Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Nothing but blue skies

Looking back, we can date the end of civilization in the skies to the first ban on smoking in airplanes. I don't smoke, never have, don't like being around people who do; but I have read the reports that say it's easier to give up crack than the nicotine-enhanced 21st-century cigarette. On the whole, tobacco addicts have been remarkably good-natured about this prohibition, slapping on skin patches and chomping through whole packs of nicotine gum until they can get off the plane and out of the airport (where smoking also tends to be forbidden). I hope they know how grateful I am.

Then the airlines, citing cost, stopped serving food to most people on most flights. They would sell you beverages, of course, especially alcohol, which goes down so well on an empty stomach. They continued to distribute free peanuts, for the same reason your neighborhood bar puts out pretzels and spicy chicken wings -- to create thirst. Four generations of mediocre comedians had built careers on jokes about airline food, but when it was gone, we missed it. We ate their peanuts and ordered drink after drink. Surprisingly, only one person was ever arrested for defecating on a serving cart. Things got so dangerous up there that flying meshugas was made a federal crime in the United States.

Last week the airwaves resounded with chatter about the terrible plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights with explosives disguised as carry-on items. It turned out, of course, that there was both more and less here than first appeared. (Is it true that most of the "bombers" didn't even have passports, much less airline tickets? Did the British police really have a good bead on them for nearly a year? Did they want to wait another week to draw in more plotters, but were overruled by Karl Rove and his panicking party? Hey, isn't this a reworking of an idea somebody had about flights over the Pacific, oh, ten years ago? What, is al Qaeda on summer reruns like "CSI"?) No matter. The alert level went to shit-your-pants, the airports slammed shut, and passengers on both sides of the Atlantic were treated as if they were trying to sneak onto planes without paying. Although only one would-be terrorist, the hapless Richard Reid, has ever tried the exploding shoe trick, everyone must now approach the gates in sock feet as if entering a mosque (nice touch). Everything metallic goes in the basket, and if you contain a surgical pin or a piece of shrapnel, talk fast and try to look innocent. No cell phones. (Thank you!) No electronic toys or devices. No...toothpaste?

When I heard about the cosmetic crackdown, my first thought was "So?" How much of that junk in your purse or backpack really has to be with you? Lipstick and rouge? Everybody looks like death after a long flight, you won't stand out. Sunscreen? Probably don't need it, even if you have a window seat. Mousse and gel? Deal with your dry hair before going to the airport. Nail polish and remover? Stinks up the cabin. Perfume and cologne? Other people's always makes me cough.

But there was more: an absolute ban on medicines and beverages, too. The Authorities later relented and allowed infant formula and small quantities of prescription drugs, but the door had been opened to the de-humanization of travelers, with their evident cooperation. Not even books could be carried on. Books! Paper and ink and imagination. Words, words, words. Are they the real culprits, words and the ideas they unleash? Some Islamists want to burn books, believing they need only the Koran, but I have never heard of making them into bombs. And in the more immediate case, what about the little boy who has just had to give up his book? He was going to spend five hours absorbed in "Harry Potter and the Thing With Lumps On." Now, he will spend them kicking the back of your seat, as you sit there with no laptop, no iPod, not even a book to distract you from your thirst.

As much as anything, we define ourselves by the way we travel. Why else would otherwise sane people continue to buy inefficient SUVs as gas tops three dollars a gallon? Travelers have always paid premium prices for luxury, if only to prove that they can; while entering a cattlecar or a packing container carries the implication that one is less than human. There are classes on airplanes, but everyone breathes the same air and runs the same risks. More first-class men survived the Titanic than steerage women, but when TWA 800 exploded, everyone was equal. Flight was the last great egalitarian experiment, and now it seems we are to be degraded equally, marched under guard through huge fluorescent shopping malls into the grim future. ("Well, if it makes us safer....") And as Baroness Thatcher might say, There Is No Alternative. What are you going to do, row to Europe?

The great Bob Newhart used to perform a monologue about a cut-price carrier called the Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company. The pilot had a slight drinking problem, the crew wasn't entirely sure how to find Hawaii, but the real money-saver was an absence of seats. Passengers held onto straps as if riding the subway. ("You folks flying tourist, you don't have any straps...so don't bother looking for them.") In the 1960s, this was funny. Not so much a couple of months ago, when the New York Times ran a front-page story about a proposal to cram still more passengers onto planes by having them stand, strapped to backboards. This story proved to be inoperative, as Ron Ziegler used to say, but I'm still not convinced it will never happen.

Postscript: From our "Who Needs Terrorists?" file: It seems that Dell laptops like the one I'm typing on are bursting into flames from poorly designed batteries. Time to log off.


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