, your options are limited to cold lunch: nasty cold cheeses, nasty cold fruits, nasty cold sandwiches. (And Delta’s options are the best of a bad lot.) Give me those old-fashioned mystery – possibly powdered – eggs! Or that plastic tasting ravioli! Just make it warm!
Seasoned travelers like yours truly have learned to work around the dismal state of airline food, or lack thereof, by grabbing a big hot meal on the way to the airport. But there are times, like Friday, when that just isn’t possible.

Think about it, Delta: the flight is at 7 AM. You have to be at the airport at least an hour ahead of time, add a half-hour if you are returning a rental car. At the Seattle Airport, restaurants aren’t open until 6 AM. And the choices are grim.

All I wanted was a light breakfast, maybe a toasted bagel or something ,but that was too much to ask at SeaTac. The guy next to me settled for something called “French Toast Stix.”

Gross.

I would have happily paid $10 or even $15, for some warm powdered eggs.

Bye, Bye, Body Scans: Let’s Get Rid of the TSA

Originally published by ANewDomain.net:

Here’s a modest proposal: get rid of airport security.

I’m serious. Let’s get rid of the whole insane nightmare of TSA checkpoints. No more taking off your shoes and removing your belt, no more possibly carcinogenic and definitely humiliating body scans, no more long lines. Dump the x-ray machines (which also aren’t good for you). Really.

Yeah, yeah, I understand why we have all that crap: 9/11. Also, hijacking planes became so common during the 1970s that “I’m taking this plane to Cuba” became a sitcom joke.

getting rid of the TSABut I’m willing to bet – with my life, and yes, yours, but also those of everyone I love and care about – that eliminating airport security as we know it would be a boon in many ways.

First and foremost, the hassle of flying would be greatly reduced. Shorter travel times would increase the appeal of flying; there are many people like me who drive up to six or eight hours in order to avoid flying in large part because of airline security. Because the roads are more crowded, people are dying.

Reports Bloomberg: “Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day.”

More passengers means more profits for the airlines and more face-to-face business meetings, both of which would be awesome for the economy. The impact could be enormous: during the five years after the 9/11 attacks, passenger volume dropped by 5 percent.

A recent study found that Americans avoided 38 million trips by air in the year 2013 in order to avoid security checkpoint hassles at the airport, costing the U.S. economy at least $35 billion that year alone. Extrapolating over the 14 years since the September 11 attacks, we are looking at a loss of half a trillion dollars in economic activity.

Second, taxpayers would save $7 billion a year by eliminating the TSA. That money could go to any number of better priorities, or it could be used to build more terror drones, or whatever, but still: $7 billion a year. (Obviously, we would need to find jobs for the 55,000 screeners.) That’s a lot of money, and well worth saving.

What would happen terror-wise?

What would happen terrorism-wise? Probably nothing.

Every day, millions of Americans get on subways and buses in American cities without the slightest pretense of a security check. How many of them blow up? Zero. Every day, millions of Americans ride medium-distance commuter trains and buses with similar happy results, despite the fact that they don’t have to go through a scanner first. The same goes for long-distance trains, long-distance buses, ferries and so on. (The TSA has recently begun targeting Amtrak and other forms of ground transportation, but only sporadically and – by all accounts – with no apparent results other than annoying everyone.)

If taking off our shoes is preventing another 9/11, why don’t terrorists target these other forms of transportation? Because they don’t want to, or can’t.

You are at least 2000 times more likely to commit suicide than to get killed by a terrorist.

To clarify: I’m not talking about getting rid of security. I’m talking about getting rid of the airport security checkpoints currently run by the Transportation Security Administration. I would maintain and even beef up security behind the scenes. Every plane should have several armed sky marshals aboard. (That’s not currently the case.) Check-in suitcases and cargo must be carefully tracked and scanned.

And what if someone brings a gun onto your next flight?

What if someone brings a gun on board? I’ve seen it happen. Get this: it was not a problem.

It happened in Afghanistan. Flying out of Kabul airport on a domestic flight a few years ago, I was surprised and amused to see that all of the US supplied x-ray machines were turned off and/or out of order. Passengers filed by; no one was searched. When it was time to board the flight, I observed several people casually stowing weapons, mostly AK-47 rifles, in the overheads. I’m writing this, so obviously nothing bad happened. And this was in an active war zone.

Afghans aren’t crazy or stupid. If a passenger on an Afghan plane tried to use a gun to hijack a plane, he have to contend with a planeload of similarly armed men determined to stop him. Chances of success: slim.

Which is exactly what would happen here. Since 9/11 there have been a number of incidents in which mentally disturbed people raised hell on American planes. Invariably they were overpowered, restrained and turned over to the authorities, usually by a coalition of passengers and crewmen.

That happened on a bus in Seattle recently.

let's get rid of the TSA Ted RallAnyway, it’s not like the current system screens everyone equally.

Pay $85 and submit to fingerprinting, and you can get out of having to take your laptop out of your bag, keep your shoes on, and your jacket thanks to your membership in the TSA’s PreCheck program. Determined terrorists, especially 9/11-style suicide bombers, aren’t going to be deterred by the application fee or the fingerprint requirement; after all, they know they aren’t going to be prosecuted after the bombing.

Oh, and I bet you probably guessed this one: most airport employees don’t go through any screening whatsoever. “One of the greatest vulnerabilities for this airport and probably any other major airport like MIA is the insider threat,” Lauren Stover, security director for Miami International Airport told CNN a month ago. It’s a story that many people missed at the time, but box cutters were found on several planes grounded after the 9/11 attacks; officials suspected that they were placed on board as part of an “inside job.”

In other words, they are making old ladies take off their shoes while ignoring the real threats.

Besides, whatever power there is in the argument that people who pass the TSA vetting process are less likely to commit terrorist acts is obviated by something that frequent travelers know: at many airports, security staff routinely direct ordinary, non-screened, non-PreCheck members into the PreCheck line. Which exposes the program as a fraud. And yet: there have been no attempts to hijack an American airliner since 2001.

Civil aviation demonstrates the pointlessness of airport security checkpoints. Every day, tens of thousands of airplanes leave and land at airports all over the United States, carrying passengers and cargo that haven’t undergone a screening. Defenders of the current system might argue that the risk from a smaller plane is, well, smaller. But I suspect the real reason has more to do with the fact that the wealthier, whiter pilots and passengers in the civil aviation system are simply more privileged.

Based on fear and paranoia, sucking countless man-hours and dollars out of the US economy every day, airport security in 2015 is like a religious ritual, something we all do even though nobody knows why, and those who do know that there is no reason whatsoever to do it.

Bye bye, TSA!

A Fast-Track Plan for New York

Originally published by The New York Observer:

Dreaming of New Subways

Throughout New York’s history, change has been a constant feature of the city’s transportation infrastructure. Well, it used to be.

Aside from the long-delayed Second Avenue subway, civil engineers haven’t had much work to do in the past five decades. A time traveler from 1961 would find the city’s traffic patterns, street grid, highways, subway lines, river crossings and airports basically the same.

New York’s second-newest major bridge, the Throgs Neck, opened nine days before JFK delivered his “ask not what your country” inaugural address. The Verrazano came in 1964. Then that was it—unless you count the link between Rikers Island and Queens in 1966. Aside from a few extensions on the outer borders of Queens and the minor 63rd Street tunnel, the subway looks much the way it did during World War II. For many New Yorkers, getting to LaGuardia still requires a cab, despite the half-assed AirTrain. Ditto for JFK.

The Center for an Urban Future recently concluded that too much of our “essential infrastructure remains stuck in the 20th century,” posing a barrier “for a city positioning itself to compete with other global cities.”

There is little reason to believe things will improve. Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recently announced plan to add some ferry routes launching in 2017, his administration has reduced infrastructure spending from budgets under Mayor Michael Bloomberg—who devoted most of that money to new parks and schools.

New stuff? As the parking sign says, don’t even think about it.

But that’s a choice.

New York could fund big-ticket transportation projects through the imposition of a modest stock transaction tax on the $45 billion traded daily on the NYSE. Some liberal Democrats are floating a 3 basis point (.03 cent) tax on trades. That’s not enough. From 1914 to 1966—while America won two world wars and became the world’s dominant superpower—it was 10 basis points. Precedents include France, which has a 20 basis point tax and Taiwan (10-30 basis points).

A securities tax would generate an estimated $10 billion annually. Enough to pay for a slew of ambitious, and needed, projects over the next decade or two.

Let’s start using this money to expand subways.

The long-awaited extension of the 7 subway may open as early as this month. Nice start, but the old idea of running the 7 out to the Meadowlands to alleviate Lincoln Tunnel traffic and provide an alternative to Penn Station for boarding New Jersey Transit, is just as overdue.

Even after the projected 2019—yeah, right—opening of the Second Avenue line, Lower East Side residents will remain woefully underserved by subways. The MTA should add a train along the Harlem River waterfront to connect Avenue D and East End Avenue to the rest of Manhattan.

A major shortcoming of New York’s current subway configuration is its failure to adapt aspects of the efficient spiderweb or grid patterns urban planners favor in more modern systems like Paris, London, Seoul and Tokyo.

Any transit expert would look at a NYC subway map and ask with puzzlement: Why isn’t there a line running around the city’s outer perimeter along the Westchester and Nassau County borders? To get from the Jamaica section of Queens and to Flatbush, Brooklyn, you have to head halfway to Manhattan to switch subways, or endure long rides on local city buses. That’s stupid.

Huge swaths of Southern Queens, currently off the grid, should be connected via a new line arcing west-to-east through the Bronx, then north-south through Queens and Brooklyn, parallel to and east of the G.

No borough is more subwayless than the city’s redheaded stepchild, Staten Island. But it doesn’t have to be that way. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been blocking the century-old dream of running a subway line under New York Harbor from Brooklyn to Staten Island to New Jersey, but half the idea would still be an improvement. Let’s revive the Staten Island-Saint George tunnel between Brooklyn, which the city abandoned in the early 1920s.

In most major metropolises, rail systems connect directly from the city-center to the terminals. Not here, mostly due to NIMBYism and highway-obsessed Robert Moses. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently floated a proposal to build an elevated AirTrain to link LaGuardia to the subway system, but transportation blogger Ben Kabak would better solve the airport access problem by extending the N along the Grand Central Parkway.

Anyone who drives in New York knows we need to add bridges and tunnels. Crossing the Hudson River during rush hour, as impenetrable as the Berlin Wall back in the day, could become slightly less hellish by executing one or more of the numerous forgotten plans for bridges at 23rd, 57th, 70th and 125th Streets. I’d go with 70th Street, more or less splitting the distance between the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge; either bridge or tunnel would be fine.

Conventional wisdom among liberal transportation types dictates that highway construction begets increased traffic: Build them and they will come. I don’t buy it. Even old-timers who curse Robert Moses for destroying the Bronx recall with a shudder the horror of sitting for hours on Broadway in upper Manhattan, waiting to get to the Bronx as stuck cars overheated, making congestion worse.

Driving from Long Island to Western Brooklyn, and/or on to New Jersey via Staten Island, requires extremely circuitous routes: Via the congested LIE and BQE, or skirting around the bulbous outline of Brooklyn. The obvious solution is to extend the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which currently begins at the Grand Central and Van Wyck Parkways in Kew Gardens. Nowadays, it dumps that highway traffic at Jamaica Avenue in East New York (there used to be a major train station there). We should extend the Jackie Robinson west toward the BQE.

Last but not least, it’s time to replicate the success of forward-looking cities like Dallas, Seattle and Portland, Ore., by bringing back streetcars. They’re relatively cheap. They’re cute. When their tracks run in dedicated, carless lanes, they’re faster than automobiles. There are smart plans for new streetcar lines along the waterfront in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, 42nd Street in Manhattan and Astoria in Queens.

We have work to do. Let’s get New York moving again.

***

Ted Rall is the author of the forthcoming book Snowden by Ted Rall

Los Angeles Times Cartoon: Waiting

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times. This week we look at the possible imminent conclusion to the long wait LA commuters have endured until their Metro system finally makes it all the way to Los Angeles International Airport.

Some people I showed this to asked why I depicted a woman instead of a man because you know, the “generic human” is a white male in his 50s (perhaps, in an editorial cartoon, wearing a hat). As readers know, I try to avoid such tired tropes as much as possible. Women take trains too.