Sarah Lyall — The Problem With Flying

A airline employee’s response to “Paying a Price for 8 Days of Flying in America”

Orignial New York Times Article

A friend sent me an article about a woman, Sarah Lyall, and her 8 day flying adventure. She spent 8 days traveling across the country in economy class. 12 flights and 12 cities, she bravely took to the “unfriendly skies” to research where the airline industry has gone wrong. To ask the question: “How did air travel, which once seemed so glamorous and exciting, turn into a sadomasochistic pas de deux between the industry and the passenger?”

She starts her essay negatively. Day 6, from Des Moines to Phoenix. Her entertainment system is broken, she’s wearing the same sweatpants as yesterday (the horror!), and, as she opens her yogurt, it explodes in her face (who knew air pressure was a thing?).

Before we dig down deep into the nitty gritty of the piece, let’s look, for a moment, and try to piece together the point of this article.

To understand the forces defining air travel in America today, I spent eight days crisscrossing the country in economy class…To get a sense of the perverse forces that drive airlines, airports and security personnel to pursue seemingly customer-hostile policies in the name of profits and safety.

Already she’s leading us on what looks like a very hopeless journey. She starts with exploding yogurt to really connect with the audience, really make them feel how bad flying really is. And she’s traveling with the direct intention of figuring out why flying is so bad. Go into something looking for the bad and you’re only going to see the bad. Sorry, Sarah, but air travel isn’t as bad as you think it is.

On the first day, Sarah travels from New York’s Kennedy Airport to San Francisco.

“I can’t sleep on crowded late-night planes, so I pick a flight that leaves at a reasonable hour and duly present myself at Kennedy International Airport at 6 p.m.”

She notices right away that there are two groups of people. Regular check-in and Priority check-in. The Priority check-ins are seemingly treated better, ushered to the front of the line, and greeted with big smiles. Sarah claims that the difference between these two groups is that the Priority check-ins will have a good experience, while the Regular check-ins will have a bad experience.

This is interesting to me. The experience is, more or less, the same. Check in, check your bag, get your boarding pass, go through security. The Priority line is shorter, of course, so they’re helped quicker. But there’s a reason airlines tell you to get to the airport two hours in advance — and it’s not so you can check out the gross airport food…

If you pay more, you’re going to get a better experience, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to have a bad experience if you pay less. It’s like those families that buy all the Fastpasses at Disneyland. Sure, we look at them with envy, but we’re still in Disneyland, riding all the same rides, and getting pissy at the groups of twenty who skip the line because one of them is in a wheelchair. But hey, if we also paid extra, we’d get to cut the lines, too.

But the difference between Disneyland and an airport is that people don’t come to an airport expecting to have a good time. They come stressed. They come dreading the entire experience. But why? What’s so bad about airline travel? Sarah looks into it and this is what I’ve picked out of her negativity.

Things Sarah Doesn’t Like About Flying:

  1. Delays and Cancelled Flights
  2. Priority vs Economy
  3. The Boarding Process
  4. Security
  5. The Food
  6. Fat People
  7. Lost Luggage

Delays and Cancelled Flights

“At the gate, the flight is delayed for more than two hours, for whimsical reasons known only to the airline. Just under 80 percent of flights in the United States landed on time last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, an independent agency that is part of the Transportation Department. In the last decade, the on-time rate has been as low as 70.91 percent and as high as 82.11 percent.”

There are 87,000 flights per day in America. Multiply that by 365 and we’ve got 31,755,000 flights per year. 80%, or 25 million, of those are on time. I’m not sure what we’re complaining about here. Taking into account weather, broken airplanes, late passengers, air traffic, and what have you, 25 million on time landings is pretty good.

Sarah’s first flight is delayed for more than two hours, “for whimsical reasons known only to the airline.” Bullshit. Airlines tell you why they’re delayed. Airline employees will tell you why there’s a delay if you ask them. It’s our job. More often than not, delays are due to weather. Newsflash, if it’s not safe to take-off or land, we’re not going to take-off or land. Safety is the highest priority to airlines, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Priority Vs. Economy

“A thin curtain separates us from first class, but it feels impenetrable. A passenger attempts to use the first-class bathrooms but is ordered to the back of the plane. As the flight attendants dole out our sole free snack on this flight of six and a half hours — a lone Lotus Biscoff (“Europe’s Favorite Cookie With Coffee”) — the aroma of something delicious that may or may not be lasagna wafts in from the front.”

OMG, if you don’t pay to sit in first class, you can’t use the first class bathrooms?

Airlines don’t have to give out free snacks. An airline I work for flies over 7 hours and the passengers don’t get a meal. First class, however, is provided with dinner and breakfast. But I guess you get what you pay for, right?

“A thin curtain separates us from first class, but it feels impenetrable.” If Sarah hadn’t lost me before, this is where she does now.

Cut the drama, dude. If economy is so bad, pay extra and sit in first class. Complaining about things that can be easily changed doesn’t really make sense. The cheaper you are, the less benefits you’re going to get, flying or not.

The Boarding Process

“Zone 3 is for passengers with the cheapest tickets. They are forbidden to get on the plane until everyone else — the Sky Team Elite Plus members, the Priority Boarding Trip Extra customers, and so on — has already boarded.”
“Our boarding passes might as well say “Loser” on them.”
“By the time we board, there’s no space left in the overhead bins, and we have to relinquish our suitcases at the gate.”

You board last because you bought the cheapest tickets. The less money you pay, the less options you have. Purchase an upgrade, board first, and have all the room in the world to store your carry-on. Don’t complain about not having enough space when you didn’t pay to have space. If you really saved a lot of money on your ticket, good for you! But don’t expect to get the same treatment as those who paid a little bit more.

It’s the same story for any amenity you choose to save money on. Disneyland, concerts, sports games, they’re all the same: the more you pay, the better your experience.


Security, of course, is one of the main features of the modern airport, its operation bolstered by more than 44,000 security officers employed by the Transportation Security Administration. The agency screens some two million passengers a day. In 2016, its officers caught passengers attempting to sneak a total of 3,391 firearms onto airplanes

I think security is the dumbest thing to complain about in the entire flying process.

You’re literally complaining about being searched for dangerous items. You’re complaining about how long it takes professionals to decide if you’re a threat to the safety of the aircraft. If it’s such a nuisance, maybe we should just do away with it. Maybe all 3,391 of those firearms were from friendly people who just happen to have their concealed carries. Maybe they’re all nice policemen. Maybe.

But what if they’re not? After 9/11 are we really still complaining about the TSA?

“…you cannot escape the possibility of the full-body scanner.”
“Feet splayed to match the floor diagram, hands in the air as if you’ve been pulled over by the cops, you feel like both criminal and victim”

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m halfway into a jumping jack in the full body scanner. And I’d rather everyone be scanned than not. Besides, it literally takes, what, three seconds for the machine to scan you? Oh what a waste of time!

Sarah also gets searched in the “groin area” after something flagged the body scanner.

““Lift your blouse so I can get underneath your waistband,” she continues.
It’s actually a sweater, but whatever. I am exposing half my stomach and back to my fellow passengers. I feel the way I would if the police strip-searched me in the newsroom, in front of my editors. The agent rummages around in there. “Widen your stance, please,” she says, checking the insides of my legs up to the top, over my pants.”

TSA agents will always ask if you want to be patted down in private, especially if they have to check your “groin area.” And if they don’t ask, you can ask to be taken to a private screening area. No exposing yourself to other passengers necessary! I always just let it happen. If some perv is gonna record it and put it on the internet to get off on it, so be it. At least I was helpful.

The Food

“It is perpetually dinnertime at the airport, but I do not want the food. I do not want the pizza, hamburgers, tacos, bagels, buffalo chicken wings, Tex-Mex, Japanese, Chinese, Indian or Italian. I do not want the doughnuts, Cronuts, cupcakes, cookies or salads garnished with croutons that taste like soap. I do not want a Shake Shack shake.”

Well, damn, Sarah, what do you want to eat? You literally listed all of my favorite food groups, so I’m not sure what to tell you. Sorry airports don’t have a Cheesecake Factory inside. Last I checked, grab and go was the better option because people don’t come to airports to sit for four hours and catch up with their friends over dinner. But I guess in the case of the 20% of delayed flights in America, maybe airports should invest in better restaurants… Sounds real profitable!!!

Also, I’m sorry airplane food isn’t up to your standards, either:

“On the flights, those of us sitting in the back tend to avoid buying from the snack cart, making do with the tiny free packets like Savory Snack Mix, blobs of crackerlike material coated with unpleasant flavoring.”

Maybe if you paid more money, the food would be better? Just a wild guess, though! What do I know, I’m just an airline employee!

But hey! If you want your pick of food options, I’m sure you can just roadtrip to San Francisco. Shouldn’t take more than a few days, and maybe it’s cheaper.

Fat People

This is what pissed me off most about your article, Sarah. Your complete shaming of the person next to you eating Chick-Fil-A:

On another flight, the lady by the window, who had raised our mutual armrest so as to better squeeze over the line into my seat, whipped out a Chick-fil-A fried-chicken sandwich.
The distressing scent of dill pickles and processed chicken wafted through the air. Finally she finished and stuffed the wrapper back into the Chick-fil-A bag, after which the lady on the aisle produced her own lunch: the exact same sandwich.
She said she had had the same thing the day before and liked it so much that she had it again.

First, when you’re on a flight with 200 other people, there’s going to be a lot of smells. I had a guy crack open a can of tuna once. I also had a guy spit into a water bottle the whole flight. The smell every time he unscrewed the lid to spit made me want to vomit. Smells happen when you’re in a contained metal cylinder hurtling through the air. So, that Chick-fil-A sandwich isn’t the worst smell to experience while flying. At least she didn’t vomit all over you.

You’re stuck in a middle seat. Who’s fault is that again? The airlines or yours for not logging in 24 hours in advance to select your seat or paying a little bit more to be more comfortable?

I get that it sucks when bigger people sit next to you. They encroach in your space. You feel stuck. But that’s no reason to shame them: “Who had raised our mutual armrest so as to better squeeze over the line into my seat.” Why don’t you just go ahead and call her fat?

This line really irks me: “she said she had had the same thing the day before and liked it so much that she had it again.” Wow I’m sorry her personal taste has annoyed you so much. Chick-fil-A is really delicious Sarah. Maybe if you tried it, you’d be less angry.

Lost Luggage

Sarah loses her luggage.

“I return to the airport to hunt down my luggage, which never arrived at the hotel. The lost-luggage desk has the deserted feel of a warehouse on a weekend. I am not sure what to do, so I call the Delta customer-service number on my cellphone…I keep her on the phone by whining for a bit about things she cannot help me with.”


You’re whining about things someone can’t help you with, so who are you helping in this situation? No one. You are literally the worst. You’re wasting time. You’re being a bad person.

“Someone does eventually arrive, and I’m reunited with my bag. I’ve been surprised at how efficiently the airlines have handled this suitcase, which is small and black and looks like every other suitcase.”

Positivity! I like it.

On lost baggage, however, I think what people don’t understand is how many different people and companies your bags go through to get to your destination.

Your bag starts at check-in, with an airline employee, let’s use Delta. You give your bag to a Delta agent, they tag the bag and send it down the belt. Was the tag right, however? If it’s wrong, blame Delta. Then your bag goes through it’s own security. This is not Delta, this is airport security. If they find something in your bag, they pull it off the belt and search it further. Who knows how long the search will take. Too long and your bag misses the flight. Airport security is to blame. When your bag is done being searched, it is put on a bag belt with lots of other bags, all going to different destinations. Delta rampers sort the bags and put them on carts. People make mistakes. Sometimes bags get put on the wrong carts and loaded onto the wrong plane. Or maybe the guy loading the plane notices the bag is for a different flight and sets it aside. Maybe your bag goes on another flight and it’s a ten hour flight so it’s going to take at least 20 hours to get your bag back.

It’s not always the airline’s fault when your bag goes missing and the airline doesn’t always know right away where your bag is at. It could still be in midair. Be patient. Give your information. We have a really cool system that works to match your missing bags with bags that were found. But first your bag has to land.

“The rate of mishandled bags worldwide was 5.73 per thousand in 2016, the lowest ever recorded”

More positivity, Sarah! Even though you whined on the phone about nothing the airline employee could help you with, you understand that mishandled bags is at in all time low!

So, I guess, in conclusion, I don’t understand all the fuss. You sound like a big cry-baby and even admit to it:

I’m whiny, fractious and irrational. I’m tired and tearful. This food tastes awful. I do not want anyone to be the boss of me.
Here are some things I’ve done recently: challenged a T.S.A. agent who ordered me to remove a Kleenex from my pocket, sat in the wrong seat on a flight and claimed it was the other person’s fault, told a lost-bag agent that I was about to miss my next flight when it was not true, sat on the floor at a departure gate in order to charge my phone, and, at a low moment, jostled my seatmate’s arm right off our shared armrest while pretending I was doing something else.
Today I am inexplicably drawn into a passive-aggressive contretemps with a smirking man in cargo shorts who accuses me of failing to remove my items speedily enough from the security conveyor belt, and who calls me “lady.” I actually hiss, “What did you say to me?” as he walks off.

You’re making the entire flying experience a bad experience by complaining about everything and intentionally seeking out things to complain about. It’s hardly fair to call air travel the worst when you are making it the worst.

Airplanes aren’t made to be super comfortable. We pack people onto flights because of the demand. Seats are smaller to save space and fit more people and make tickets cheaper. If you’re not into that, try an airline with more space or upgrade into business class.

Y’all travel with too much luggage. I work for a European carrier and US sized carry-ons don’t fit in our overhead compartments. Luggage is getting too big and way out of hand. It’s not a mystery why everyone’s bags don’t fit. Especially when people store bags that could fit under their seats into the overhead compartments. Be nice to your fellow travelers and give them space, too! And check your bags when you can. It’s a lot less hassle.

TSA is there for your safety. If you don’t like being patted down and raising your arms through the giant X-ray machine, don’t travel by air. I don’t want all 3,000 of those guns getting through. Feel away, TSA agent! My groin is all yours! But, also, please remember what is and isn’t allowed through security. It makes the whole process a lot easier. There’s like a million signs to read about what you can and can’t have while waiting in line. It’s not super hard.

Lastly, when you pay more, you get more. This rings true to every type of service out there. It’s not inclusive to air travel. It happens everywhere. If you have money, you’re going to have a better experience. And why shouldn’t you if you pay more?

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