Come Fly With Me

As we return to air travel in the waning days of the pandemic, we return to an industry badly in need of government regulation.

Happy Memorial Day Weekend, friends: I will do something that I have not done since I began this journey with you—take Monday off as a holiday. I will see you next Wednesday! Don’t forget to forward to an interested friend, and invite them to subscribe for free or support this newsletter at the low, low price of $5.00 a month.

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Photo credit: Noah Wulf/Wikimedia Commons

Yes, the TSA officer was threatening me with detention and a strip search. What had I done? I hadn't lost my temper. Not yet, at any rate. I hadn't even sighed or rolled my eyes. I had, however, explained that I was late for my flight and needed to be searched and released immediately. Rather than wait for a female TSA employee, I explained, I would prefer to have one of the many men standing around doing nothing perform the pat-down.

No dice.

Watching the clock tick down to boarding, I waited silently for the "gender appropriate" search that would allow me to get on with my day. And not to put too fine a point on it, but as a person who has lived an entire adult life in erotic relationships with women, it's tough to understand how having a woman run her hands up and down my body, into my crotch, around my breasts, and into my waistband is designed to make me more comfortable being touched by a stranger. But navigating airport security is not about logic, comfort -- or even, often, security.

It is about learning to be compliant in what has been, since 2001, a militarized society.

Everyone who can't afford NetJet hates to fly now. But I may have a deeper acquaintance with the intricacies of militarized air travel than you do because I have a lot of metal in my body. Two full-on titanium prosthetic knees mean that metal detectors are never set high enough for me to go through unnoticed. When scanners were introduced, I was one of the few passengers who volunteered for imaging (I have, as you might imagine, had a lot of imaging) because I imagined that I might once again become a traveler who could pass peacefully through to my flight.

Nope: heads you win, tails I lose. You see, I also have a large patch of Kevlar in my gut from a hernia repair (advantage: it makes me bullet-proof in that region!) so that when I go through the scanner, it shows up as a large white square. I guess it is routinely mistaken for a big, whacking piece of Semtex or C-4 explosive.

TSA folks do not seem to know that it is normal for someone my age to have a patch that holds my intestines in the place where the good Lord intended them to be. They question me closely about what I "have in my pocket," body search me and lecture me that I should have gone through the metal detector. They claim it is set too high to detect my knee. But it isn't. When I tried going through the metal detector as instructed at New York's Laguardia Airport, the alarm went off. The TSA employee lectured me that I should have gone through the scanner -- and body searched me.

So even though I am a TSA preferred traveler, I can look forward to a pat-down and a lecture every time I board a flight, probably for the rest of my life.

How safe has the TSA made us with all their routines and precautions? Not very. In one test, 95% of the weapons and fake bombs undercover teams carried into screenings went undetected. I once went through security at JFK in New York for an international flight with a rather large knife that I had forgotten to remove from my bag after a camping trip, a knife that wasn't discovered until I went through a second scanner in Amsterdam. A polite Dutchman quietly removed it and crushed it on the spot.

Yet the TSA never misses that Kevlar patch, and the metal detector is always set too low for my prostheses.

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Being subjected to invasive and arbitrary authority is what it means to live and travel in a militarized society. I rarely end up being detained at security for an extended length of time, but controlling my anger is a regular aspect of travel for me, even before I get to the gate. I know that the punishment for non-compliance ranges from inconvenience to missing my flight to arrest.

So I always have to act like I am doing this for the first time. I submit to whatever these agents of the state want to do, including listening to a lecture that I have heard hundreds of times and cannot be interrupted—even if I beg them to stop talking and get on with it. Fortunately, although I am sometimes irritable, I don't have a strong sense of physical or personal shame. This is fortunate since I have also sat at the end of the baggage scanner waiting as TSA employees giggle, smirk, and point at personal items they detect in my carry-on.

On the plus side, the process of getting through security, as an exercise in arbitrary and pointless authority, softens customers up for being treated poorly at the gate. There, before boarding the aircraft, we are all elaborately sorted into groups depending on how much extra we have agreed to fork over to be treated rudely on a dirty, crowded airplane. I am glad to say that I have never been beaten and dragged off the flight, as United Airlines passenger David Dao once was. The fallout from this incident became international: Dao screamed that he had been selected because he was Chinese, which apparently people in China took seriously because of the routine hostility of American politicians towards China since 2016.

Although United is a terrible airline, all airlines are terrible to some degree now. Air travel itself is an exercise in feeling gratitude about being allowed to board the flight you are booked on and paid for. Decades of government deregulation have permitted -- nay encouraged -- these companies to become businesses that are allowed to break any promise they have made to the customer without penalty, including canceling a flight because it isn’t full enough. Airlines mistreat passengers, they mistreat their employees, and they are protected in their bad behavior by large numbers of ill-paid, ill-trained, officious federal paramilitaries and industry rent-a-cops.

If air travel has changed for the worse, it is important to note that those changes are due less to the threat of terrorism than they are to the threat of capitalism. Terrorism has become an excuse to discipline customers into accepting low levels of service and civility, even as airlines make money. As a passenger who traveled once or twice a month for work in pre-pandemic times, I adapted to bad service and ill-treatment so incrementally that it is hard to recall an earlier life when those in the economy seats were not treated like freeloaders. When I was a kid, I flew two or three times a year, and we were showered with free meals, blankets, and pillows. In an attempt to cultivate the air travelers of the future, there were also presents: mini-flight bags and aluminum pins that designated kids as a "Junior Pilot" or "Junior Stewardess" (no, you could not have a pin that did not correspond to your gender, and female-bodied children could not grow up to be pilots in the 1960s.)

Only two things worried me as a young air traveler: that my sister would barf in flight (actually, we both suffered from air sickness, but hers lingered a bit longer than mine) and that the plane would be hijacked, a regular event in the 1970s. The unexpected trip to Cuba was less of a concern to Teenaged Me than the prospect that I might run out of snacks and reading material, so I always packed extra food and more than one book.

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This is something I do to this day, even though it is far more likely that my flight will be canceled -- or that I will be bumped from a flight I have paid for weeks in advance -- than that the plane will be hijacked. As of last week’s hijacking by the Belorussian government, however, I may need to rethink this.

Airline deregulation now means that it is not a question of whether we will be mistreated, but when and how badly. It is about how many rude, officious and incompetent people we will encounter from the minute we set foot in the airport until the moment we land at our destination. Since every bit of comfort is sold as an extra, air travel is also an exercise in how much we can tolerate before opening our wallets.

Will we choose to have our legs folded up backward at a 45-degree angle or pay $40 for more legroom? Will we sit in the back, where the odor of chemical toilets wafts through our facemasks, or pay $70 to sit further forward? Instead of standing in line with the hoi-polloi and hip checking someone's granny away from the last overhead bin, will we pay an extra $130 to -- wait for it -- have the same seat but board the plane before other economy passengers.

Proponents of free-market capitalism proposes that the government doesn't need to set standards for any industry: customers, these geniuses who fly first class argue, will reward good service with their business and weed out the bad businesses. But the airline industry is a prime example of why that is not true: all American airlines are bad, and there the choices for the average person are merely a question of degree. 

So the real consumer choice is not to fly at all—having done that during the pandemic, I would say it isn’t a half-bad idea.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


What I’m reading:

  • I swear to God, I thought he was talking about the popularity of GOP nutbag congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene: Charlie Sykes explains the short history of the conservative term “Boob Bait for the Bubbas.” (Morning Shots/The Bulwark, May 27, 2021)

  • Department of not leaving well enough alone: after all charges are dropped, Amy Cooper sues over being fired over her racist call to police, claiming that she is the victim of racism. (Jonah E. Bromwich and Ed Shanahan, New York Times, May 26, 2021)

  • The widespread criminalization of abortion in Texas threatens Planned Parenthood’s many healthcare functions, including healthcare provision to transgender people. (Molly Sprayregen, them, May 21, 2021)

  • Who bought your university? Before it spent down its assets in 2005, the John M. Olin Foundation spent over $150 million “bankrolling the promotion of free-market ideology and other conservative ideas on the country’s campuses.” These so-called “beachheads” were the foundation for today’s culture wars. (Jane Mayer, Chronicle of Higher Education, February 12, 2016)