- Travel and Places
I Don't Fly Anymore: 3 Reasons to Avoid Air Travel
40 Years of Flying Experience
I used to fly. I used to like it, too. Starting with my first flight as a child in 1962, I've flown in small private airplanes, military prop planes and jets, and commercial aircraft of all types. The only plane I didn't like was the small one flown by the father of a high-school friend when I was 16; he took me up as a treat, and it was fine until he started showing me how he could make the plane stall and then re-start the engine after we had fallen several hundred feet. I hung on for dear life, my eyes closed, unable to scream or beg him to stop because terror had closed my throat.
Military Air Travel
But that one experience aside, I liked flying just fine. I regularly flew between home and college, and then I joined the U.S. Air Force and flew all around the world on military cargo aircraft (usually C-130s or C-141s). They weren't comfortable, but we managed.
Any time I had to fly overseas, say to Okinawa or Athens, I climbed on board well prepared. Military cargo planes are noisy and cold, and my fellow airmen and I were accustomed to pushing those waxy sponge earplugs into our ears. I went one better by investing in a pair of ear protectors used (so the label said) by duck hunters. They were padded and comfortable--I still use them while mowing the lawn. As soon as we were airborne, we rolled out our sleeping bags between the cargo pallets, or sometimes on top of them if they were low, got out our pillows, snacks, flashlights, and books, and settled in for the remainder of the flight. We read, snacked, and slept right through any turbulence. There was the occasional glitch, such as the time my contacts froze solid in their solution and I had to rush to the front of the plane to hold the little case up to the heat vent until they thawed. But we always arrived rested and ready to tackle the mission.
Reason One: Fear
An experience on a DC-10 civilian passenger aircraft introduced me to the first reason not to fly: fear of crashing. The DC-10 is a three-engine, wide-body jet with two turbofan engines under the wings and one at the base of the tail, and I had boarded one at O'Hare on my way to California. As we accelerated down the runway, the plane about half full, I heard a loud bang, then a series of rattling thumps followed by another bang. It sounded like a piece of luggage had fallen out of an overhead, tumbled down the aisle smacking into things, and finally come to rest against something big. Only there hadn't been any luggage falling.
We had left the ground, but we weren't rising or gaining speed, and a loud, buzzing vibration could be heard and felt over the scream of the engines. I had a death grip on my arm rests, and was thinking, "Okay, this is probably all right. This is probably normal." A flight attendant began to speak over the intercom, sounding flustered, and she was immediately overridden by the captain. He had his Chuck Yeager imitation down pat, which means that if a wing has fallen off the plane, the pilot says in a calm, slow drawl, "Well, folks, we lost a wing back there, but don't worry--this old girl flies fine with just one."
The pilot said, "Well, folks, we've had a little problem with one of our engines, but fortunately the DC-10 is a three-engine aircraft that is fully capable of flying with two engines. We're going to land so the maintenance crew can take a look at it, and since we can't land with full gas tanks, we're going to circle over Lake Michigan for about 45 minutes to dump the excess fuel." Fine, I thought, any concerns I'd ever had about the environment evaporating. Dump the fuel--get me back on the ground!
I gradually relaxed since I could tell the aircraft was flying smoothly, and by the time we approached the runway, everyone in the cabin was speculating about what the engine problem was. As we touched down, we could see what appeared to be every emergency vehicle in Chicago racing after us, lights flashing. We taxied to a halt, and an airline pilot who must have been deadheading on the flight began making his way up from the back of the plane. Several passengers began to applaud and cheer, saying, "You saved us! Thank you so much!" The pilot tried to explain that he'd just been riding in the back, but it didn't stop his admirers, who were exuberant to be safely on the ground and kept trying to shake his hand.
I looked out my window at the right engine to see if that was the one that had the problem, but I couldn't see anything wrong. I saw a number of passengers looking out the windows on the left side, so I got up and moved to where I could see the left engine. There was a hole the size of a baseball on the top side facing the windows, just in front of the wing, with the skin of the engine cowling peeled back like an orange, and there was a black scorch mark on the nearest window. I suddenly realized what must have happened: a turbofan blade had broken (that was the first bang I'd heard), ricocheted around inside the cowling for a few seconds (the sound of rattling and thumping), and finally punched through the cowling and caromed off the window (the final bang). As I was taking this in, the aircraft pilot, who apparently couldn't see the engine, came on the intercom and said, "Well, folks, we have some maintenance technicians here, and they're going to check out the engine. With any luck we'll be underway again in about 45 minutes." After a second of silence, we all burst out laughing, saying, "Not on this plane, we're not!"
I continued to fly after that, but my confidence was gone, and soon my fear began to do funny things to my thought process. It became clear to me that there was nothing but air between the plane and the ground, and I no longer believed that things like thrust and wingspan were going to keep the plane aloft. In addition, I became terrified during takeoff: I was sure the plane was going to ascend too steeply and flip over backwards. I knew that was crazy, but I couldn't shake the fear, and spent the ascent leaning as far forward in my seat as I could, trying to balance the plane. I was no longer a happy flier.
Reason Two: Inconvenience
Along with every other passenger in the U.S., I've been subjected since 9/11 to the inconveniences created at airports by the federal government, whose desire to keep us safe is only marginally greater than their desire to protect the feelings of potential terrorists. Repeated inspections of tickets and identification cards, long lines, removing shoes before you step through the metral detectors, getting pulled from the line randomly for extra attention for no discernible reason, watching elderly people in wheetchairs being humiliated--we've accepted that this is the new reality of commercial flying. Gone are the days when passengers were treated like valued customers rather than possible terrorists, when you could arrive a scant hour before your flight and walk up to the gate as passengers were beginning to board. Gone is our privacy, as we open our suitcases after the flight to find polite notes informing us that our belongings were rummaged through by security employees.
What I object to most is that this extremely expensive, intrusive, and time-consuming process is visited on all of us, with complete disregard for whether there is any actual possibility that we could be terrorists. Our government, with its passion for politcal correctness and its fear of offending anyone who could successfully sue for discrimination, declines to do the profiling that would increase the likelihood of spotting potential terrorists and reduce the increasingly onerous security inspections for the rest of us. If Israel, the #1 target of terrorists around the world, believes profiling to be the most effective way to keep terrorists off Israeli airliners, that's good enough for me. Israelis are deadly serious about finding terrorists, and couldn't care less whose feelings they hurt. That's why it's been a long time since any terrorists have managed to board an Israeli airliner.
Reason Three: It's Just Not Fun Anymore
My third reason for deciding not to fly is that it's not fun anymore. There's nothing to like about it. The security process, the tiny seats and narrow aisles, the stuffy cabin air, the occasional screaming baby, the delayed takeoffs and arrivals, the constantly increasing baggage fees, the difficulty of consuming (never mind enjoying) your beverage and 1/2-ounce package of some salty, nut-free mix without bumping your neighbor or encountering turbulence--what's to like?
For me, the tipping point came when I was pulled from the line last Christmas in front of my young niece and nephew, directed into a clear, plexiglass booth, and then subjected to a "pat down" in front of hundreds of strangers. This, I have since deduced, was done because as a modest, middle-aged woman I don't wear tight clothing and could have been hiding tiny weapons or explosives underneath my dress. As I felt the female TSA agent run her vinyl-gloved hands up my thighs and--sure enough--between them, I suddenly thought, "You know, I've just about had it with this."
May the Road Rise Up to Meet Me
I have since given up the alleged joys of flying, and I find that the longer time it takes to drive is more than compensated for by my ability to take anything I want, avoid embarrassing and intrusive security procedures, and control my environment and schedule. It won't work for everyone, I realize, but it works for me.
And I feel completely confident that no matter how steep the ascent, my car will never flip over backwards.