The nightmare of today’s air travel

Air transport is the only means of transport to have declined over the past 20 years.

Trains now go faster. Buses pollute less. Cars are smarter and electric. The same goes for bicycles, ferries and trucks.

Stealing, on the other hand, is considerably more gruesome than before. Years after a British terrorist failed to detonate a bomb in his shoes on a Paris-Miami flight in 2001, travelers are still facing infuriating liquid rules as they are crammed into seats smaller and charged for the sandwiches they once got for free.

Flying may be cheaper and safer, but it’s also slower than it was in 2003, when Concorde made its last flight across the Atlantic – in about half the time it takes today. Airlines have promised that supersonic flight will return. This is not the case.

I wrote a version of those very words in 2010 when I was aerospace correspondent for the Financial Times, never thinking that a global pandemic would ever make things worse.

This thought came to mind last week while waiting in line at a small Spanish airport, where I saw something I had never seen in over 30 years of flying.

The line was full of people boarding two flights to London, one to Gatwick, which I was on, and one to Stansted, both due to leave around 11am.

We were queuing to have our passports stamped, as we do after Brexit, just meters from the exit gates beyond which the waiting planes were clearly visible.

As the clock approached 11 a.m. and fears of closed doors grew, a ruckus broke out at the front of the queue.

Passengers bound for Stansted, including parents who had been queuing for ages with toddlers in tow, began yelling at a flight attendant for not calling them sooner.

Suddenly, several burst in front of the passport station and paused for the exit. A burly policeman rushed out of the station and ordered everyone to stay put.

Would-be escapees returned in despair, reporting that the door had closed and they had been left to book new flightswith no air aid in sight.

It was just one small tragedy among thousands that have turned flying into a chaotic hellscape of canceled flights, lost luggage and untold queues around the world this year.

The pandemic staffing shortages and supply chain issues driving this upheaval are less visible than the Icelandic volcano ash and 9/11 terrorist attacks that caused air travel problems in the past, but they are equally troubling.

Last week, bosses at Heathrow Airport and Qatar Airways warned that industry disruption could last much longer than expected. “I think it’s going to last a few years,” Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker told the FT.

Predictably, a cottage industry has emerged advising travelers what to do. A few tips are obvious: be prepared for queues; fly straight; carry only carry-on baggage and if you need to check baggage, bring medicine and other necessities with you into the cabin.

Some ideas seem far-fetched: you can check in your luggage the day before an early morning flight with some airlines and many experts recommend it, on the grounds that you can sail serenely the next day. But that requires an extra trip to the nightmare that is today’s airport.

Other tips were new to me. It’s best to fly as early in the day as possible because early flights are rarely cancelled, a flight attendant wrote in The New York Times the other week.

Later flights are more vulnerable to thunderstorms that develop as the days get warmer, as well as increased traffic at busy airports and flight crews reaching service limits.

For what it’s worth, my exposure to summer travel has taught me this: it’s more important than ever to fly weekdays if you can.

If you are in a long line, do not hesitate to ask the staff to take you to the front of the line if the boarding time is approaching.

Finally, be pleasant with these employees. Most do their best on the front lines of a grim situation they can’t avoid. You, with luck, are just passing through.

pilita.clark@ft.com


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