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The Golden Age of Travel? Let’s hope not!

Is air travel really as bad as I, Tim Winship, would have you believe?

It’s a serious question—one I feel duty-bound to ask myself on a regular basis. Writers have a natural tendency to continue telling the same story, even after events on the ground have rendered that story obsolete.

Last week, the question was raised yet again, by the very first entry in the New York Times’ newly launched “Jet Lagged” (subtitle: “Navigating the Unfriendly Skies”) blog. The entry, by Pico Iyer, is provocatively titled, “The Golden Age of Travel?” And more provocatively still, Iyer responds in the affirmative. To wit: “Air travel is in fact as comfortable and reasonable today as it’s ever been.”

‘Reasonable’ in this context means affordable. And I concede the point: adjusted for inflation, ticket prices are cheaper than they’ve ever been. That means that more people than ever have the financial wherewithal to actually take advantage of the country’s commercial air travel system. And that, I will also concede, is an enormous social good.

But comfortable? What, I wonder, has this guy been smoking on the way to the airport?

Mr. Iyer, according to his bio, lives in rural Japan. Having worked for ten years for Japan’s dominant domestic airline, All Nippon Airways, I can say with some authority that air travel in Japan is much more civilized than its American counterpart. Might that account for some of Iyer’s rather unusual perspective on the subject?

Reasonable people can argue about when the Golden Age of Travel occurred. They can argue about whether this past summer was the worst ever for the flying public, as some have suggested. They can argue the benefits of an A320 over a B757. Or United versus American.

But late and cancelled flights, packed planes, lost bags, incommodious legroom, disappearing meal service … these are verifiably, quantifiably, unarguably among the principal elements of air travel today.

And to suggest that a whole composed of such parts could possibly constitute the Golden Age of Travel willfully ignores the experience (and opinions) of millions of flyers, and validates the airlines’ sorry service standards.

Thanks, Mr. Iyer, for the reality check. I’m not prepared to claim that this is the worst of times, travel-wise. But it certainly isn’t an exemplary age for travel, Golden or otherwise.

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