The (Lack of) Glamour of Air Travel

Similar to riding horses, shopping in Abercrombie and Fitch, and playing craps at a casino, traveling by air is one of those activities that always seems glamorous and fancy up until you actually do it.  Hold on a minute, scratch that.  I’ve played craps before and it’s quite enjoyable.  Replace that with taking a taxi.

I have performed all of these activities, and one of their most striking qualities is how much less fun they were to do than they seemed from afar.  As a graduate student living halfway across the country from the rest of my family, I find myself at the unfortunate intersection of “needing to fly regularly” and “I’m poor and need to take three flights at 1:30 AM”.  And this is not a fun intersection to be stranded at.

But traveling via airplane is an interesting combination of wonder and utter frustration.  The indignity and bother of removing every single object from my person at security screenings?  The incredibly overpriced and meager selection of food for sale in airports?  The disturbingly squishy chairs that somehow can never be comfortable for more than five minutes?  The stale, dry, dirty air on the planes themselves?  All of these little frustrations come together to make traveling by air a rather unpleasant experience.

On the other hand, I can never quite shake that sense of wonder I feel as the plane finally lifts off from the runway.  Wilbur and Orville Wright flew for the very first time in 1906 (I know that off the top of my head – be impressed), and now, barely over a hundred years later, we clamber fearlessly into metal tubes that streak across the sky, higher than we can breathe, propelled by the constant combustion of incredibly flammable liquids.

Flight is a marvel, something that humanity has strived to attain for thousands of years.  And yet, today we treat it as an inconvenience!  What plasticity the human mind possesses, to shift its mindset so radically in just a few generations.

But I’m a scientist, not a philosopher, so I’m going to brainstorm a few ways that we could shake off a few of the annoyances associated about airplanes:

1. Security checkpoints are long and annoying.  We may have switched over to millimeter wave detection, but why in the world do we still need to take off our shoes and empty our pockets?  Let’s get some automated smart scanners that generate a three-dimensional scan and identify weapons, combined with chemical sniffers that can detect single molecules of explosive.  And to be honest, I don’t really care if some balding TSA agent happens to see my outline beneath my clothes – more incentive for me to stay in shape!

2. The single most infuriating thing about air travel, in my opinion, is the waiting.  Oh god, so much waiting.  I’m sure that most airlines have very complicated computer algorithms to determine when and where flights take off from and are destined to land, but let’s take it a step further.  When I check in, I want to be sent an electronic boarding pass with a QR code and a date and time.  I want to know that, at that specific time, I can walk straight onto the airplane.  We’re already getting close with zone boarding, just put everything on a timetable!  You’ll know exactly when you need to be at the airport, and with security automated, you simply walk in, spend 30 seconds being scanned by computer, and then proceed directly to your gate and onto the plane.  And if you miss your flight and rant to the gate agent, let them kick you out – there’s a giant time stamp that told you exactly when you had to be there.  So sorry you failed to comply with the clearly presented information; better luck next time.

3.  A simple request: give us some damn couches in the waiting areas!  When my connecting flight lands at 2 AM and I have three hours to kill until my next connection boards, I want someplace where I can actually stretch out without having several metal armrests enthusiastically attempt to mate with my spine.

4. Solving the food issue seems pretty simple if security can be resolved; with rapid, automated security checkpoints, it shouldn’t be hard to walk out, grab a cheap and delicious burrito from someplace like Chipotle, return in through security again, proceed directly to your flight, and then sit there regretting your choice in meal.  No more taking advantage of the trapped herd of fliers inside security, tiny and unappealing food kiosks!

5. Comfort on the plane itself is a bit trickier.  Sure, we could rip out half the seats on the plane so that we can all enjoy a bit more leg room, but the airlines are already running on pretty razor thin margins, and the more people they can corral onto a plane, the better.  So let’s go the other way; instead of removing seats, let’s improve them!  I’m thinking that we go the modern route, get Aeron in here to make us something beautiful out of nano-engineered mesh, and then make some cheap ripoffs.  These seats are three inches thick and still uncomfortable – shaving off a couple inches would make the seats a bit larger (for the, how shall I say, heftier fliers), add more leg room, and probably also reduce weight, which provides greater savings to the airline!

6. Free wifi on planes.  Seriously, why are we still charging for wifi on an airplane?  Motel 6 and most strip clubs have free wifi, for god’s sake!  (I am strangely proud of getting both god and strip clubs into that last sentence, by the way.)  I’m writing this post on an airplane right now, but I won’t be able to post it until we land, as my pride prevents me from spending six whole dollars for internet access.  I mean, that six dollars could nearly get me a tiny side salad in the airport.

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