The travel and flying media were chirping this week about news that the owners of London Heathrow Airport hired author Alain de Botton as writer-in-residence. De Botton’s task: to produce a short book, A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.
The cascade of cynical responses across conventional and online pages is not surprising. The received wisdom is that the entire flying experience stinks. From late-night comedians to some of the posts here on Sparksheet, you’d think it was just one awful experience after another.
A few years ago I heard a younger fellow muttering “what an ordeal” after passing through security at LAX. I looked at him and gently replied, “Sir, it might have taken a bit longer than you wanted, but no, it wasn’t an ordeal. An ordeal was my Dad slogging through islands in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. You need some perspective.” He looked at me with contempt, and walked away.
Okay, full disclosure: I’ve worked in and close to airlines for 25 years, and just over four decades in the fun world broadly called “travel.”
I fly a lot, in all cabins, and I pay a lot of attention to what happens before, during, and after. I just don’t see the traumatized and angry souls that find their way into print or onto the airwaves. In the past month, I’ve seen people returning from a Rocky Mountain vacation, laughing and carrying their daypacks; I’ve seen a confident face on a businesswoman in the airport in Santiago, Chile, a look that suggested she had just done something successful; and best of all, I’ve seen grandparents hugging their grandchildren in every arrivals area through which I’ve passed. When I see those things, I feel happy and proud that I committed my working career to the airline business.
Could airlines do better? Absolutely. Is some of their seeming obsession with rules silly? For sure. But I remind you that rules and consistency in the world of flight operations have produced the safest mode of transport, by far. The former head of safety for the U.S. FAA, Nicolas Sabatini, gave a speech a few years ago to an audience of international air safety investigators, in which he brought safety statistics down to earth. Sabatini said that if you flew on a large (more than 100 seats) jet in the U.S. once a day, every day, 365 flights a year, it would take 43,000 years before you had a 50-50 chance of being in a fatal crash. That’s a long time. An incident with fatalities occurs only once every 15 to 16 million flights. That’s 40 times safer, he said, than driving down a freeway.
And what about all those cancellations? Again, let’s look at the facts. For the month of July, the big U.S. airlines completed almost 98% of their scheduled flights. Delays? Sure, they’re a pain. But keep in mind that in the U.S., airlines keep their promise (of arrival within 15 minutes of schedule) about 75% of the time. Every flight is not late.
That’s a big number when you consider that airlines are working with poor infrastructure. In most (but not all) parts of the world, that’s the responsibility of the public sector. Governments are happy to collect taxes, and there’s plenty of revenue: since deregulation in the U.S. in 1978, air travel has tripled. Do you think the number of gates and runways has tripled? And in an era of $100 GPS devices, we’re still using radar technology from the 1930s to control air traffic.
But let’s get back to the experience. More than three-quarters of the time it’s just fine. The plane is at the gate, we get on, we fly, we get thousands of kilometers from home in a few hours (or get home in time to attend an important event), we land on time, and safely. And sometimes it’s surprisingly fun – the flight attendants sing “Happy Birthday”, or we give a round of applause to men and women in uniform, or we delight in the kid flying for the first time.
It’s nicely coincidental that Mr. de Botton is scribbling at London Heathrow, for that was the same airport in the film “Love Actually.” You remember Hugh Grant, playing the Prime Minister, narrating the scene in the arrivals hall:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends…”
As an optimist, I’m hopeful that people will apply some perspective. There are glimmers; take a look at comedian Louis C.K., opining on an October 2008 Conan O’Brien show about spoiled flyers and others. He puts it this way: “Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy” (the bit about flying begins about two minutes into the four-minute clip):
There. I feel much better.