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For this frequent flier, the skies aren’t so friendly


This column is being written in midair somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean en route from South Africa to the United States. These reflections, in other words, are the by-product of experience. They’re the culmination of years of experience, some of it very good, much of it increasingly more difficult from year to year.

Air travel has changed since the days of half-empty planes and more localized lifestyles. This particular route took 37 hours to cover the distance from Erie, Pa., to Johannesburg, South Africa, with a long layover in Amsterdam. The experience has been a sobering one. It has also raised some serious questions.

Halfway through the flight I had one of those flashes of memory that seem to come out of nowhere. If you think long enough, however, a flashback that at first seems far removed from the circumstances that prompt it often has some clear relationship to the present situation.

I don’t remember where or when it happened, but I do remember my first tours of old emigrant or prison or slave ships. I was a history teacher on a field trip, an excursion back into an earlier age or place to help the children of this generation appreciate other generations long gone. The visits came complete with guides and educational brochures.

Down in this low, cramped hold, hundreds of people had been crammed into inhuman positions. The voyage across the Atlantic had been organized by businesses for commercial profit and made under despicable conditions. The process, our guidebook said, was uncomfortable to the point of the unconscionable and indefensible.

The thought of those voyages and that kind of calculated inhumanity affected me then. It affects me still. Only now, I have discovered, it is possible that the same sorts of people are still doing the same sorts of things. The only difference is that now people get to pay for the privilege of being ferried across the Atlantic under inhuman conditions. They call it air travel.

Of course, the social motivations and cultural effects of those situations -- penal policies, slavery and emigration -- are hardly the same, but at base, the financial crassness of such commercial measures may be too interestingly similar to be ignored.

Every year airline tickets get more expensive and every year the experience of flying gets worse. Little by little the aisles have been narrowed, the seats have been shrunk, the leg room has been squeezed to the knee caps. If you’re holding a book, reading a newspaper, using a computer or trying to eat a meal when the person in front of you attempts to use one of those “reclining seats” that the ads promise, you stand to have the computer top snapped off the keyboard, the food spilled or the paper squashed in your face.

That the person next to you will spill over into your lap, too, you learn to take for granted. After all, the ratio of space to the number of passengers on an airplane and the ratio of space to people on an 18th- or 19th-century sailing ship must be eerily similar.

The rights of passengers have been largely lost. Airline companies can oversell tickets with impunity now, but buyers don’t dare make a change of schedule without being charged for the privilege of changing their minds. If, in fact, they are permitted to change at all.

The company can fail to serve food, whatever the price of the ticket and the length of the trip. The company can change flights, cancel flights, merge flights, vary flight fares and end flights with not so much as a “by your leave.”

Customers are herded into spaces the likes of which no other vehicle or restaurant would be permitted to offer by any municipality in the country. The airline manages to be an equal opportunity highwayman: People in first class or business class are charged hundreds of dollars extra, if not thousands, for a normal size seat to which any normal person ought to have an automatic right. People in economy are charged hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, for seats that are hardly usable.

The problem is not space -- there has always been enough space in a jumbo jet to accommodate decent-sized seats. No, the problem can’t be design. It’s got to be profit, if not greed.

It makes you wonder whether or not the executives who make these rules have ever tried to live by them. It’s time, I think, to pass a law requiring airline CEOs to fly at least once a week on their airline’s planes. Across the Atlantic. Steerage. On one of their “special” no-frills fares that have eliminated not only the full bag of peanuts and full teaspoons of salt and pepper, but have eliminated full storage bins, full freedom of movement for the person on the window side of the row, full rations of air and full human respect, as well.

We managed to outlaw slave ships once, didn’t we? Or as Billy Holiday told us, just because we’re up to our necks in white lace and miles away from sugar cane doesn’t mean that we aren’t still on the plantation.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1998