Other people’s horror stories of flying are notoriously tedious, so I’ll try to focus on the part of the story that seems both new and revealing.
I had occasion to visit Des Moines last week. It’s over 1,000 miles from New Jersey, so I had to fly. The trip went well, and I liked the city quite a bit, but the amount of planning that went into the trip seemed new.
The first decision was between Newark Liberty and Philadelphia airports. Newark is closer to where I live, but it has been a Kafkaesque nightmare of delays recently. Last year I spent over five hours on the tarmac in Charlotte waiting to return to Newark; shortly thereafter, I was stranded in Cleveland due to a ground stop in Newark and had to rent a car and drive across Pennsylvania the long way. That’s enough for a while. The Philadelphia airport would involve driving down 95, including the part that collapsed. But I have more confidence in the new bridge than in Newark airport, so Philly it was.
There weren’t any direct flights from either Newark or Philly, so I had to choose connections. This is the tricky part. I used to pick connections based on length of layover; too short a layover raises the likelihood of missing a flight. Now I choose by asking where I would rather be stranded. If the connecting flight is canceled, from which do I have the best chance of getting where I want to go on time?
There’s something messed up about that. Our system has become so unreliable that it’s advisable to choose connections based on backup plans.
On the way to Des Moines, the choices were Chicago and Denver. If I got stuck in Chicago, I could rent a car and be there in about six hours. If I got stuck in Denver, I’d be stuck in Denver. So, Chicago won. On the way back, the choices were Atlanta and D.C. If I got stuck in D.C., I could catch an Amtrak back to Philly; if I got stuck in Atlanta, I’d be stuck in Atlanta. So, D.C. won.
Adaptations like these happen gradually, only becoming obvious in retrospect. I’m old enough to remember when it was reasonably safe to assume that checked bags would arrive where and when they were supposed to, so the scrum for overhead bins wasn’t so bad. At this point, it’s not just the bags that might get lost. Now it’s worth avoiding entire airports and cities based on the outsize likelihood of total system failure.
Some people blame Pete Buttigieg for the state of things, but I don’t think that’s fair; Newark’s troubles started much farther back than that. The issue seems much more basic than that. Each cog in the machine is cutting costs as much as it can, and they’ve become so effective at it that there just isn’t much slack in the system for when anything goes wrong.
Major League Baseball faced an analogous situation over the last decade or so. Teams had optimized strategies for winning games: that meant focusing on strikeouts and home runs and shifting infielders to maximize their effectiveness. Those strategies worked, in the sense that the teams that adopted them first tended to gain a competitive edge. But as the strategies became commonplace, the games got longer and much more boring. (Crash Davis: “Strikeouts are boring. Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls—they’re more democratic.”) Strategies that were rational when one team implemented them were destructive when everyone did. Attendance and ratings dropped. MLB finally recognized the problem and responded with rule changes—a pitch clock, limits on throws to first base and a ban on “the shift,” among others—that forced teams to adopt more watchable strategies. It worked: games got shorter and much more fun to watch, and both attendance and ratings went up. Ultimately, the solution involved recognizing that the rules had to change.
We need something similar with air travel. Cutting costs to the bone and pushing systems to absolute capacity can work if only one company does it. But when everybody does, and even one thing goes wrong, the entire system collapses into chaos. We should learn the lesson from baseball and get over the knee-jerk antipathy to regulation. What seems like madness at the macro level is the accumulated result of individually rational strategies within the system we have. The only way to fix that is through addressing the rules themselves.
Also, I need someone to explain to me the geographic logic behind Philly to Des Moines via Denver or Atlanta. Maybe geography needs to be a gen ed requirement …