The Friendly Skies

June 18, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

About ten years ago, I arrived at a plan whereby I intended to attend three film festivals per year. My annual vacation allotment of 22 days allowed this, and there were no financial impediments. There was only one year when I achieved the goal: 1999. In January of that year, I was in Park City for my second consecutive Sundance. In April, I was in Champaign/Urbana for the first Ebertfest. And in September, I was at my third Toronto International Film Festival. By 2002, I was down to one annual festival, and I have remained there since.

As much as I complain about the Sundance's poor hype-to-substance ratio, the core reason I stopped going has less to do with the festival and more do with the pain of getting there. If Sundance was being held within a 500-mile radius of where I live, I'd probably be attending every January. I'll travel short distances for a mediocre film festival but not three-quarters of the way across the continent. Once the mechanisms of getting to a place and returning from it dwarf the event, there's a problem.

I HATE flying. I don't fear it; I despise it. Over the years, I have had a lot of experience sitting in airplanes (occasionally with a fat guy next to me, overflowing his seat and taking up half of mine - but that's another issue). In 1995-96, I logged over 100,000 miles. (It was nice to have that United 100,000 mile card and the perks that accompanied it.) My courtship with my wife was conducted long distance, with her in Chicago and me in New Jersey and us shuttling back and forth for weekends about every three weeks. I have never felt the least bit of apprehension about being 30,000 feet above the earth, so my dislike of air travel has nothing to do with safety concerns. (Although there have been times when my sinuses reacted poorly to pressure changes and it felt like my face was melting on descent.)

While flying was never fun, it was at least endurable. Over a span between early 1995 and early 1996, I commuted from New Jersey to Chicago on a weekly basis, flying out of Newark International Airport every Tuesday morning at 6:30 am and returning via O'Hare to Newark every Friday afternoon. The door-to-door trip time was about four hours, give or take. Of that, little was spent in airports. Those were the days when there were no lines at the metal detectors, when one did not have to disrobe in order to pass through security, and when it was possible to arrive at a gate 15 minutes before departure and not be considered late. (In fact, no self-respecting power traveler ever got there more than 15 minutes ahead. To do so was a breach of unwritten etiquette.) Rental car return, bus to airport, the moving walkway is ending, aisle seat, on the ground, in the air, back on the ground - it was like clockwork. Lateness was the exception, not the rule. Leave home at 5:15 Tuesday morning, arrive back at 7 pm Friday. Nostalgia almost makes those days seem fun, although I know they weren't. (Note: many of the 1995 reviews on this site were written either on an airplane or in a hotel room.)

Air travel started changing in the late '90s. Empty seats became an endangered species. More flights were delayed. Getting to gates less than 30 minutes before departure was frowned upon. Flight attendants were increasingly less friendly; some were overtly hostile. Then came 9/11, and airports started to resemble armed camps. There were long lines and short tempers. This is when my tolerance for air travel began to erode. Last year, I gave up flying to Toronto and started driving. 8 hours in a car is better than five hours in taxis, airports, and airplanes. The stress level is lower, and there's no need to worry what happens when your flight is canceled.

I haven't been on planes often since my 2004 marriage: Toronto in '04, '05, and '06; Bermuda for a honeymoon; and a trip to Manila in 2005. Yet, since I last flew in September 2006, things have grown worse. The nickel-and-diming is in full force. "Service" means not being glared at by an overworked flight attendant. Plane fares are on a runaway upward escalator. Those "cheap" $129 tickets actually have $350 price tags - the quoted number assumes one-way of a round-trip ticket and doesn't take into account all of the taxes and surcharges. When I flew to Chicago in 1995, the total round-trip price was about $200. Today, it's $500. Next year, it will be more than $1000. I have to wonder whether there will be a smaller media contingent in Toronto this year.

In the end, the decline of the airplane experience is more about service than price. I have always been willing to pay more to be treated fairly and to interact with people who are friendly and helpful. When was the last time those words could be used to describe anyone working in an airport or for an airline? Then there are the other passengers, who can often charitably be categorized as "surly." A me-first sense of entitlement reigns. (This sounds like a commentary about movie theaters.) One has to have a wellspring of patience to endure the experience calmly, and canonization is recommended for those who go through hours of this unpleasantness and retain a smile. Whether such negative employee attitudes are warranted is debatable - they endure a lot of verbal abuse but it is still a "service profession." But everything combines to degrade the air travel experience to the point where a root canal is preferable.

When I was young and my family went to Florida for a week, I thought of the plane ride as part of the vacation. Today, it's the biggest impediment to enjoying time off. Even once the trip to the destination has been endured, there's still the return journey looming like a storm cloud on the horizon. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed my time in Toronto more last year than in previous years is because there were no airports, baggage checks, or endless waits taxiing to the runways. It's a nice thing to be able to drive past an airport and give it the finger.