The best travel plans include no airplanes

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 5, 2008

I’ve been increasingly distressed as I’ve listened the past two or three months to all the things the airlines are doing to decrease service and increase charges to passengers.

I’ve listened to airline executives go on TV to blame all those new charges and all that decreased service on rising fuel costs, but the problem started long before fuel began skyrocketing.

I know because my distress with commercial airlines peaked two or three years ago and I dealt with it. Today flying commercially no longer bothers me and I’ll tell you why in just a minute.

But first, is anybody but me around here old enough to remember when the airlines actually cared about the people they hauled?

Back in those good ol’ days, the seats were bigger (weren’t they?) and therefore more comfortable.

And back then there were more empty seats most of the time, too, and it was OK if, once they closed the door, you moved to a different seat than the one assigned you if you saw one you liked better.

In fact, years and years ago, when I was flying a lot and thought of it as fun (and maybe it was back then, because back then the airlines treated people like people) if you played your cards right, you could pretty easily get upgraded from the back of the airplane to the front at no charge and with all the perks.

Back then, even in the back part of the airplane, the airlines served goodies on board and the goodies really were. In fact, unless you were on a really, really short flight, you usually got a meal. Not a fabulous meal, but a meal nonetheless.

Those days are long gone.

Today the seats are so narrow you occasionally have to take off your pants just to fit between the armrests. (I made that up. It’s not really quite that bad. But almost.)

That’s because by making the seats narrower, the airlines have figured out they can stuff one more paying human being into a row.

And the reason there aren’t any empty seats on airplanes in today’s world is that the airlines have reduced the number of flights. If you want to go someplace nowdays, you’ll by golly go on their schedule. (And within the past month, they’ve cancelled many, many flights n or have even cancelled service entirely n to “smaller” airports.)

Likewise the on-board snacks. Why give away a cold roast beef sandwich and chips when you can sell them?

But I’ve removed the irritation of trying to deal with today’s airlines.

And now I’m going to tell you how to do the same thing.

I reached my solution about 18 months ago, right after I had to fly from Texas to Valdosta, Ga., and back, for a meeting of some sort.

To get to Valdosta from where I lived in Texas, you have to drive to Dallas, fly to Atlanta, change planes and fly on to Valdosta. To get back, you have to reverse that process. You’re going to kill a day each way and you’re going to be worn smooth out by the time you get to the end of your trip. During each of those days, you’re going to be sitting in uncomfortable chairs waiting for airplanes, you’ll be sitting next to crying babies or teenagers talking non-stop on their cell phones, you’ll eat unpalatable food in the airport and pay outrageous prices for it and you’ll run real fast n probably carrying a couple of bags you were afraid to surrender to the uncaring baggage handling system n trying to get from one end of a huge terminal to the other end to catch your connecting flight before it leaves.

For me, getting back from Valdosta on that trip was even worse.

The plane that goes from Valdosta to Atlanta is small. I always requested an aisle seat because that gives you a teeny bit more space and someplace to lean to get away from the person in the seat next to you in case he or she does not practice good personal hygiene.

On that day, as I made my way to my assigned aisle seat, I noticed that the 375-pound woman assigned the window seat next to mine had already settled into her own seat and, lifting the armrest out of the way, into her half of my seat as well. There probably are people in this world I wouldn’t mind rubbing butts with for an hour or so, but she wasn’t one of them.

In Atlanta, after sprinting from one end of the terminal to the other to catch the flight on into Dallas, I found someone sitting in my seat again. This time it was a teenage girl. I very politely showed her my ticket and said, “I believe you’re in my seat.”

She looked at me blankly and said, “Mxzpwky zjrtxvk noqxj.”

I tried again.

And again she said, “Mxzpwky zjrtxvk noqxj.”

Then another teenage girl, sitting in the aisle seat in the next row back, explained the whole thing: “We students. We together. Her seat back there.” And she gestured to the back of the plane.

So, OK, tell her to go sit in her seat then.

“We together,” said the second girl. And from that moment on, she, too, failed to understand any further English.

As she helped me find the little girl’s window seat, the stewardess explained to me that the whole plane was filled with a group of students from Russia.

By the time I got off that airplane, I had made my decision.

I decided I was going to contribute to creating more space on airplanes. I was never going to ride on another one.

I’ve been to three or four meetings in places two or three states away since then.

I’ve driven to them all.

I went to Mississippi weekend before last and I drove there, too. It was a 13-hour drive.

And the trips n all of them n have been immeasurably more enjoyable.

I enjoy driving. I enjoy seeing new country. I enjoy listening to music of my own choosing as I travel. I enjoy setting my own schedule. I enjoy the day or two I get out of the office. I enjoy finding someplace nice to eat in the evening before I enjoy finding a nice place to sleep. I enjoy the freedom to stop for the day n and start the next n at the time I choose. And, once all is said and done, I spend just about the same amount of money driving that I would spend flying.

Under my new plan, I find myself looking forward to trips rather than dreading them.

And it tickles me to death that I no longer give money to the airlines.

Oh, and there’s one other advantage to driving. Your luggage will last much, much longer.

David Sullens is publisher of Roanoke-Chowan News Herald.