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“listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go” May 11, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I was once again reminded of this line from an e. e. cummings poem, rather rudely, when I read that the United States was considering a laptop ban on flights from and to Europe. Having just returned from Europe last night (Stockholm), lugging not one but two laptops, I suddenly found myself thrust into an alien alternative universe that I didn’t understand.

While we are by no means perfect, the citizens of the United States have certainly enjoyed one of the highest levels of personal freedom in the history of the world. And yet I wonder.  Could it be that we really don’t want that freedom?

I was in Zurich several years ago, watching teenage boys dive off of a major street bridge into Lake Zurich. This would never be allowed to happen in the U.S.  I told my sponsor, a thoughtful and worldly person, and he replied, “I think we in Europe take more personal responsibility for our actions.  The state doesn’t protect us from ourselves.”

And I was in Stockholm this week, looking out my hotel window at the Hammarby ski slope Monday night. Shortly before 6 PM, the slope was full of runners, in groups, at its height, I estimate at least 75 people in four groups, plus individuals.  They were running up the ski slope, running down, running in circles halfway up.  I invested five minutes to walk over and talk to a few of them.  There were various groups, older, young, male, female, training for various purposes.

I am a runner, but I walked up to the top of the mountain, and walked down. These people are in such incredible physical condition.  Collectively, they looked like the bad guys (and women) in a Matt Damon movie.  No ski slope in the U.S. would allow people to come in and do this kind of unsupervised physical activity; there would be a lawsuit a week because of injury.

There are certainly significant tradeoffs in safety and freedom. When I read that we will allow laptops in checked luggage, but not in the cabin, I think we have swung too far.

And worse, any safety in this action is false safety. There can be no discernably less risk from this action.  What it does is reinforce our fears, and reinforce our isolation from others around the world.

For the most part, people are people, worldwide, with similar desires, needs, and motivations as us. We can work together to overcome physical threats.  And we should do so.

Yes, this too shall pass, in time. But it is unfortunate that we have to go through a stage of irrational and unreasonable personal fear to get there.

About Airlines and Air Travel July 15, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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As we discuss the world’s best airlines, my blood can’t help but boil. In my formative years (1970-1980s, I suppose), US airlines offered meals, generally polite behavior, and reasonable service. Except when they didn’t; I was certainly delayed often in my early days. I came of age in the 1980s, at the cusp of deregulation.

Guess what airlines also offered in the golden age? High prices and exclusionary practices. The average person in my early life didn’t fly. They either drove, or didn’t go at all. Flying was the provenance of the moderately (or better) wealthy, or the business traveler, and the rest of us made do.

I suppose there were two events that opened up air travel. First, of course, was deregulation, circa the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. The US generally stopped regulating who could start an airline, and when and where they could fly to. At the stroke of a pen (from Jimmy Carter, incidentally), air travel became something any American could do, and several times a year if they desired.  The other was People’s Express airlines, a short-lived experiment at opening up air travel at a low price.

The problem, of course, is that we believed (and oddly still believe) that we deserved Cadillac service on a Chevy budget. Today, flying is cheaper in absolute dollars than it was in the 1970s and 1960s, and grossly cheaper in inflation dollars. My business flight that cost $1000 30 years ago likely cost $500 today, and we still bitch of the price.

About prices. You used to have to pay a great deal to fly. That’s where you got the service. Today, we spend a couple hundred bucks to fly coast to coast, and complain that we aren’t treated like royalty. Sorry, flights are short, relative to what we do at our destination, and I am happy to trade a low fare for getting to a different location quickly. I’ve looked at train travel, and for price, time, and convenience, it doesn’t at all compare. Face it, even in the Northeast Corridor, where we have the most trains, train travel is an incredible time sink, even if I can get to the train station.

About people. I remember when we put on suits and ties to fly. We were out in public, after all, and cared about how we looked. Today we get all manner of dress, with the trend toward being down-market. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing (it’s good to be comfortably while flying), but it does speak to the change in demographic and attitude brought about by the change in regulation and frequency.

Of course, sometimes it is much more, often for the same seat, depending on when and how we book. Should all seats be the same price, no matter what? The egalitarian nature in us says yes, but the airline wants to fill all of the seats, all of the time. Is that such a bad thing?

I am not opining that today is better, worse, or indifferent. However, I am very much saying that we have a privilege today that we wouldn’t have had 30 years ago. I would not be a frequent traveler in the 1960s. That privilege has been made more difficult than it perhaps should be, based on the events of 9-11 and others, but it is still very much accessible to all of us.

Those who complain about the cost or service on flying today are simply small-minded (and I don’t say that lightly). We are very much getting what we are paying for. We could pay more for better, except that most of us will instead select a lower cost alternative. And please don’t tell me that Southwest or other airline provides better for less; I’ve priced them, I’ve flown them, and they don’t.

And as we compare US carriers with foreign airlines, let me say simply that others are subsidized, or are monopolies, or have not yet discovered the economic realities of mass air travel. Or don’t practice mass air travel for their populations.

That, I think, is the part that we miss as we pine for an earlier era. In that era, the vast majority of us simply would not have flown. To complain of declining service air today is, well, idiocy, sorry.