Coming clean in the TSA era

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport.

The conversation turned to the TSA at my morning coffee gathering today. Pretty much everyone at the table flies for business or pleasure, at least occasionally. So it is no wonder that scattered amongst the chatter about local, state, and federal government shenanigans, the recently implemented grope-fest going on at airports all across the United States should come up.

Opinions differed as to how each person felt about the latest security measures. Eventually the focus shifted to me, the pilot in the group. Which caused me to admit publicly what I seldom speak of. The truth is this: I don’t fly commercial. Not ever. Not for any reason. I just don’t.

To be perfectly honest, it pains me to say that, even though it is completely true. I love aviation. For much of my life I’ve loved the adventure and sense of wonder I felt any time I walked up to a gate agent, handed over my ticket, and prepared to board an airplane that would put me in another time zone, or on another continent in a matter of hours.

My commercial air travel experiences started young. My dad, Captain Stu Beckett, went from being a US Air Force officer, to a spot on the flight deck for Pan American, in 1964, when I was but a wee lad. Because of that association, I was able to fly commercially to visit my grandparents every summer, even in a time when flying commercially was still somewhat uncommon for leisure travelers.

I still have a passport that includes a stamp from London, England, that was affixed by an agent in 1971. I traveled across the Atlantic in a brand, spanking new Boeing 747, the largest airplane in the air at the time. I felt like royalty. To this day I can remember the sights and sounds and sensations I experienced as we flew over the ocean beside and above another airliner headed in the same direction. Years later I was fortunate enough to look down from a TWA flight from Germany to New York, and view Greenland on a sparkling clear day. It is difficult to describe the absolute wonder I felt as I witnessed the barren ice blue surface of that frozen island jut down into the sea, six miles below me.

Remarkable. For much of my life I found commercial aviation to be just remarkable. But even the best things in life come to an end. And that process began for my relationship with commercial aviation in the 1990s. By 1995 I had to admit to myself at least that I no longer enjoyed commercial aviation. Terminals were by that time becoming almost indistinguishable from bus stations. Formerly friendly gate agents had become cold and surly. My commercial flights were packed with screaming children, agitated parents, harried business travelers, and annoying vacation goers who seemed to be under the impression they they could act as if they were in a frat house while in-flight. And they were right. Nobody seemed to care at all. Except me. So I stopped flying commercial, entirely. About 15 years later, I have no regrets, other than the fact that I miss the days when flying aboard an airliner was convenient, expedient, and exciting.

I am conflicted on this issue, especially because I once thought I was destined to fly commercial from the left seat, like my dad did. Today, I consider myself lucky to have dodged that bullet. Today, I can think of nothing less appealing than to be an airline pilot. And that saddens me more than I can put into words. Because I love being in the cockpit, as much as I loved sitting in first class, every bit as much as I loved sitting in the back row of a flight on a DC-9, with the rumble of twin turbines battering my eardrums for two-hours or more. I loved it, and I miss it, but commercial aviation is in the past tense for me.

Hopefully, that won’t be a permanent condition.

For me the issue isn’t security, primarily. Admittedly, I would be hesitant to subject myself, or my family, to what currently passes for necessary security measures. But my problem started long before this most recent policy was thought up. My problem began with the airline’s decision to be lax in imposing their own standards of behavior. When passengers began holding up flights because they insisted on lugging carry-on baggage the size of a small refrigerator on board, and the crews allowed it – I became disenchanted. It was downhill from there for me. And that’s okay, because that is a personal decision. It extends to nobody other than me.

I guess I’m just cranky enough to have higher expectations than the industry has for itself.

I spent a day at Orlando International Airport last week, where I was attending a legislative conference. The meetings are held in conference rooms that overlook the airport’s security check-in area. Passengers file through the metal detectors, and baggage search areas immediately below the vantage point of mayors, and commissioners, and staffers from every county in Florida. I saw no smiling faces, no happy children, no evidence of warm families embarking on an adventure. All of which were common when I used to fly commercial – back in the good ‘ol days.

I saw only long lines and long faces. There was not one person on the floor who gave any outward sign that they were glad to be where they were, or that they were happy to be doing what they were doing.

When I was preparing to leave the conference I passed a committee chairman and several other elected officials who were gathered close to the glass wall overlooking the sullen passengers below. They chuckled and joked at what an annoying, dehumanizing process those passengers were going through just below us. And that saddened me. Because Florida is a big state, nearly 400 miles long, and 400 miles wide at the panhandle. Yes, most of the attendees at my conference drove themselves to their destination rather than fly. I suspect because flying is no longer enjoyable, quick, or adventurous. It’s just another annoying line you have to stand in, followed by an unpleasant interaction with a disinterested government employee, which leads to a curt exchange with a gate agent who would rather be anywhere else.

My experience is not universal by any means. But mine is not a perspective borne in isolation, either. I fear that without real leadership, without a true understanding of what is being sacrificed in the name of security, we will lose much of an important industry and put an end to a way of life that I had a real affection for at one time.

It is hard to admit, but it is true. I do not fly commercial. Not ever. But I will always wish that I could, and that I may again one day – if only to relive the days when flying was fast, efficient, safe, and friendly.

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

Comments

  1. Lorin Miller says

    I fly commercially (as a passenger) frequently out of the midwest- both domestic and international.
    I never save time by flying comercially if my end destination is less than about 700 miles away. The time allotment and hassle to check in (at least one hour before flight or you loose your seat), and deal with TSA is phenominal.
    There are significant trends in the business segment to not fly folks to a meeting anymore because of the huge hassle and time out of pocket, but to rely on web based technology. Business travellers historically didn’t worry too much about cost – as long as they could convienently work and be comfortable. They are the golden egg for the airline industry. The flying public has a huge concern about cost, meaning the airlines have to approach ticket sales with a different strategy.
    If it wasn’t such a huge time commitment and hassle to fly domestically – I would fly more.

  2. Tom Martin says

    Very well said. I used to look for places to go just so I could ride on an airliner. Now I look for any alternate way to travel.

  3. Charles R. Wirt says

    Jamie– I agree with virtually all you say, I am ATP,CFII,ASMEL, retirec USN commissioned officer/aviator, held secret clearance, am insulted & disgusted every time I so mush as think about it, but do fly commercial when necessary. A lot less fuel consumed with my fanny strapped to a seat in an airliner, I don’t have to flight plan, park it when I get there, can snooze, slurp a cuppacoffee, try with the cutie in the next seat, etc. I still HATE the security just as bad. In some ways however, airlines have gotten better. At least they’ve gotter rid of the cigarette smoke. That USED to be the main reason I hated to fly on an airliner. Keep on writing!

  4. says

    I remember the days when flying on Piedmont Airlines was something that I looked forward to with great enthusiasm. I did not get to fly often, but treasured every opportunity that I got. Now, like another poster said, it takes an emergency situation to cause me to fly commercial. I work for a company that has a couple of small aircraft for business travel. I don’t often get to fly on their planes, but the few times I have, it has been a very enjoyable experience.

    I am a private pilot and spend a lot of time at our local airport. I envy those few of us who are instrument rated and can just get in their personal craft and take the family off on a relaxing and exciting vacation, with no hassle from anyone. I wonder how long that will last?

  5. says

    You are so right on Jamie! My tickets are always one way, and bought at the last minute, so I’m OK with the tear down and questions like, why do you have all these charts, GPS and head set. But when the captain of the flight is taking off his shoes and getting the wand treatment and I can see in his eyes that he’s not a happy pilot, I really wonder. Isn’t he the guy with the yoke in his hands, and does he need a bomb or fingernail clipper? I just got back from ANC and I was ready for the pat down as my intention was to show it all to them. They can look at it, but they can’t touch it. I envy your position and wish I didn’t have to put up with the tsa crap, but don’t get me started on 8g….

  6. says

    Jamie,
    I have to agree with you, commercial flying has become a chore to be avoided if at all possible. I used to love the sense of adventure and excitement I felt when taking a flight to a destination never before seen, however like the complimentary meals, free baggage check and happy employees that all ended in the 1990’s. It seems greed has taken the place of good manners and civility for the airlines, in an endless search for a better bottom line air carriers have alienated travelers for almost twenty years now. Dry sandwiches for ten dollars or more? baggage fees? beverage charges? surly union “flight attendants”? and what about the genius who wanted pay toilets on flights?
    Forget about it!!!

  7. Tom Brion says

    You said it for me! That is just how I see it. I’m a Comm rated pilot who has been in love with aviation forever, but there would have to be an emergency to get me on one of those cattle-cars.

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