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What Sets Us Apart is What Sets Us Off

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People like Kate Hanni fascinate me. I'm envious of their organizational skills, as well as their willingness to do what most of us merely gripe about. Del Wilber, a Washington Post staff writer kicks off his piece about Kate’s activism with this lead-in;
Just a few months ago, Kate Hanni wasn't thinking much about the woes of air travelers.

The Northern California mother of two was a popular real estate agent, living in a 3,200-square foot home on a golf course, singing in a Motown band and driving a Lotus race car.

Well, there you go—the American dream, the kind that goes with a natural tan and a disposition attuned to the good life, however we individually define it. There’s even a hint of disconnect about Kate’s life behind the wheel of her Lotus, a sort of bad things happen to other people and 'I wonder if this white Zinfandel will go with the crab salad.' You can see I’m reaching—Kate probably wouldn’t be caught dead serving a white Zin.

But after being stranded for nine hours on an American Airlines flight at an airport in Austin in December, she has emerged as the public face of passenger discontent with poor airline service. Angry at her treatment by the airline, she founded an advocacy group for air travelers that has been seeking stiffer regulations of the industry.

One of the great attributes that sets Americans apart from most of their world kin is what sets them off. Kate got pissed on an Austin, Texas runway and in no time had 18,000 signatures on a petition holding Congress’s feet to the fire to pass a bill of rights for passengers. She wants regulation and by god, she wants it now, before another passenger sits another hour (or ten) on some dumb runway without so much as a Perrier or an apology.

But regulation isn’t going to do it, Kate. And certainly this confused, disorganized, stressed out, absurd Congress isn’t going to act—not with 18,000 signatures on your petition and $180,000 in airline lobbyist coffers. You’re not even close.

In this accelerated society of ours it’s taken a mere fifty years for air travel to become the worst possible way to get from point A to point B. Who’d have thought that air travel could actually sink below Greyhound in the wonderful world of public transport. How would you sell this good-news, bad-news scenario to the traveling public?

The good news: We’re going to get you from Chicago to New York in two hours (flight time).

The bad news: It takes two hours to get from downtown Chicago out to O’Hare Airport (and actually on the plane) when you figure in possible traffic problems, the exigencies of security checks and boarding passes, not to mention a possible delay on the runway. And the shoes. There's the ritual taking-off-of-the-shoes ceremony, a reversion to tribal society.

How long a delay? Hmmm, anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours. Plus, the plane might not be there to board. If it has problems in Tampa or Dallas (its two connecting legs) it could be delayed or even canceled. How long? Who knows? Certainly not the lone (and frazzled) agent at the check-in desk.

Once you’re actually at Kennedy in New York, there’s the whole taxi thing, the traffic thing, the weather thing and you’ll be lucky to be slumped in your hotel check-in line within a couple of hours. Actual time elapsed from downtown Chicago to midtown Manhattan for that two hour flight; six hours at best, seven on average, ten if stuff happens.
All of this Orwellian drama will cost you $203 or $374 or $951, unless it costs $1,331 (business class). But keep in mind the fundamental truth that, whatever you pay, time expended is democratically spread across all classes. The very last seat gets there just a millisecond behind those deliciously comfortable recliners in First Class.
The bill (Hanni’s Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights), if passed, would require airliners to return to the gate after a tarmac delay of more than three hours. It would also require airlines to provide food and water for stranded passengers, and to more frequently update customers with information on the delay.

Although members of Congress, staff members and lobbyists have said they do not expect the bill to pass because it would put onerous costs on the industry, some of Hanni's concepts have found their way into other legislation. The House funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, for example, would require carriers to establish plans to care for passengers during lengthy tarmac delays and would also require the Transportation Department to keep better track of such delays.

Terrific. Can't have any of those onerous costs, unless they are the cost of a missed meeting, a failed contract or a dying mother who's dead before you arrive two days late. But then, those costs are borne by taxpayers and not airlines.

The delays aren’t going to get any better, we’re just going to require the feds to keep better records of them and feed and water us like all cattle in transit deserve. Well, that’s a nice enough effort, but it doesn’t do much for the problem at hand and the problem yet to come—Dicken’s Ghost of Airline Misery Past and the Ghost of Airline Misery Yet to Come.

Meanwhile, all those Interstate Highway medians are just having their weeds mowed instead of hosting bullet trains between the American cities salted and peppered along their 47,000 idle miles. Forty-seven thousand miles of grade-crossing free access, threading enticingly from one downtown to another. Cities within which the great modern architects of today might design and build the great transportation centers of tomorrow.

Where are you, Michael Graves?

It’ll never happen you say. It may not happen in a logical and planned sort of way, because we are not a logical and planning sort of nation until our lack of planning comes down around our ears and changes are forced. Then we move, usually at great cost.

Disdaining the backwardness of Europe, we are deprived of their elegant and efficient metro and tram systems. Contemptuous of Japan (and even France), we will never submit to the pleasures of bullet trains that run on schedules by which one can set his watch.

But all that disdain and contempt might be swept under the rug of nine-hour runway delays and cancelled flights if we merely pushed the right buttons.
Those buttons are where they have always been, within the board-rooms of industry and the greed of hedge funds.
The comfort and style of the old San Francisco Chief, wedded to 200+ mph speed and the luxuries of space to walk around, a window that actually looks out at something and a dining-car instead of a pull-down tray.

All such things are possible. Let me whisper in your ear.

The forces that oppose must be aligned by the profit-motive to approve—nay, to demand such systems be built and built without delay—not a moment must be lost.
  • Engineering firms will engineer, the great celebrity architects will stop chasing museums and actually draw plans for something useful, developers will forget all about the sub-prime disaster and begin once more to take each other to lunch.
  • GM, Ford and Chrysler, on their knees at present, will be the builders and maintainers of engines (mag-lev rather than diesel), bar-cars, Pullman sleepers, coaches and dining-cars.
  • U.S. Steel (does it still exist?) and whatever other purveyors of rails, wire, grid systems and technical doo-dads will be eager to supply.
  • The venerable Road Builders of America will salivate to grade and grind-up and haul off and smooth over whatever needs to be hauled off and smoothed over.
  • The Chase Manhattans, JPMorgans, Goldman Sachs types and whatever other investment banks can get their oar in the water, will row this baby into leverage-land.
  • Last—and very far from least—the airlines themselves will be miraculously restructured as transportation companies, bidding their little villainous hearts out for the rights to the Chicago-New York City route or Seattle-San Diego.
Thus will these hinderers of useful mass transit descend upon Washington in a united front of patriotic spirit and demand the Congress act in the interests of the nation (and themselves).

Think about it the next time you’re looking at the same old tired pulp-fiction carousel between delayed flights. 
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Jim Freeman's op-ed pieces and commentaries have appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, International Herald-Tribune, CNN, The New York Review, The Jon Stewart Daily Show and a number of magazines. His thirteen published books are (more...)
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