The Breakfast Table

Flying Out of Control

Some people rage against government taxes, others resent the old people who are sucking dry our Social Security safety net even as they crankily vote down local school budgets. Not me. I lie awake and worry about the national tragedy that is the airline industry. I hate them all: the lackadaisical baggage handlers who “accidentally” sent our luggage to a remote cargo area at JFK last week, the surly steward(esse)s, the brazen caterers whose spongy chicken in brown goo so shamelessly denigrates the memory of food. But most of all, I obsess over the people whose duty it is to de-ice wings, coax the cargo hold not to explode, and fix any smoking engines before takeoff. So of course you are right; “simple” mechanical failure is scarier than terrorism because it connotes a level of indifference that is no less evil than overt terrorism but far more insidious. And even worse, it epitomizes the attitude of most airline employees toward their customers. The passengers. Those people who are paying hundreds of dollars or more–my ticket to Asia last month topped $1,000–for the privilege of being herded like cattle onto a death trap over which no one seems to have much control. Stop citing those statistics that show air travel is safer than automobiles. The big difference is that auto accidents are survivable. That’s because auto accidents are, to some extent, controllable by the travelers. The driver who hears a car engine making a bad whompety noise has a choice: Pull off the highway or gut it out. The airplane passenger who, like me, hears a nasty whirrrrrsh on takeoff and feels the seat shimmy as if powered by Magic Fingers has no such choice. I must sit. And hope that the pilot is better at his job than the baggage handlers are at theirs.

Despite the cultural leap that being an airplane passenger requires–as an American, I have, after all, spent nearly four decades constructing an elaborate illusion of how I control my life–I continue to fly. So far the gamble has paid off. I’m alive. You’re alive. Our children still have parents, partly because we chose Asia, not Egypt, as a destination. We even have our luggage. This time.