My issue with flying on commercial airlines isn't safety (though that is a major issue for many people). The issue for me is that flying is NOT fun anymore. Flying used to be an adventure. Now it's just a huge hassle.
I don't fear flying. I just loathe the flying experience. Driving, on the other hand, can be an enjoyable experience once you escape urban gridlock and suburban sprawl and finally get out on the open road.
Over the years I've probably flown a couple hundred times, mostly for business trips but also for family vacations, too. I've also flown in small planes, and have even flown gliders at Hinckley, Illinois. I'm not afraid of the act of flying itself, especially if I am in a plane sitting next to the pilot or in the pilot's seat with my hands on the wheel. Flying this was can be a very exhilarating experience.
What I hate is the helpless, trapped feeling you have when you are herded onto and crammed into a commercial airliner with a couple hundred people you don't know and probably don't want to know. I've had too many flights where I ended up in the last row sandwiched between two overweight people in a center seat, and the seat back in front of me no more than a hand width from my face. Talk about uncomfortable and claustrophobic! And to have to sit there and endure it for four or five hours is just too much for me anymore.
The airline's philosophy of "close pack for maximum profit" has ruined commercial flying for me. It makes me think back to the days when slave traders would jam as many bewildered and helpless Africans into the holds of their ships and stack them head to toe so as to maximize their profits.
Before 911, commercial flying was tolerable. Before they "improved" the old Chicago Midway Airport, you could park within a 100 feet of the main entrance, arrive 10 minutes before the scheduled departure, dash to you plane and get a relatively good seat in an uncrowded airplane. The planes were typically no more than half to three-quarters full, and they left on time.
Nowadays, thanks to a bunch of crazy raghead extremists with a sick, twisted religion that preaches hate, intolerance and disrespect for human life, commercial flying has become an unpleasant and insulting ordeal.
Thanks to these people, you now have to arrive at the terminal at least two hours before your scheduled departure, park miles from the airport and wait for God knows how long for the tram bus to meander through the lot to your waiting place, to then arrive at the terminal to find the security lines snaking back and forth for what looks like forever, to stand and stand and stand so eventually you can remove your coat, shoes and belt and subject yourself to a possible strip search for contraband (dangerous objects such as nail clippers, shampoo bottles over 4 oz., etc. etc. etc.). Then you empty the contents of your pockets onto the x-ray conveyor belt, plop down your laptop computer, cell phone, digital camera and any other carry-on items or luggage you are traveling with so these items can be x-rayed and closely scrutinized by a sleepy-eyed government employee who has been staring at a screen far too many hours.
Then comes the moment of truth as you walk through the metal detector. If you're lucky, your zipper or metal buttons or fasteners won't set it off. If you are not so lucky, you are subjected to a metal detector wanding and possibly a pat down in full sight of the other passengers who smirk as they glide by unmolested.
After passing the gauntlet of the metal detector and x-ray machine, you then have to scramble to gather up your stuff, fumble to hurriedly put on your shoes while balancing on one foot so the line of people behind you don't get too impatient as they surge forward to do likewise.
As for your personal luggage (checked or carry-on), there's nothing personal or private about it. It is also totally violated. In addition to being x-rayed, and possibly bomb sniffed, somebody may open it up and rifle through your belongings, allegedly looking for anything that might represent a potential threat to airline safety. Sometimes things mysteriously disappear from your luggage. I used to blame dishonest baggage handlers. But now it seems to be "help yourself" for anybody who works at an airport.
The clothes that you carefully folded and neatly tucked in place so you would look presentable for an important business meeting are wadded up as if they'd just come out of the spin cycle in a washing machine.
After security, you find your gate and then find a place to sit, and sit, and sit, and sit. One thing I can always count on when flying out of Chicago O'Hare airport is that my flight will always be late departing from the gate and late taking off. Add another 30 to 45 minutes to the flight time experience. And if the weather is bad locally or almost anywhere else in the country, it can jam up the entire system for hours, creating even more delays and aggravation.
When you are finally called to board the plane, you wait in the boarding chute, then wait in the front of the plane while people try to stuff their belongings into the overhead storage bins. They block the aisle and you can't find your way to your seat until everyone ahead of you has taken their seats.
When you finally get to your seat (which for me is almost always in the back of the place because apparently those are the cheaper seats), you're crammed into a narrow seat next to or between two other strangers who may or may not have bathed that morning. And like you, they may be struggling to find a place to shove their laptop, purse, coats, carry-on bags and such in the scant space provided.
Once everyone is onboard and have stowed their gear, the pilot comes on and says there will be slight delay taking off. To save money, the airlines instructs their pilots to not run the engines. Consequently, if it is cold outsize, you sit there and freeze. If it is hot outside, you sit there and swelter.
Then you depart the gate, taxi toward the runaway and wait in line for what seems like forever with a hundred other planes for your departure. Then comes the part I like, the take-off. The captain throttles up the engines and you start to accelerate down the runaway. The opening music from the movie "Top Gun" always goes through my head as our speed builds and aerodynamic forces begin to lift the airliner off its wheels. For the next few minutes, I enjoy our ascent from the earthly realm into the heavens. But then the waiting begins again.
Until the plane climbs to a certain altitude and levels off, you can't leave your seat. This means you can't get up to go to the bathroom until the "Fasten Seat Belts" sign goes out. As you get older, your bladder capacity isn't what it used to be, and such a wait can be painfully long.
Then comes the long wait for something to quench your parched throat. The air quality inside an airliner is worse than the rankest locker room. Besides being dry as the Sahara desert, it also recirculates all the germs your fellow passengers are coughing and sneezing out of their lungs and nasal cavities. Better hope your immune system is up for the trip.
If the weather is decent and the air is smooth, the flight itself isn't bad provided you have a little elbow room and the people sitting next to your in front of you and behind you are not too gross, loud or intoxicated. The absolute worst situation is the crying baby who won't shut up. A long flight with a crying baby can chance a lot of people's minds about justifiable child abuse. A small child sitting behind you who entertains himself by repeatedly kicking the back of your seat can be real annoyance, too. Same for the overweight passenger who snores loudly next to you or behind you, or the loud-mouthed salesman who can't shut-up, or the alcoholic passenger who obviously got a head start on his daily intake of alcohol before he boarded the plane, or the inconsiderate person directly in front of you who puts their seat back as far back as it will go and prevents you from reading or doing much of anything else for the duration of the flight.
The change in cabin pressure also causes the human body to expel gas. This can also add to the discomfort and unpleasantness of the flight depending on the number of people in close proximity and what they ate for dinner.
God help you if you get air sick and hit turbulence. That's why they have barf bags in the seat back pockets. Hopefully you'll have enough time to grab one before you have to use it. And hopefully, it will not have been previously used for this purpose.
You're also going to have a miserable flight if you have bad sinuses like I do and the pressure changes play havoc inside your head. Going up isn't so bad. But coming down can be a painful experience that may linger for hours after the plane has landed. I've had flights where it felt like somebody smacked me in the face with a baseball bat.
When you finally arrive at your destination, you're anxious to get off the plane. But you can't just yet because you have to wait for everybody else to stand up, gather up their stuff, and eventually shuffle off the plane. Add another 15 to 20 minutes to your flight experience.
Then you get to walk what seems like miles to the baggage claim area, only to twiddle your thumbs as you wait for your bag to appear. Add another 15 to 30 minutes to your flying experience.
If your bag eventually shows up on the carousel or conveyor belt, it probably looks exactly like the zillion other black or blue suitcases that everybody else owns. That's why luggage tags as well as some other mark to personalize your luggage is necessary. I mark mine with chalk, and write "THIS ONE" on both sides.
Amazingly, I've never had luggage lost on a flight. But I have had numerous suitcases damaged or ruined by gorilla baggage handlers with an attitude. I've had wheels broken off, handles pulled out by their roots, zipper fobs ripped from their moorings, suitcases split open, and what appeared to be a stab wound through one suitcase that pierced several shirts and pants inside.
In addition to the bad experience that generally goes with commercial airline travel these days, Iíve had a number of bad flights during which I could have met my maker.
I've had a number of bad weather flights through severe thunder storms where I thought the plane would shake apart. On one night flight back to Chicago from Florida, the wings of he plane were actually glowing green as lightening flashed and bounced off the fuselage. I kissed the ground when I got off that flight.
On an outbound flight from Denver, the take-off was aborted when one of the engines exploded!
I had another take-off aborted about halfway down the runway when a loud bang and jolt caused the plane to shudder. The pilot stood on the brakes and brought us to a screeching halt just before we ran out of runway. I thought sure we had hit something, but the pilot said it was a compressor failure. We taxied back to the terminal (which now had a new meaning), and we all waited while a mechanic came onboard, banged around in the back of the plane for about 20 minutes, then left. Of course, they wouldn't let anybody get off the plane while this was going on. Finally, the pilot came on the intercom and announced we would "try taking off again." Not very reassuring. We made it otherwise I wouldn't be writing this piece now.
I also experienced a near miss while taking off from O'Hare. Another plane on an intersecting runway nearly clipped us as we roared down the runway. The incident was reported to the FAA, and actually made the news. Better that than a story about a horrific loss of life when two planes collided during take-off.
Another time I was on a flight that was about to land in Dallas when a small private plane pulled out on the runway right in front of us. Our pilot had to abort the landing and pull up sharply to avoid a collision.
Then there was the time our plane nearly ran out of fuel over Lake Michigan. It was a flight to Detroit on a small commuter plane. We had been delayed for over two hours taking off due to weather, and when we finally took off the pilot realized over the middle of the lake that he was about to run out of fuel. So we made an emergency landing at a small airport on the Michigan side, and waited while a guy pushed a barrel of jet fuel out to the plane and pumped it into the wing tank.
I also got to experience a "Baghdad" landing years before such a maneuver became necessary for flights landing in Baghdad, Iraq to avoid possible hostile fire. This was on another flight to Detroit. As usual we were late taking off from O'Hare, so the pilot decided to make up time by staying at altitude until we were practically over the airport in Detroit. Then he announced we would be making a rather abrupt landing, and to please buckle up. The next thing I knew, the place was spiraling down like a rock toward the runway. It felt like he had deployed the reverse thrusters. On the way to the hotel after this gut-wrenching landing, the pilot and flight crew from that plane happened to be on the same shuttle bus that I was. They were all laughing and joking about the pilot's unusual landing procedure. I didn't think it was too funny.
My worst flying experience, and the one that finally convinced me that I was DONE flying, happened a couple of years ago on a flight to South Carolina. It was on one of those small commuter planes that holds maybe 20 or so people. It was hotter than hell and as usual we were late taking off from O'Hare due to a weather delay some place else in the country. We pulled out on the runway and sat there for over two hours. To save fuel, the pilot shut the engines off, leaving us to swelter inside the plane.
I don't know if it was bad air in the plane, the stuffy, claustrophobic environment, or the undercooked Big Mac sandwich that I had gulped down just before boarding the plane that made me sick. But suddenly I began to feel extremely ill. I was sweating, my stomach felt queasy and my head was pounding. I told the flight attendant I was getting sick and asked if it was possible to get off the plane. We weren't going anywhere anyway, and nobody had any idea how long the delay might last.
He ignored me. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, trying to regain my composure as best I could, but I kept feeling worse and worse. My left arm started to tingle and I was suddenly struck with the fear that maybe I was having a heart attack! What a crappy way to die, I thought to myself, strapped into a damn airplane and unable to get medical help because they wouldn't let me off the plane.
I called the flight attendant again, and said "I WANT OFF THIS PLANE AND I WANT OFF THIS PLANE NOW! I THINK I"M HAVING A HEART ATTACK!"
Considering the fact that I was having all of the classic symptoms of a heart attack and probably looked like I was about to pass out, you'd think the flight crew would have responded immediately. But no, the flight attendant wandered up to the pilot's cabin, disappeared for what seemed like another 10 minutes, then finally reappeared. He announced that we would be returning to the gate. Thank God, I thought! At least I could get off the plane, maybe lay down for a bit, and hopefully get to feeling better.
But no. If you get sick on a plane and the plane has to return to the gate, they are not letting you off. They are going to call the paramedics and not let you go anywhere until you've been checked out. So we waited at the gate, then waited for the paramedics to arrive, then waited for them to drag their oxygen bottle and other equipment onboard, then waited while they checked my vital signs.
By now my heart was racing and my blood pressure was through the roof. They assumed the worst, strapped me onto a stretcher and carted me off the plane to a waiting ambulance, which then whisked me to a nearby hospital.
Enroute, they gave me oxygen and stuck an IV into my arm. I thought surely this was it. "Automotive Editor Dies On Way To Press Conference," the obituary would read.
When we arrived at the emergency room, they stuck me full of needles, hooked up wires, checked this and checked that. Then we waited for the test results, and waited and waited and waited.
After a couple of hours, I began to feel better. When the tests finally came back and revealed that I had not had a heart attack, they made we wait another couple of hours to repeat more blood tests. When those tests finally came back okay, I was released from their care. The diagnosis was possible food poisoning or the stomach flu exacerbated by an anxiety attack). What should have been a two hour flight to a press conference had turned into an all-day long ordeal, and an expensive one at that!
So from that point on, I swore I would avoid flying on commercial airlines as much as possible, and possibly forever!
DRIVING, THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE TO FLYING
For virtually ANY trip that is 300 to 400 miles from Chicago, driving is usually faster than flying when you add in all the delays and hassles that go with flying today. Besides, when you get to your destination, you have your own car and don't need to rent a car or take a taxi. And the mileage compensation is usually such you actually make money driving, even when gas was $4 a gallon.
For the past two years, I have driven from Chicago to Las Vegas for the AAPEX and SEMA shows. Yes, it's a long drive (about 1800 miles one-way). But I do it over three days and take some time along the way to see places and things I've never seen before or want to see again -- like the Grand Canyon, like Meteor Crater, like Old Route 66, like Hoover Dam, like Arches National Park, like Bryce National Park, like Zion National Park, like Indian cliff dwellings and souvenir stands, like wide open desert, like majestic mountain ranges with winding roads and fantastic scenery. You miss all of that when you fly over the landscape at 30,000 feet in a silver tube. And if it's overcast, all you see is a sea of white beneath you. Why fly when you can drive and actually enjoy the trip?
Every time there is a news report about a plane crash, I say to my wife, "See? There's yet another reason not to fly."
Yes, I know that statistically it is safer to fly than to drive. But if your engine quits in a car, all you do is pull over to the side of the road and call a tow truck. If the weather is bad, you can delay your trip or pull off and wait it out.
You don't have to worry about bird strikes causing you to crash. But if you are driving in Iowa, Wisconsin or Michigan, you do have to be on the lookout for suicidal deer on the highway when the sun goes down.
If you are hungry or have to use the bathroom while driving, you can decide when and where to stop. You can't do that on a plane.
Traveling in your own car is a nice, personal experience. You can listen to the music of your choice, you don't have to have conversation with someone else (assuming you are traveling alone), you don't have to wonder about what kind of coodies might be left on the seat from the person who occupied it last, if you are hungry you can stop and eat where you please, if you want to see something interesting along the way, you are free to do so, and you can get out of the car anytime you want without having to take an ambulance ride to the hospital strapped in a stretcher with tubes and wires attached to your body.
That's why I don't fly anymore.