The TSA Firestorm: Pat-Downs and Full Body Scanners
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The past year in travel reads like a dystopian comic novel -- drunk pissant flight attendants jumping ship, the TSA unapologetically irradiating and/or groping American citizens, an actor who was too fat to fly, proposed onboard pay toilets and stand-up seating, even dogs biting plane passengers and continent-wide volcanic ash clouds. And an index of this year's Travel News of the Odd would not even account for fees upon fees upon fees, or Spirit Airlines' continued boorish PR antics (not to mention fees for carry-ons).
It is simply too easy to say what a strange year it was (it was already strange in February). Instead, we'll attempt to find the silver lining in all of this; here is my look at the bright side of flights (and more) in 2010. It will come as no surprise that it is not a long list, but I'll take it.
1. Airline fares are more stable than ever.
I fully admit that I have reaped the benefits of low airfares over the years -- I might not even be a travel writer had I not logged so many trips on very cheap flights back in the day -- but the downside of erratic airfare pricing really stung a lot of fliers during those same long years.
It was not like the airlines were trying to do right by travelers with extremely low fares; in most cases the fares were classic predatory pricing, designed to put a competitor out of business -- and the airlines made up the difference by jacking up fares when a competitor abandoned a route, on other routes where there was no competition, near holidays when they had you by the belt or in even worse situations (as with the elimination of bereavement fares).
I have repeatedly called for more sensible pricing system, even if it meant that fares were a little higher, and I predicted that the airlines would do better financially, as most people are willing to pay a fair price in a fair system. Through a process of adjusting their "capacity," the airlines more or less established a pricier but in my experience more predictable system this past year, and guess what -- it is harder to find rock-bottom fares, it is true, but more people are flying, and most of the airlines are in the black (due in no small part to the new and outrageous fee schedules, but still).
You still run into absurd pricing anomalies and predatory behavior, no question. For example, four times this fall we opted to save $700 by flying Philadelphia-Newark-San Diego ($280) as opposed to the $981 direct Newark-San Diego flight on Continental. And of course there are the current insane holiday fares, which are the highest I have ever seen. But for the most part the system is more reliable and stable. Go figure, win-win actually works.
2. Pilots finally joined passengers to say "enough."
The experience of U.S. (and world) citizens passing through our domestic airport security system was neither efficient nor respectful in 2010. Let's be honest, sometimes (not always) it felt like you were being ordered around and groped by rent-a-cops fired from the Kmart security staff. Passengers and travel pundits alike pushed back against these sloppy and reportedly ineffective procedures, which seemed based on the idea that making things inconvenient and uncomfortable makes us safe -- or based on nothing at all except wholly improvised reactions to the latest breech of the system. While agents were triple-checking my kid's Skechers light-up sneakers for bomb-making residue, people with guns and knives and even known terrorists were actually boarding planes.
It wasn't until pilots had had enough that our voices were heard; we already covered the topic extensively, and I won't go into the details here, as this story earned first-slot status on the national news for over a week when it happened.
But it does seem like the TSA is getting the message (despite quietly turning off most scanning machines on the day before Thanksgiving -- so much for security over style -- and recasting National Opt-Out Day as TSA Appreciation Day after the fact -- what a stooge maneuver). Our family took multiple flights in December, and saw evidence of a chastened and improved TSA. Let's hope it lasts longer than the memory of the misery of November.
In classic American fashion, entrepreneurs with a sense of humor also made the best of the situation.
3. The JetBlue flight attendant dude was actually prosecuted.
Although he became a temporary folk hero, I doubt many frequent fliers took Steven Slater's side (save for flight attendants, perhaps). Escalating a petulant temper tantrum into a news-grabbing federal offense just because some old lady bumps you isn't heroism -- it is selfish idiocy. If you don't agree, at least admit that if a passenger had done the same thing, he would almost certainly have been tasered and thrown in the airport clink. It's not heroism to lose your head and burden everyone else on the plane, as well as everyone at the destination airport waiting for that plane so they can take the next flight. I can tell you anyone flying that route on JetBlue that day is no Slater fan.
It's too bad that the flight-attendant-biting dog wasn't flying JetBlue that day -- talk about the making of a folk hero.
4. Tarmac delays go way down, a victory for sensible regulation.
Much like the pilot faceoff with the TSA, I don't have to explain the whole tarmac delay issue save for the short version: the DOT announced extremely aggressive fines for tarmac delays of longer than three hours, and also set rules for reasonable passenger comfort, such as letting passengers off planes after two hours, and providing sufficient basic amenities such as water and operable toilets.
The airlines argued against the measures, blaming everyone else (air traffic control, the TSA, airport ground crews, etc.) for the problems and claiming that they would just be forced to cancel more flights to avoid the fines. The policy went forward anyway, and it worked -- tarmac delays dropped off instantly (in June of 2010 there were only three major delays, compared to 268 in June 2009), while cancellations stayed the same or even decreased.
Why couldn't the airlines do the same thing without the threat of a fine of $27,000 per stranded passenger? Simply because it was easier not to do so -- proving that without regulation, the airlines are not willing even to provide for basic human necessities like a toilet, let alone extend basic human courtesies.
Score one (this time at least) for the DOT. It's hard not to ask for additional sensible regulation of airports and air space, which belong to the American people, after all. We're paying the fares, we're paying for the security, we're paying for everything; somebody has to look out for us.
5. Mobile apps are making traveling easier, better and more fun.
2010 was the year when travel apps came of age, making the leap from kludgy to slick, from having potential to becoming essential. Last December, the idea that one year later I would attempt to do a roundup of 10 essential travel apps and end up reviewing more than 20 that I actually use would have surprised even me, as I am not really one to have his face buried in his smartphone all the time while traveling.
Not all of the apps I reviewed will stand the test of time -- for example, the taxi apps have failed me a couple of times since the articles posted -- and certainly better apps will come along. But apps have helped me salvage flight itineraries while standing at the gate counter, eased difficult connections by mapping the airport, directed me to great local restaurants, saved me heaps of money, kept me from sleeping in bed bug-infested hotels, and found playgrounds where my boy could blow off steam built up in the car. These apps aren't toys or games -- they're doing real work for me on the road.
That's about the best I can do for 2010, which sure was weird, and far from all good -- but not all bad, either (including an award for this column!). Thank you for reading all year -- I really appreciate it. Here's to 2011, whatever it may bring!
The Independent Traveler