Monday, February 10, 2014

A Grim Fairy Tale

[Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published February 13, 2014] © 2014 

I was recently reading a fairy tale to my tiny grandchildren:

Once upon a time, sweeties, in a land closer than you think, there lived magic flying machines called commercial airplanes who made it their business to take the people from one end of the kingdom to the other so they could see new places, or visit their family, or do work.  The commercial airline people loved their jobs, and wanted to make all the people who flew with them happy. 

If your airplane left late, the airline people felt so bad about it that they insisted on serving free champagne for the entire flight.  If your flight was late or cancelled, you could run over to a different company of airline people and they were deliriously happy to take your ticket.  No change fees, no hassle, and plenty of seats.   In fact, you could often have an empty seat next to you.  Yes, darlings, really. 

But then a great big ogre called deregulation lumbered into the land.  At first the kingdom’s inhabitants didn’t realize it was an ogre because it was wearing sheep’s clothing.  OK, maybe grandma is mixing metaphors here.   But the ogre was offering sheep, er, cheap seats.  Who could argue with that?  The kingdom dwellers thought it would be just the same as before, only cheaper.  They totally forgot the old adage, there is no free lunch.  They couldn’t have fathomed how literally true that would be. 

When prices were set before the big ogre came, the way the airline people could compete was by providing service, like fluffy pillows, full meals, and actually being really nice to the passengers.  But now that the prices were not set, the airline people competed only by fares.  When fuel costs went up, the airline people flew fewer and fewer flights with teenier and teenier seats and less and less legroom.  The 6’3” business flier kingdom dwellers, like your grandpa Olof, suddenly found themselves sitting with their knees around their necks.  No, you’re absolutely right; it isn’t very comfy.  The kingdom dwellers were astonished to find that those fluffy pillows were now inflatables and cost $8, a “sandwich” consisting of two thick slices of stale bread and a thin sliver of turkey cost $10, and the airline people, who used to be so nice, had been replaced by graduates of the Evil Troll Travel School. They thought nothing of leaving the kingdom dwellers sitting on the tarmac for nine hours without food, water, or working bathrooms.  This became known as the Prisoner of War Model of airline travel.

Even though there were far fewer airplanes flying, the airline people began cancelling lots of flights, often citing “weather.”  Global warming aside, there suddenly appeared to be a lot more weather than there used to be.  Your grandpa Olof got Marriott Gold status on Houston alone.  But ever since the ogre arrived, all the airplanes were full so that if your airplane got cancelled due to “weather,” or its imaginary twin, “mechanical problems,” there were no seats for three days unless you camped at the airline gate with your bags and did something called “standby.”  And good luck with that.

Of course, it would make sense to go non-stop so you wouldn’t have to spend three days in Houston but the airline people also implemented the “hub and spoke” model not coincidentally styled after a torture device popular in the Middle Ages.  

But the airline people did do one nice thing:  they prohibited smoking on airplanes, replacing it with the constant ping of iPad games.  Sort of like water dripping from a faucet except you can’t put a bucket under it.  And even worse, the evil troll airline people, feeling that they were not punishing  the kingdom dwellers enough, are considering allowing cell phone use on airplanes.  Even the sky marshall folks will not be able to keep up with the on-board homicides if they do, as kingdom dwellers, forced to listen to bored passengers’ banal droning for six straight hours, will finally snap and beat them to death with a tray table that was not in its full upright and locked position.  The TSA people will respond by removing tray tables from airplanes on the grounds that they could be used for terrorist purposes. 

The experience has become so miserable - and ironically, not all that cheap - that lots of kingdom dwellers don’t fly anymore except under something called duress.  Some of them are kingdom dwellers who remember when the airplane trip – yes, in coach! - was part of the fun of getting there, and where their now-mandatorially unlocked baggage wasn’t free shopping for baggage handlers, peanuts weren’t considered a meal, and water wasn’t a deadly weapon.  I know, sweeties, it’s hard to imagine.

My little granddaughter shuddered.  “Didn’t mommy tell you not to read us scary stories right before bed?”

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