Why flying today is more like riding the L

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Things have changed since a plane passenger could count on getting even a full can of soda, and for good reason, writes Cindy Richards. Post-Tribune Photo by Jeffrey D. Nicholls

Another day and yet another story about some ridiculous disruption onboard an airplane.

The latest: two passengers coming to blows on a Southwest flight. The incident pales in comparison to the specter of a paying customer being dragged off a plane by law enforcement officers. Or a flight attendant bringing a young mother to tears.


But, really, the story behind those stories doesn’t matter. It’s all parts of the same whole: A new world in air travel, one in which air travel is more like a ride on the L than a cruise through the Friendly Skies.

It’s not news to anyone who has flown anywhere in the last decade that flying ain’t what it used to be. Long, long gone are the days of solicitous flight attendants serving full meals to their well-dressed clientele.

These days, we frequent fliers board our planes, stow our carry-ons and settle into our seats. We watch as our fellow passengers work up a sweat trying to cram oversized bags into undersized overhead bins. We surreptitiously eye the empty middle seat, saying a silent prayer that we will get lucky and no one will sit there, only to have our hopes dashed as the 250-pounder runs onto the plane clutching his ticket and heading… for that middle seat.

To us, a good flight is one that leaves and arrives on time. Bonus points if we get a second tiny bag of pretzels or a flight attendant hands over the whole can of Diet Coke rather than pouring a few drops into a tiny glass overflowing with ice.

And why have all of these dreadful things come to pass? Because we, the flying public, have driven down prices to a point where airlines believe we no longer deserve the whole can of Coke.

In fact, we are getting what we pay for: basic public transportation.

A nine-mile ride on the L at $2.25 costs a mere 25 cents a mile. I just booked a ticket from Chicago to Miami for less than $150. That 1,000-mile trip will cost me just over 14 cents a mile.

If I’m paying less to fly than I do to take the train, why should I expect to have a better experience in the air than I do on the rails?

Those of us who are regular riders of mass transit expect to be crammed into a crowded car, clutching our belongings and avoiding eye contact with our fellow riders. I was so good at it that I once rode all the way home sitting next to a neighbor and neither of us knew it until we both got up at our stop.

Likewise, as a frequent flyer, I pull out my e-reader before the plane pulls away from the gate. I have no interest in talking to my seatmate who is likely to be hogging the armrest. And my measure of whether it’s a good flight is simply getting to where I am going reasonably close to the time the airline promised to get me there.

If I’m lucky, no frustrated overcrowded passenger will throw a punch. No cop will drag anyone off my flight. No flight attendant will fight with a mother holding a baby.

I hope not to see any of those things happen the next time I ride the L either. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. We get what we pay for.

Cindy Richards is a long-time Chicago journalist and frequent flyer who serves as editor-in-chief for two family travel websites,  TravelingMom.com  and  TravelingDad.com.

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