Oh, for the days when "glamour" and "air travel" went together.

Oh, for the days when "glamour" and "air travel" went together.

Whoever said “It is better to travel than to arrive” wasn’t sitting next to Sarah Lyall aboard American Airlines Flight 1886 en route from Iowa to Arizona at the moment she tried to open her single serving of yogurt.

It’s at this juncture in her 5000 word+/- saga that I begin to wonder if Lyall is chronicling more than the airline industry and instead providing a high-altitude window-seat overview to our country’s fractured classes.

The New York Times reporter’s narrative for the Business section — an account of flying across the United States four times in eight days, on a series of 12 flights, “half of them delayed,” in order to better understand “the forces shaping airline travel today” — begins with the yogurt, which, having built up internal pressure during the flight, explodes, showering white glop upon the hair and shoulders of her seatmates.

In this half-ominous and wholly hilarious launch to “Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America,” the yogurt’s explosion functions as a metaphor for how tensions inside the airline cabin, and the industry as a whole, have been coming to a head. As Lyall summarizes, “The unfriendliness of the skies seems to grow only more baroquely awful with each new incident.”

In her nut graf Lyall asks, “How did air travel, which once seemed so glamorous and exciting, turn into a sadomasochistic pas de deux between the industry and the passenger?”

Lyall brings both levity and journalistic legwork to investigate some of the issues complicating domestic air travel, finding humor in humiliation. As one flight attendant put it, “You’re crammed in like sardines, your independence is taken away from you, you’re paying for things that used to be free.”

On “Day Three,” when Lyall prints out and affixes her bag routing tag, chalking it up as, one more of the “Things Airline Employees Used To Do,” it’s evident she’s smuggled her trenchant sense of humor into a section of the Times that rarely serves as a forum for voicey longform.

You've had dreams about air terminals being this empty, haven't you? Here, the terminal formerly known as the TWA Terminal at the airport formerly known as Idlewild.

You've had dreams about air terminals being this empty, haven't you? Here, the terminal formerly known as the TWA Terminal at the airport formerly known as Idlewild.

As a precursor and perhaps template for this assignment, Lyall recalls how “some years ago, I wrote an article that followed a bag of garbage on a journey.” In that piece, she followed Long Island resident Ocke Ketelson’s trash as it entered the “waste stream” and traveled 800 miles from the end of Ketelson’s driveway to a landfill four states away. Her article, “From L.I. to Angry Illinois: A 5-Day Trash Odyssey,” was (as is this article) replete with time stamps, titled mini-chapters and amusing but informative reporting on an industry’s inherent foibles.

“The unfriendliness of the skies seems to grow only more baroquely awful with each new incident.”

In the introduction to her eight-day airline odyssey, Lyall notes, “The stories had a pleasing parallelism to them—the random travel from place to place, the studious tracking of the specimen. This time, perhaps, I was the specimen.”

By explaining “Day 1: The Caste System,” and “Day 2: Boarding Nightmare,” Lyall documents “what the airlines euphemistically call the ‘boarding process.’”

She observes how the airplane turns into  “a microcosm of the Hunger Games” and how “the Gate lice” — a term, she tells us, the Haves of preferential boarding status use to refer to the Have-nots — may as well have boarding passes that say Loser on them. And the process of reaching one’s seat, she tells us, is the equivalent of “starting at a penthouse on Fifth Avenue and traversing the city until you reach your own house, a tent shared by 20 people on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.”

Surely in this age of fake news and alternative facts, it’s a journalistic feat to brandish jaunty language and still earn the reader’s faith through the final sentence. As a former London correspondent for the Times, Lyall is no stranger to dodgy dispatches. In a chapter of her snortingtly funny memoir, “The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British,” she compares the two countries’ journalistic standards, writing, “The British papers are unquestioningly more playful, opinionated and funnier than ours. They’re often more stylish and sophisticated, and more interesting to read.” What they lack, she acknowledges, is reliability and accuracy. Lyall lays out the paradigms like a mathematical axiom: “Just as U.S. Congress is duller but somehow more respectable than the British Parliament, so American newspapers are generally less amusing and but more trustworthy than British ones.” But Lyall’s prose, thanks to sustained study on both sides of the pond, offers the best possible hybrid: credible research offset with interesting, often baldly humorous testimony.

Back in the day when flight attendants were called stewardesses.

Back in the day when flight attendants were called stewardesses.

What keeps Lyall out of the Op-ed is her due diligence. Interspersed amongst the personal account of eight days of near ceaseless air travel are relevant quotes from 11 human sources, ranging from experts such as Henry Harteveldt, an industry group analyst at Atmosphere Research Group, and Seth Kaplan, a managing partner of the online publication Airline Weekly, to bystanders (er, bysitters?) such as Lyall’s seatmate Bela Nabulsi, a United Airlines 1K member from Houston, and business-class passenger Albert Zahalka, who remembers the “soul-destroying experience” of flying in economy.

As well, Lyall’s copy fairly bristles with facts. She cites Bureau of Transportation statistics of on-time performance (just under 80%); she counts security workers (44,000) and confiscated firearms (3,391 in 2016); and percentage of mishandled bags (5.73 per thousand in 2016) — the lowest ever recorded, according to “technology company SITA.”

Nevertheless, Lyall incurs a lost bag, which she includes among her personal statistics of the trip, again, both silly and serious: “Twelve cups of tomato juice. Three trips through whole body scanners. One alarming use of the word ‘groin area.’ Eight testy conversations with authority figures…. Two broken entertainment systems. And a reporter who went a week without washing her hair.”

By Day 7 of her extended domestic airline excursion, Lyall is fully proficient in the agony of boarding Zone Three, aka Gate lice land. Down to her last clean clothes — the adult onesie she bought at the Sochi Olympics — she’s watched a distraught Platinum status member plead futilely with a clerk to reinstate his upgrade status from No. 6 to No. 2. “What’s the use of the grubbing and scratching your way up an airline loyalty ladder if it exposes you to this sort of status based distress?” she asks.

It’s at this juncture in her 5000 word+/- saga that I begin to wonder if Lyall is chronicling more than the airline industry and instead providing a high-altitude window-seat overview to our country’s fractured classes.

For a whole week she’s flown with the 99% (or perhaps the wealthiest 99% — those who can afford to fly versus taking a bus). However, for her article’s conclusion, she joins the airline traveler’s 1%, and in doing so also reveals the (dystopic?) business model that keeps seat-based inequities aloft (so to speak).

Her 12th and final flight – a glimpse of heaven — begins on the ground with access to a special lounge where she sips cucumber water, and it climaxes in the sky in 6B, a seat so ample that it reclines into a full-length bed. Here Lyall’s Hunger Games analogy of the industry — “where the elite enjoy over-the-top frivolities distant from the tedium of normal life, while the masses scrap over scant resources” — culminates. Now Lyall reveals the economic engines propelling the industry: “Airline executives have come to realize that they can do almost whatever they like in economy class, offering…a seat basically,” whereas the industry’s profit comes from the lucrative customers. First-class passengers, she tells us, “are worth perhaps 10 times as much as economy passengers” — a statistic reminiscent of the Electoral College process, as opposed to the popular vote.

Lyall fulfills her assignment embedded in the front of the plane, basking in her “cocoon of privilege.” Having put her days of exploding yogurt behind her (literally), she awaits a flight attendant’s delivery of a custom hot-fudge sundae — proving that the skies are still very friendly to the upwardly mobile.

 

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