Editor’s Note: This article is part of “Uncharted,” a series about the world we’re leaving behind, and the one being remade by the pandemic.
I last took a “normal” commercial-airline flight back in February. It was normal in that most people did not seem to be having a good time. Before the flight, passengers lumbered out of their Ubers and taxis, or stepped off the shuttles from the rental-car offices and remote parking, and trudged through the familiar series of lines.
Lines to check in. Lines for the TSA checkpoints. Lines at the departure gate. Lines at restaurants and coffee shops to get the food and drink that the airlines no longer provide. The eye-rolling status-jockeying in the pile-up at the departure gate—“Excuse me, but are you really in Group 1?”—followed by eye-rolling in the aisle about someone hogging precious overhead-bin space.
I could go on—the baggage fees, the decreased “seat pitch” that jams your knees into the person in front of you, the cancellations and ripple-effect schedule delays—but less is more when it comes to an experience so many people have shared. Before the airline-deregulation revolution of the 1970s, wrought by Jimmy Carter, fares were much higher than they are now, as were the annual crash and fatality rates; the share of Americans who had ever taken a flight was much lower. Now, in any given year, nearly half of the American public takes at least one commercial flight, and the average fare per mile has been in long-term decline.