Dispatch September 2007

Military Air

The future of economy class?

I have seen the future, and it works—sort of. I don’t mean the future of communism, or of capitalism, or of globalization. I mean something far more important: the future of economy-class air travel.

For years I’ve been flying around the world on U.S. military aircraft: C-130s and CH-46 helicopters, mostly. I’ve become used to being delayed not hours but days; to being screamed at, with colorful expletives, by burly sergeants and contractors from KBR; to being supplied earplugs upon boarding each aircraft —against the sound of the engines in fuselages that lack protective acoustic panels; to being jammed butt to butt on flimsy, sagging nylon benches; to sitting bored for hours in grimy darkness reminiscent of a basement boiler room; to subsisting on baloney-and-white-bread sandwiches or MREs (meals-ready-to-eat) on long flights; and to getting cut and bruised while diving into a veritable trampoline of palletized luggage to retrieve my belongings after every flight.

Call me paranoid, but upon each arrival, amid the knots of contractors wearing ball caps, tactical polo shirts, and cargo pants ordered off police and military Web sites you’ve never heard of, I believe I espy some creepy, suspicious-looking characters taking notes—spies not from al-Qaeda but from the legacy airlines. You know, “Fly the Hostile Skies.”

This, I realized as I glanced around me, is what the commercial airlines want to do to us.

Who needs schedules? Just tell people they have to show up, and, well, maybe there’ll be a flight. After all, I spent three successive all-nighters waiting in cold, drafty trailers as I traveled from Kuwait to northern Iraq, and I’m still alive. Besides, if every airline offered only nylon jump racks, what choice would any of us have? Loud engine noise? They’ll supply earplugs. Better yet, they’ll sell us earplugs the way they sell us headphones.

Really, who’ll complain? With all that noise, nobody talks to one another—as I can attest. And isn’t the worst nightmare of every traveler that the passenger sitting next to him will actually start up a conversation?

You see, military air travel isn’t all that bad.

Given the trend toward dog food and bad wine on economy class, MREs may, on some future morrow, actually constitute an improvement. Indeed, on one Russian military flight I was served sausage, black bread, and vodka. (OK, the pilot was drinking too, and one of the plane’s doors didn’t close properly, but you can’t have everything.)

Retrieving your luggage after each military flight can constitute an intense physical experience, but because you personally put your luggage on the pallet and watch the pallet slide into the back of the C-130, at least you know your luggage is flying with you. The result: People actually check in their luggage, and they don’t try to get away with everything short of surfboards as carry-on. Wouldn’t that be an improvement?

No toilets on some small military planes? No problem: Urinate out the back door. As long as the cabin is unpressurized, you won’t get sucked out.

After the plane lands, uniformed sergeants and contractors may say things you won’t appreciate—things like, “All civilians get the fuck in the back of the bus.” But they’re often no grumpier than most stewardesses these days.

There are things truly to be admired about military air travel. Just because a plane is uncomfortably packed with passengers at the beginning of the flight doesn’t mean it will be by the end. Recently in Algeria, all the passengers save for myself departed (with parachutes) soon after takeoff; thereafter, I had the plane to myself.

And then there’s the best thing of all: no X-ray checks; no removing of shoes or taking laptops out of bags; no one confiscating your Swiss Army knife. In fact, Swiss Army knives are encouraged. So are hunting knives and machine guns. “Make sure your ammo is close by,” I remember one pilot advising, “if we go down over enemy territory.” (No, not over Iraq. It was rural Colombia.)

But despite all these fine examples of what the legacy carriers could do to make flying more pleasant, I fear they won’t get it right. There’ll be no proper seats, no toilets, no acoustic soundboards, but the cabins will be pressurized, and there will be X-ray checks, and your luggage will still get lost.

And unlike military air, the flights won’t be free.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the author of Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, published this month by Random House.

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