Fear Of Flying

As one who will be flying over The Pond again in precisely four weeks’ time, I read this Drudge-linked article with interest. For those who want to follow the link: yeah, it’s an NBC article and you can ignore the first third of it, which is a classist rant against the fact that wealthy people can cosset themselves against the rigors of modern-day air travel by buying their way into luxury lounges and wider seats, etc. BFD. A sample:

Ordinary passengers, however, shuffle along in line, and then just before they pack into coach, they have to edge through first class — where cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and hot towels might be passed around, even before the cabin door closes. Airlines are increasingly catering to their premium customers with fancier seats and beds, and most passengers never even see the comfortable terminal lounges for first-class seat-holders and very frequent flyers.
At Los Angeles International Airport, the wealthy can pay for an even greater buffer from the great unwashed, courtesy of an exclusive new club, The Private Suite. The service — with a $7,000 initiation fee and $2,700-per-trip price tag — allows travelers to ensconce themselves in a retreat on the south end of an airport that, by consensus, is one of America’s most crowded. Members can dine on caviar, take a shower and get a pedicure while waiting for their planes. The Private Suite has its own TSA agents, far from the exasperation of the long lines. And when it’s time to board, a car whisks Private Suite members across the tarmac, directly to their gates. Gavin de Becker, the entrepreneur who founded the Private Suite, hopes to expand to other airports.
Stressed and financially strapped, Americans are sensitive to any additional signs that they are falling behind, said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “People are working two and three jobs to get by, and the disparity of wealth is growing,” Nelson said. “People are upset.”

Oh, mercy me: rich people have it better than the peasants. The iniquity! (In other breaking news, water is wet, and General Custer’s having a little trouble with the Sioux.)

The rest of the piece is far more interesting, especially this:

Though the airline industry was deregulated by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, it would take several other systemic jolts — notably the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Great Recession, with its sharp reductions in discretionary travel — to get the airlines to trim money-losing routes. The downturn also triggered a series of bankruptcies, followed by consolidations. Delta Airlines consumed Northwest, United gobbled up Continental, Southwest took over AirTran, and American Airlines swallowed U.S. Airways.
Those four giant carriers finally had the reduced competition — combined with newfound discipline over the number of routes offered and the size of air fleets — to forge consistent profits.
One result: The number of flights offered annually declined by nearly 1.5 million over the last decade. Less service and fewer partially filled planes, combined with sharp cost-cutting, drove revenue to new highs.

Yeah, the airlines are making a profit again, after years of massive losses caused mostly by high fuel prices. I don’t have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is the fact that airlines can get away with treating us like shit, generally under the guise of “security”, which is all the excuse the little gauleiters need to mess us around.

The plain fact is that air travel is no longer “fun”, as the article puts it. Those days of glamorous passengers and gorgeous, svelte young stewardesses have given way to the International Backpack & Sandals Set and grim-looking middle-aged “flight attendants” who bitch and moan about passengers — with, it should be said, quite a lot of justification — but which is all to be expected when you make an activity available to the masses by making it cheaper.

That said, there’s no excuse for the airlines treat We The Farepayers like self-loading cargo (which to be honest is what we are, really), but then get surprised when we get pissed off when we’re over-charged for crappy meals, a suitcase that’s a half-pound overweight, cramped seats and [2,000 other complaints deleted because duh]. and don’t even get me started about “involuntary ejection” or whatever cute little euphemism they employ when they toss a fare-paying customer off a flight for whatever reason they want to.

So it’s small wonder we try to game the system wherever possible.

Fact is, there is no more romance involved with flying; it’s just like being stuck in rush-hour traffic on the interstate, only more restrictive. And for me personally, all this just reinforces my conviction never to fly domestically — i.e. never fly anywhere I can drive — so the airlines can just fuck right off. They’ve got me on the international flights, and they’ll just have to be content with that — just as I’ve resigned myself to being forever subject to “random” searches and closer scrutiny in their fucking domains.

As with so many things, I just long for things to go back to being more civilized:

… or at least fun:

…but it doesn’t look like this airline travel ordeal is going to get better anytime soon, more’s the pity.


I see with interest that the people of Majorca have had enough:

Streets of Majorca were filled with 3,000 people protesting over mass tourism in a latest backlash in the British holiday hotspot.
Holidaymakers in the capital of Palma looked on as the angry crowd chanted “Without limits, there is no future” and “tourists go home”.
Spokeswoman Margalida Ramis said the holiday island was being saturated by visitors at the expense of the environment, local jobs, housing for residents and general co-existence.
She said the islands’ dependence on tourism was not a good thing from an economic point of view and was “precarious”.

I should point out that the “onlookers” (tourists) at this protest march probably outnumbered the protesters by about ten to one, which should give the proper perspective to the situation.

So let me see if I’ve got this straight: you encourage tourism by offering cheap hotel accommodation, allowing budget airline flights to land on your sun-drenched little Mediterranean island, and in general cater to the meme of “Holiday In Paradise”, and then you are shocked — shocked! — when a bunch of loutish drunks invade your little paradise and fuck things up?

Let’s be honest: the Balearic Islands have little to offer except tourism, so if tourists were suddenly to disappear, Majorca’s and Ibiza’s economies would fall into the pit, so to speak, their citizens’ standard of living would resemble that of a Third World village, i.e. grim and poverty-stricken, and they’d have to resort to fleecing the wealthy foreigners who’ve paid untold millions for their tropical getaways — which is what the Balearics used to do before the era of cheap flights, cheap accommodation and cheap booze.

There’s a solution, of course, but their government won’t take it: raise taxes on holidaymakers, institute curfews, imprison revelers who take it too far, and in general make it uncomfortable for tourists. (The cynic in me would suggest that they allow a different kind of visitor — Middle Eastern refugees / migrants — and let events take their natural course after that. If that doesn’t discourage tourism, nothing will.)

Makes the Florida spring break destinations look quite placid, by comparison.

Suspicion Confirmed

I suspected that I’d been “randomly” selected for additional screening when I left Britishland (see below), and I was correct. After reading this article, I found my old boarding card and lo: there in the corner was the “SSSS” notation.

This is why I couldn’t check in online, this is why the ticket-chickie was so curious about my trip Over There, this is why I had a pat-down at the entrance to the secure area, and this is why I had another body-cavity search at the gate, without even the courtesy of a reach-around.

What interests me is that the TSA had selected me for additional screening and then communicated that to American Airlines so they could tag my record locator to start the whole process. And they hadn’t done it for both legs of the flight, just the return.

AA is already on my Shit List because even when one has the proper U.K. temporary firearms licence, they flatly refuse to transport any privately-owned guns to the U.K.  — long guns, not just handguns, which I’d understand given the Brits’ mortal fear of the latter. This means that when I go to visit Mr. Free Market for a bit of birdshooting or deerstalking, I can’t fly on American; I have to use British Airways. As they’re “OneWorld partners”, it doesn’t affect my airline miles, but it does limit my travel options somewhat. And to judge from the comments on frequent-flier websites and forums, BA seems to have turned into a pretty second-rate airline over the past few years.

And yes, you read that right: an American airline refuses to transport legally-owned long guns to Britain, while a British airline has no problem doing so. Were it not for the fact that I fly out of DFW (American’s major hub), I’d using another airline, you betcha — but all other U.S. airlines out of DFW require that I connect in another city rather than fly direct to Heathrow. And in a couple of those connecting cities (Newark, Boston, New York), possession of a firearm can result in harassment at best, and being arrested at worst — even though you’re just passing through their little gun-hating jurisdiction. (Amazingly, Chicago isn’t a GFW city, in this situation anyway.)

Bah. A pox on all their houses.

Familiar Things 1

Now that I’m back, and my body / brain have more or less got over the fact that it’s really 11pm and not 5am, I thought I’d share some of the things I found I missed whilst Over There.

Carrying a gun:
Of course, that’s streng verboten in Britishland, but as I’d been staying out in Hardy Country for most of the time, I hadn’t really missed the 1911 or backup S&W 637 on my hip. However, when Doc Russia picked me up at DFW, he dropped the S&W into the seat divider with the casual comment, “Thought you’d want this.”

…and he was right, of course: as I slipped it onto my belt, it felt at once familiar and comforting.
Also, I like driving with guns in my car without that feeling of paranoia that the fuzz are going to get shirty with me just for doing so. One one occasion, Mr. FM and I were traveling north to the shooting range, carrying the usual assortment of rifles in the back of the Land Rover, when we had to stop at a supermarket en route to get supplies. I offered to stay in the car to look after the guns, but Mr. FM pointed out to me that if the rozzers were to find me in a car with guns that weren’t licensed to me, I’d be arrested — in other words, it would be less hassle just to let some criminal asshole steal the guns. Ugh.

BBQ and coffee:
Most of the time, I didn’t bother buying or ordering BBQ while Over There  because, well, I live in Texas. It would be like Mr. FM ordering a lamb curry or steak pie in Dallas: not the same, and most likely inferior. Last night I went to dinner at Bone Daddy’s with the Son&Heir and Canucki Girlfriend. I have three words to say: “burnt ends” and “brisket”. Welcome home, taste buds.
Likewise, I missed my Keurig, big time: as Longtime Readers know, I favor Krispy Kreme Light Roast in my K-cups, but wherever I stayed, my hosts had Nespresso machines with super-strong coffee in pods. Fortunately, I found a way round the problem, simply by making two cups from one Nespresso pod, using a big coffee mug to mix the strong and weak brews. Curiously, though, now that I’ve come back to my usual coffee, it seems quite weak by comparison — but I’ll get used to it in a while because it still tastes better.

Left-hand drive (LHD) cars:
…and their companion, driving on the right. Remember that I grew up in South Africa, and drove RHD cars in the left lane for a dozen years — so driving in Britishland was no big deal, just requiring a little muscle memory and perception change. However, I’ve been living Over Here for thirty years so I’m really more familiar with our system — and by the way, it sure is good to drive on wide, multi-lane suburban roads again in my VW Tiguan. On that topic, I rented two cars while in the UK, a Hyundai I-something and a Ford Fiesta.

Both are tiny cars [5,000-word exposition on getting my burly fat ass in and out thereof omitted], but no matter how small the car, most country roads in Britain are not two-lane, but 1½ lanes wide (and often less than that). I cannot tell you how often I held my breath as another car would pass me by, missing my wing mirror by what seemed like millimeters. (Even cheap rental cars Over There have the electric “folding wing mirror” feature, and it’s easy to see why.) Mr. and Mrs. Free Market, of course, drive their Land Rovers and Range Rovers with the knowledge that, as Mr. FM casually puts it, “he’s going to lose this one”, so oncoming cars generally get the hell out of their way; when you’re in a weenycar, not so much. And don’t get me started about trucks…
All that said, however, I have to say that it was a pleasure to drive among polite, courteous drivers who don’t mind yielding right of way and who don’t take it as a personal insult that you’ve usurped “their” position in the lane. Most of their asshole drivers seem to be in BMWs or Audis, but that’s pretty much the same Over Here in north Texas.

Opening hours:
Good grief, British retailers are lazy. Out where we were, supermarkets closed at 4pm on Sundays (!) and only re-opened at 6am on Monday. On weekdays, they closed at 9pm, on average — and this was true of Morrisons, Waitrose, Sainsbury, Tesco, whover. It didn’t seem to help their stock situation, though: lots of gaps in the shelves meant that even Waitrose was often out of stock of popular items much of the time, despite their long closing hours. (London, of course, was different, for obvious reasons.) The night before last, I realized that I’d run out of a couple of necessities, so at 11pm I went off to the nearby Kroger — and had to wait in line at the checkout.
And don’t get me started about pubs. Good grief: I have no idea why Brits accept the fact that landlords can dictate the hours wherein one may order food (generally, 12:30pm to 2pm for lunch, and 4pm till 8:30pm for dinner), as opposed to the Stateside attitude of [gasp] letting customers eat when they’re hungry. Some pubs advertise “Food Served All Day” on chalkboards outside, but let me tell you, they are few and far between. On several occasions I’d feel peckish, but after a while I got sick of going to pubs which weren’t open for food service — and I’d end up finding a Greggs instead (a national bakery chain which serves excellent sausage rolls, by the way); meaning, of course, that I also didn’t buy a half-pint of bitter, either so a double loss of revenue for the pub. Idiots. (I have a story from Mr. Free Market on this topic, but I’ll save it for another day because it’s a long one deserving of its own post.)

When I arrived in Britishland, it was steaming hot — I mean, close to Texas temperatures, in the mid-90s. When I left just over two months later, summer had already turned into damp, chilly fall — temperatures in the mid-50s and much cooler at night — while back in Texas, it’s still summer, of course, and I’ve been doing some Turkish-bath schvitzing just while walking from car to supermarket. Ugh. Mr. FM hates the British climate after summer; I have to say that on balance, I think I prefer it. My very first purchase Over There (after 6X and pies of course) was a fleece waistcoat, which is needed even on summer evenings:

I left it at FM Towers because I’m not going to need it until my return, but it’s going to come back with me in January, oh yes it will. I generally find the Texas heat oppressive and now I’ve been through a mild (by comparison) British summer, I dislike the heat even more. We’ll see how I do in the late fall and winter Over There, of course, but that’s typically been the time of year when I’ve traveled to Europe so it’s not an unknown climate to me. (And I used to live in Chicago, so cold weather doesn’t frighten me.)
Oh, and by the way, it’s really good to get back to temperatures measured in Fahrenheit and not that Celsius bullshit.

More familiar things as I encounter them.


Back In The U.S., Back In The U.S., Back In The U.S.A.

I should have been arrested.

Mr. Free Market dropped me off at Heathrow yesterday, after taking me on a long, meandering drive through Hardy Country which just made me glad I’ll be back at the end of October for Part Two of Sabbatical 2017. For the record, I was three hours early for my flight — which was a good thing, as you will see.

For reasons unknown, I hadn’t been able to check in online so I went to the check-in kiosk to do so. The message was “Fuck off, Yank” (not worded quite like that, but that was the gist of it) so I had to go and see an actual person, who checked my luggage (no overweight baggage charge, even though I was coming back with more than what I’d left with — strange) but unusually, she asked me all sorts of questions about where I’d been staying, why I’d been in the country so long, and so on. She was an airline flunky, not a security person, so I said curtly, “I was in Wiltshire to inter the remains of my late wife,” which brought forth an immediate apology and a quick check-in.

So: on to the security line. Remember, this was not my first rodeo, so I knew the drill: laptop into its own bucket, empty pockets, remove belt, boots, etc. — i.e. not a single suspicious thing on my person remained… and yet I still triggered the alarm which got me a full-body search and pat-down by, it should be said, a very polite, even apologetic Brit-style TSA guy who had, interestingly, an Arabic name. All this took ages, and I started to steam slowly; but just when I was about to open my big mouth and start asking pointed questions, the search came to an end, and I was free to wander around the maze of shops and such in Heathrow’s Terminal 3.

I bought a few things: newspaper, road food for the flight (I don’t touch airline food because ugh), and decided to grab a meal before I went to the gate. “The Curator’s” restaurant (quoi?) seemed decent, so I went in and got a (wait for it) fish ‘n chips along with a couple pints of bitter ale — not 6X, but not bad for all that — and had a long, leisurely read of the Telegraph. Eventually, I finished up and strolled down to gate 31 — of course it was a long walk down, did you even have to ask? — but when I got there, things got ugly.

I got flagged and pulled out for another random search — this time of my carry-on bag, which held all the office paraphernalia to do with my laptop. This agent was an Indian guy — complete with singsong accent — and he checked my bag like a ferret sniffing out a rabbit, as well as swabbing down everything with that little explosive residue-detector swab thingy. Then he turned his attention to me: again with the belt, again with the boots off, again with the pat-down, and this time I got swabbed for as well, just for good measure. Of course, I didn’t have any explosive residue on me — which seemed to surprise Mr. Patel — but I was nevertheless still close to one of Kim’s Deluxe #1 Explosions of Rage, but once again, the examination ended suddenly and I was able to board the plane.

I am convinced that I was profiled for close scrutiny long before I even got to the airport — hence the difficulty checking in online, the interrogation from the ticket agent and the two intensive searches by airport security.

Anyway, the airliner wasn’t full to the brim with people — in fact, I had an empty seat next to me so I could sprawl, manspread and lean away from the aisle so I wouldn’t get nailed in the shoulder by the fucking drinks cart every time it passed by (which had been my experience going over to Britishland).

This restored my good humor somewhat, so I flirted with the flight attendant, offered her my assistance should she have any unpleasantness with an unruly passenger, and also offered translation services in French or German should the need arise — all of which resulted in some primo service from her for the duration of the flight. I even managed a couple hours sleep.

Doc Russia picked me up at DFW and brought me back to his house where we adjourned to the Smoking Terrace and proceeded to drink pints of gin & tonic. (Seriously: G&T in pint glasses.) I stayed up to try and get my internal time-clock readjusted by staying awake until midnight (6.00am GMT), had the usual excellent chat with Doc, and went to bed to sleep.

Didn’t work. Four hours later my body said, “What the hell are you doing, still sleeping at 10 o’clock in the morning?” so I woke up and started to unpack my carry-on bag…

…and discovered a six-inch screwdriver which I had forgotten about and which had somehow escaped the notice of two security checks.

I could have been arrested.


As you read this, I will have reached the end of the first leg of my sabbatical in Britishland, and I’ll be boarding the craft which will wing me back over The Pond to Texas:

…although, to accommodate my somewhat errr enhanced bulk (thank you, Wadworth 6X, steak pies, fish & chips and Full English Breakfasts), the airline should really be using one of these:

Regular blogging (whatever that is) should resume tomorrow.

And lastly: a huge, enormous thank-you is due to Mr. and Mrs. Free Market for their unbelievable hospitality given me during my stay Over Here. When I come back in late October, I’ll be staying elsewhere — details to follow — but, as they say, words cannot express my gratitude to these wonderful people because, quite graciously and with absolutely no fuss, they saved my life. I am not worthy.