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Flying American

« September 2014 »

Memo to air travel: YOU ARE AMERICA.

And we're back, resuming normal service after leaving town for a week. And since I flew commercial air for the first time in a startlingly long time, I'm chock full of allegories. Because really, if you want to see a scale model of everything that's wrong with America, just get on a plane. Or, rather, start to, because the parallels begin way before you actually get in the air.

Apologies in advance, by the way, if people make these observations all the time when I'm not paying attention.


America's authoritarian streak really stands out in air travel. I mean, obviously, there's TSA security theater. Backscatter machines were new to me this trip, and really, does it get any more Orwellian than standing meekly, hands raised above your head, while a prop from a basic-cable Total Recall remake rotates around you and shows a bunch of security guards the general outline of your genitals?

But every step of the way, even outside the security gauntlet where you have to remove arbitrary bits of clothing, remove arbitrary bits from your bag, and ensure that your bottles contain less than arbitrary amounts of arbitrary substances (unless you arbitrarily get randomly picked for "pre-check", which means you don't have to, which really brings into sharp relief the necessity of doing it at all for anyone), air travel sucks all control and agency from your person. You are, even more so than usual, at the whim of people with power over you, and that power is wielded capriciously and nonsensically most of the time.


Obviously, there's first class and business class and coach. But there are even more strata than that once boarding comes along. I counted at least four different "memberships" one could belong to in order to board in one of three groups before the hoi polloi, and that's not counting the option you have when you check in, on the airline I was on, to drop $31 bucks extra to get to your seat (and the deliberately scarce overhead compartment space) a bit before everyone else.

I mean, this is America, where money confers privilege, but in air travel, you can sit there, and with your own two eyes, watch half-a-dozen economic strata above you receive advantages and weird deference that you don't warrant.

Four times I heard whoever was in charge of the takeoff intercom extend a "special welcome" to certain credit card holders. And yes, it was the beginning of a shill to get people to sign up for the card, but just ponder the, for lack of a better term, metagame of the whole thing. It's over the PA, so everyone can hear it. Everyone can hear some people getting a special welcome. If you're not getting the special welcome, well, you could. Then you could be on the other side of the invisible line you didn't even know existed thirty seconds ago.


You'd think it'd be fairly easy to make a profit providing the only real convenient source of high-speed cross-country and/or intercontinental travel, but apparently that is not the case, because even after charging you for bringing stuff with you, eking out a few extra thousand dollars per flight by taking away every last possible inch between your knees and some other unlucky soul's ass, and, of course, five-dollar bags of chips, the profits are somehow still elusive. And so more money must be extracted. It's like they're hydraulically fracking your wallet.

Maybe I'm predisposed to see such things, but it's kind of creepy the way the whole experience reinforced these two core aspects of modern American life. Not to mention the fact that millions of people every year go through airports and get on planes and get those messages reinforced. I'm not saying it's a conspiracy. I'm in no danger of imploring the "sheeple" to "wake up". But some systems are self-perpetuating.

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