Monday, July 11, 2011

Second-Class Citizens

Air travel is an American gift to the world. The Wright brothers first perfected flight in 1903. Already in 1914, the first commercial flight carried passengers 25 miles from St. Petersburg to Tampa, Florida. Vast American distances encouraged the development of commercial airlines. Pan American Airlines initiated inter-continental air travel in the 1930s to Europe and Asia. Later TWA expanded American dominance of world air travel. While much European travel, within smaller nations, took place by train, Americans embraced flying. By the 1980s, nearly half of the world’s total flying took place in the US. I like to think of flying as one of my typically American freedoms, the freedom to move about the earth as I wish.

I love trains. Riding in trains is my favorite means of travel after walking. But as much fun as train travel is, it is not practical for large distances and busy people. For about the same price, I could book a flight from St. Louis to San Francisco for September or take the train from Springfield to San Francisco. By flying I could get from my door to SF in about 9 hours. By train the trip would take me more than 2 days. It’s a bit cheaper to take the bus, and the trip takes about the same time, because our trains are so slow.

I recently attended a yearly board meeting for a little non-profit in San Francisco, with people from all over the country. Relatively inexpensive air travel makes such meetings possible, as well as academic conferences, short visits to relatives, and exotic vacations.

Flying has become more expensive lately, and less enjoyable. Much that used to be included in the price of a ticket has been taken away and then sold back to us at constantly increasing prices: small snacks, reasonable legroom, transportation of our luggage. Even squeezed into a smaller seat, closer to my neighbors, eating my own food, the convenience of air travel is still priceless.

Air travel has always been a partnership between governments and private enterprise. It is overseen by a government concerned about air safety, truth in advertising, and consumer rights, which is large enough to think about everything from manufacture of planes to handicapped access in airports. I would not trust any of the giant companies who carry out our flights to have the public spirit and democratic values of the US government. For corporations, the bottom line trumps such humanitarian considerations. That’s why there is first class.

On my flight to San Francisco, I sat at the front of the second-class cabin and observed what first class buys. It started with, “Would you like juice or water?”, before we took off. Later there was a free snack, served by a steward who worked exclusively in the two rows of first class. that handful of travelers had their own bathroom.

I wasn’t envious. United Airlines insistently offered me the chance to “upgrade”, to first class, for more legroom, for more miles, but I consistently said, “No.” I didn’t want to pay additional hundreds of dollars for more comfort for a few hours.

I don’t mind being a second-class customer, paying second-class rates. But I don’t like being a second-class citizen. TSA is a government spinoff and government-run agency to protect public safety. Nobody likes the elaborate system TSA runs, but we agree it is necessary for our security. I don’t understand why people who paid a commercial airline for a first-class ticket get their own line through official TSA security. Does TSA get more from them? Or are they better people, deserving of better treatment, by everyone, private or public, like other privileges of access that the rich get. Gliding through airport security with their first-class tickets is similar to sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House, eating special dinners with presidential candidates, having easy access to our legislators to lobby for their special interests.

Democracy means equal rights for all. Every time our government, or those who work in government, give special privileges to those who pay more, democracy is injured. We should all be first-class citizens.

Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 12, 2011

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