Recent air travel news prompted me to ask: Why?  A lot of whys, actually.

Why, oh why would a well-known TV personality and writer of a slew of best sellers who is reputedly worth at least $8.5 million and who is a frequent flyer ever buy a coach ticket?  Yet that’s what Ann Coulter did, a wealthy woman famous for taking no prisoners and being a sharp thinker.  While it’s true that she bought a supposedly upgraded seat in what Delta markets as their premium economy cabin (called Comfort+), it’s STILL coach, and we all know it.  Although you can see the first class cabin from there without squinting.

Why wouldn’t a rich and famous person like her simply buy a first class ticket?  This was just a domestic flight, after all, not a pricy international business class.  The fare difference is a rounding error compared to her annual income, and airfare is a fully deductible expense, assuming she was traveling on business.  I don’t blame her, frankly, for being upset about being moved from the seat she chose, but that brouhaha is a distraction.

The real question remains: What was she doing in coach to begin with?  Had she purchased a first class ticket and then moved to a different first class seat from the one she selected, would it have mattered?  Maybe, but are there really any bad seats in the front cabin?

Who in their right mind would CHOOSE to fly in ANY PART of the coach cabin these days if money was no object?  To my mind, she brought this on herself and deserved the embarrassment of having Delta refund her the paltry thirty dollars—THIRTY DOLLARS!—she paid for the “privilege” to fly in Discomfort+.  Geez!  Much ado about nothing.

As if that wasn’t laughable enough, why, oh why would any airline dignify her craziness with a pompous and hypocritical statement like the one Delta issued:

“We are sorry that the customer did not receive the seat she reserved and paid for. More importantly, we are disappointed that the customer has chosen to publicly attack our employees and other customers by posting derogatory and slanderous comments and photos in social media. Her actions are unnecessary and unacceptable.                   

“Each of our employees is charged with treating each other as well as our customers with dignity and respect. And we hold each other accountable when that does not happen.

“Delta expects mutual civility throughout the entire travel experience.”

Oh, brother, Delta, please spare me the sanctimonious corporate swoon as you unconvincingly feign to have your commercial feelings bruised on account of being entirely undeserving of reproach. As if an airline could shed a tear from the hurt of being disparaged.

Overlong whining in your proclamation as well:  As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, methinks thou protest too much.  While you and your winged ilk self-righteously pretend to treat your customers “with dignity and respect,” too often our utter misery in the sardine can seats your marketing prodigies call comfortable is masked by our fear of being blackballed as a “security risk” if we complain and by our fierce determination to act civil not to you, but to our fellow prisoners crushed with us into your all-too-narrow aluminum tubes.

Why, oh why did our Congress abandon its duty to protect the American consumer and allow the consolidation of U.S. airlines to just three majors (four, if you count Southwest)?  The result?  United Airlines, the worst of the worst, with a reputation lower than whale dung that drifts to the bottom of the ocean, “posted a profit of $818 million in the most recent quarter, ending in June, up 39 percent compared with last year. Sales rose, too, as more customers booked flights with the carrier…” This despite the infamous incident of beating 69 year old Dr. Dao into unconsciousness and then dragging him off a plane three months ago (you can see the video embedded again in this NYT article here).

The other airlines aren’t doing so poorly, either, according to all reports.  With little or no competition in many markets now, fares have skyrocketed. Why? Because with no regulation and no competition, the airlines can charge as much as they like. I just (reluctantly) paid $544 for a round trip coach ticket RDU/MSP in mid-August to take my son to college, leaving early on a Thursday and returning early Sunday morning—not exactly peak travel periods.  It was the least expensive fare I could find on these off-travel days/times in a mundane market, a ticket that used to cost just under $300.

Why, oh why have Americans opted for price over comfort, with no balance, no compromise?  Apparently, no airline seat is too cramped and inhumanly tight side to side and front to back to cause the average American to cry “Uncle!” or to emit even the slightest whimper of protest.  Where are the minimum federally-mandated standards of seat width and pitch?  Indeed, where is the simple outrage?  Anyone who has flown on a Canadair CRJ knows the 2-2 seat configuration should long ago have been banned.  Compare two hours smushed into one of those torture chambers with two hours on an Embraer ERJ in the usual 1-2 configuration.  Close-fitting?  Absolutely.  Agonizing?  Not to me. Yet the CRJs ply the skies daily, sowing torment, and I hear no one complaining.

In the same vein, why, oh why do we succumb to ever-trickier airfare pricing schemes? Joe Brancatelli pointed out in his JoeSentMe column on Bastille Day and the L.A. Times ran a story the same day (see here) about UA considering a new program to buy back tickets from passengers and resell them to people willing to pay more. Delta has had its own version of this hat trick (see the same LAT article).  These programs are currently voluntary, but will they morph into common practice that those who pay the least are never guaranteed a seat until the door closes?  Why not?  Nothing has stopped the airlines from unbounded flimflammery up to now.  Don’t believe me?  Check the current value of your favorite frequent flyer programs.

If all these things are true, then why, oh why do we keep heaping these buckets of misery on ourselves? Perhaps because we used to love to travel, or because we have to fly for any number of reasons.

Or, if you’re like me, because you still do love to travel by air despite the pain and suffering, no matter the death by a thousand cuts, and even while paying through the nose for the wretched travails of contemporary flying. Because going places and meeting new people and seeing how they live, work, and play are among the most exciting and mind-expanding experiences of life.

And also because, in America, there are big tradeoffs in time among the few mobility alternatives to air: Highways are congested and slow, and the voting public hates high speed trains, or even slow ones, so Amtrak service is too Spartan to be taken seriously. Flying becomes the least-worst alternative, which is a sorry state of affairs.

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