Air travel is the only form of transportation that has gone backwards over the past 20 years.
Trains now go faster. Buses pollute less. Cars are smarter and electric. So are bicycles, ferries and trucks.
The flight, on the other hand, is significantly scarier than it used to be. Years after a British terrorist failed to detonate a bomb in his shoes on a 2001 flight from Paris to Miami, flyers still face crazy rules on liquids as they squeeze into smaller seats and are charged for sandwiches they used to get for free.
The flight may be cheaper and safer, but it’s also slower than it was in 2003, when Concorde made its last transatlantic flight – in roughly half the time it takes today. Airlines promised that supersonic flight would return. There is no.
I wrote a version of these very words back in 2010 when I was the Financial Times’ aerospace correspondent, never imagining that a global pandemic would one day make things worse.
This thought occurred to me last week as I stood in a long line at a small Spanish airport, where I saw something I had never seen in more than 30 years of flying.
The line was full of people boarding two flights to London, one to Gatwick, which I was on, and one to Stansted, both departing around 11am.
We were queuing to get our passports stamped, as happens after Brexit, just meters from the exit doors, beyond which the waiting planes were clearly visible.
As the clock ticked towards 11 and fears of closed gates grew, a commotion broke out at the front of the queue.
Passengers bound for Stansted, including parents who had been queuing for years with toddlers in tow, began shouting at a flight attendant who had not called them to the front of the line earlier.
All at once, some passed by the passport station and made a break to exit. A burly policeman came out of the station and ordered everyone to stay put.
The would-be escapees returned, dismayed, to report that the gate had been closed and they had been left to reserve new flightswith no air support in sight.
This was just one small drama among thousands who have turned flying into a chaotic hellscape of canceled flights, lost luggage and indescribable queues around the world this year.
Pandemic staff shortages and supply chain failures fueling this turmoil are less visible than the ash from the Icelandic volcano and the 9/11 terrorist attacks that caused difficulties in past air travel, but they are just as troubling.
Last week, bosses at Heathrow Airport and Qatar Airways warned that the industry disruption could last much longer than expected. “I think it will last for a couple of years,” Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker told the FT.
Predictably, a cottage industry has sprung up to advise travelers what to do. A few tips are obvious: prepare for queues; fly direct; take only hand luggage and if you have to check bags, bring medicine and other essentials with you to the cabin.
Some ideas seem silly: you can check your bags in the evening before an early morning flight with some airlines, and many experts recommend it, on the grounds that you can sail with peace of mind the next day. But it requires an extra trip to the nightmare that is today’s airport.
Other tips were new to me. It’s best to fly as early in the day as possible because early flights are rarely canceled, a flight attendant wrote in the New York Times the other week.
Later flights are more vulnerable to storms that form as the days get warmer, plus increased traffic at busy airports and flight crews reaching duty limits.
For what it’s worth, my brush with summer travel has taught me this: it’s more important than ever to fly on weekdays if you can.
If you’re in a long line, don’t be afraid to ask the staff to move you to the front of the line if it’s close to boarding time.
Finally, be nice to those staff. Most are doing their best on the front lines of a grim situation they cannot avoid. Lucky you, just passing through.