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The Great Race To The Bottom Continues

Something is very different here.

Frontier Airlines gate LGA
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LGA, TERMINAL ONE, NYC- “It doesn’t matter what airline you fly, it doesn’t matter what airport you leave from, it’s always the same,” spoke a disgruntled passenger after we found out that our flight was delayed due to a flight attendant suddenly getting “sick.”

(Perhaps she really was sick, but it’s also a sketchy move for flight attendants to pretend to be sick in cities they want an overnight in … and this flight touched down early Friday evening in NYC, so …).

But she didn’t only get sick after the plane landed in NYC … she got sick when half the flight had already boarded the aircraft. So roughly a hundred passengers got on the plane, stored their baggage, and buckled themselves up in their seats before they were told that they had to get up and get off the plane. I watched as the parade of disgruntled passengers exited the aircraft … the giddy excitement that we all felt about actually being on a flight that would leave on time completely gone — our illusions were lost; we were back to reality.  

So because of this air hostess suddenly getting “sick” the airline would either need to cancel the flight or call in another one. This particular airline’s nearest base was Philadelphia, so that would mean a two hour call in time plus two hours of transport time … We were informed that the flight could leave in four hours … or it could not leave at all. Which one it would be we would find out about in … four hours.

“So we just have to wait?”

“Yes.”

“So we could wait all that time and the flight could be cancelled?”

“Yes.”

This wasn’t surprising to me: the entire air industry in the US is in shambles. When your flight actually leaves on time you’re like “what the fuck? did that really just happen?” When we go to the airport now we just expect delays, we expect cancelations, we expect to be treated rudely, we expect the airports to be dirty and mismanaged, we expect the food to be inedible and overpriced, we expect to be lied to, we expect to be scammed. 

What was surprising to me was the degree to which the other passengers seemed to understand this. I didn’t hear anyone exclaim the standard “I’m never going to fly this airline again.” There were no Karens, just a hallway crammed full of defeated people who simply accepted the fact that they may not be getting to where they planned on going anytime soon. The guy across the hall who was traveling with his wife and kids sighed deeply, “I’m paying for a room tonight in Orlando and I’m not even going to be there.”

We all know that the choice is no longer between shitty airlines and good ones, but rather, do you want to fly or not. All airlines are about equally bad — they’ve all figured out that providing quality customer service or a quality product doesn’t do much to elevate their bottom lines. Quality is no longer a criteria over which they compete. The only thing that matters now is how cheaply they can get a flight from point A to point B, and if treating customers like humans means higher operating costs then they don’t treat them like humans. 

All airlines suck

Although I did have to marvel at the scene before me. The airline’s gate was more of a narrow hallway that seemed to have more akin to an airbridge than a place where 200 passengers should be packed into for hours at a time. The messages telling us to wear masks and social distance that still blasted over the intercom every five minutes came as a sick irony. A piece of paper that had the airline’s name with an arrow sloppily hand drawn on it was the only thing indicating where the so-called gate even was. The windows were narrow slits. The florescent tubes installed in the low ceiling blasted us with sterile white light. 

“It looks like a third world bus station,” my wife texted after I sent her a picture.

She was right. 

Frontier Airlines delayed flight

An hour goes by …

One of the gate agents then moves to the microphone behind the counter as a hundred passengers rise to attention. She pulls the mic to her and starts speaking. No sound comes out. She blows into it. Taps it. No sound. Like everything else in America, it didn’t work. So she just yelled out the announcement … in Spanish because she didn’t really speak English. I scanned the hallway and watched as the English speakers sheepishly asked the Spanish speakers for translations. 

I went to try to fill my water bottle up at a drinking fountain. A little red light indicated that the filter was shot. It didn’t really work. Nobody cared. 

This would have been unthinkable ten years ago in the USA. People would have complained upon seeing the hallway, they would have lost their shit about the flight attendant getting sick and, especially, being told to wait four hours to find out if the flight was going to leave or not. But now we bend over and just take it. We take it because we know there is no other option. “Welcome to Walmart, fuck you,” has become our national motto. 

We’ve been conditioned to accept a poor customer experience. We accept things being broken. We just shrug about delays and having our schedules messed up and not really getting what we pay for. We have been conditioned to have a third world mentality. This is how people think in Latin America — “It is what it is.” It’s how people acted in China ten years ago. It’s an ingrained part of the culture in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Eastern Europe that’s fading rapidly. Now, many of these countries are starting to work and it’s my country that is broken. It used to fascinate me when some emerging market country would create something that’s more technologically advanced / new / better than what my country had to offer, but now this is just normal.

While I probably never admitted it, I used to breathe a big sigh of relief upon coming back to the USA. I’d go off and travel in dysfunctional countries for years at a time and when I’d come back I’d really enjoy a little respite in a place that worked, was clean, where things left and arrived on time, where customer service was a thing and companies competed for your business not just with cheap prices but with quality service. I’m fortunate because I had 20 years of travel where I could come back to my own country and be spoiled.

Now, I’m more confident in the systems of Mexico …

America is now like a poster for an old Kevin Bacon movie — outdated, faded, and seen many times before; it’s only remaining value being nostalgia. I don’t believe this is a musing for the good old days. We’ve lost something here. That charm, that spark, that intangible something that made this place the creative supernova of the world seems to be gone. We’re now regurgitating our own culture, we’re cutting corners, we care more about people using the right pronouns than having clean water, we unquestioningly believe and do whatever the government tells us, we no longer fly first class.  

I’m not sure how I feel about this. 

Filed under: Air Travel, Airports, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3654 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

4 comments… add one

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  • Rob October 4, 2022, 10:21 pm

    You’ve traveled a LOT more than I have & have been doing it for awhile. I don’t see what you see, I don’t have the needed experience to see what you see. What you are seeing is sad.

    Still… Yesterday I went from a house in western Washington state (that house is a 25 minute drive from a gallon of milk) to the front door of a condo in Clearwater Florida. Did it in 11 hours (door to door) and we left the gate 30 minutes late.. that’s a 47 hour drive.
    There were some problems, the airport hamburger was spendy but ok, but getting that travel done in 11 hrs is still really something!

    What am I trying to say? I’ve never seen a 3rd world bus station, I’m not traveled & I’m not happy with a most of what I see going on around me in my society but I went across the country in 11 hours!

    I got a ride from my house to the airport (Seattle) via a ride I found on Facebook then from the Tampa airport to the condo via Uber, my first time for using either. If the rest of the world is doing better than we are here, with my limited experience I’ll never know about it unless you write about. Don’t stop writing!

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    • VBJ October 5, 2022, 3:27 pm

      Hello Rob,

      Thanks for sharing that story. I think that’s just it. Traveling across the country in 11 hours really is incredible … but it’s been incredible for 50 years now. Now we have emerging economies flirting with building hyperloops, covering their nations in high-speed rail, building the best subway networks ever, constructing the world’s most sophisticated cities, and developing the most popular apps, etc … all while buying up anything from the US that was worth anything (including our farm land). It’s just kind of like the US has patted itself on the back for a job well done and retired. As a culture, we’re cooked. In my opinion 😊

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  • Lawrence Casey Hamilton October 7, 2022, 4:04 pm

    Hey Wade, great to see some posts from you!

    I was over in the states from May to June last year and everything you are saying is pretty spot on. It’s crazy to see the country decline so rapidly. Although, not be an ass, I saw this coming back in 2002 and that’s why I left.

    I guess one of the experiences that summed it up for me was a trip to the Ramada Inn. My nephew and myself were doing a big road trip up to the Dakotas and decided to get a hotel one night. I remember the Ramada a stable brand and was pretty stoked to get a room for about $60. The place was completely full of crackheads, and I am not exaggerating or joking, people were literally smoking hard drugs in the hallways and the parking lot. Not weed, not booze, but what appeared to me as crack. But hey the manager had blue hair and now identified as a woman which they loudly told everyone. I honestly don’t care that the manager is a woman. The Ramada is now proudly diverse while the actual hotel is full of crackheads. It was right up there with any other dangerous place I have stayed. Nuts.

    The inflation was going apeshit while I was there. I literally saw a woman breakdown at the gas station when she saw the price of gas. People are struggling and what we get from our occupying regime of a government is they are all domestic terrorists. I really felt hatred from the government towards the people in Middle America. Maybe I have too much bias since my family are very conservative and rural, but even here in Australia people grimace or make gagging signs when I talk about where I am from, like we are zoo animals. Which is always the thing with me, my parents are devout Christians and volunteer and take an active part in their community while the enlightened ones go on twitter and act superior. Sorry, I am ranting now.

    It was still fascinating and I will still kind of want to move back. History never seems to happen here in Aus. I went to a few baseball games and some amazing campgrounds and more and more people in the “gross, shitty” part of America are onto what’s happening which led to some awesome conversations and all that. Yes, we shot guns as well….lol

    I also had a weekend planned to go see the Lucha Libre in Mexico City and my flight just never left. Went to the airport @8am and returned to Nashville @8pm with no flight, no nothing except 12 hours sitting in the Nashville airport. I was lucky as my flight was deemed a mechanical failure and I got my money back…so there is that.

    When I flew back to Australia via San Fran, the people in San Fran couldn’t even form a proper line. You had to see it to believe it. A guy with pink hair (I genuinely did see a lot of trans-woman all over the country, it was very noticeable) just garbling out orders in half spanish, half english, with a bit of woke sprinkled in and it was just the biggest clusterfuck. We are about 2 years away from people just running and shoving their way onto a plane and fighting for seats.

    I don’t really see a way out for the next decade or so, but America always feels like it can turn itself around, maybe that is just the optimistic nature of the place.

    My life is good here in Australia. I have an amazing job. I am now a tour guide for people with disabilities. It’s awesome, we go everywhere. All over Australia, Fiji, Bali, and New Zealand. It’s like the only job I am qualified for at this stage…lol.

    Take care Wade, hope you and your family are well.

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    • VBJ October 12, 2022, 9:29 pm

      Hello Lawrence,

      It’s really good to hear from you again!

      What you had to say about the Ramada reminded me of the movie Idiocracy, where in the future Ramada Inns will be the crack houses 😂

      But it’s not really that funny, as I’ve been in big name hotels in the US like that before with people doing drugs right out in the open in the lobby. We’re just accepting a lower standard across the board.

      “I really felt hatred from the government towards the people in Middle America.”

      That’s true. Having fringe groups to designate as the enemy is good for instilling fear and seizing / consolidating power, but how much better for the enemy to be your political opponent.

      It’s almost hilarious how ignorance has become the hallmark of the information age … we totally didn’t see this coming 🤣

      It’s also hilarious how the under-educated yokels have become more informed on what’s going on than the ultra-educated elite of the big cities. Just look at the snake oil: those out in the hills knew it didn’t work and was dangerous from the beginning (along with masks and social distancing and all that) meanwhile the smarties are injecting the stuff into them like it’s candy.

      “We are about 2 years away from people just running and shoving their way onto a plane and fighting for seats.”

      I believe you’re correct … we’re becoming the barbarians that we once traveled abroad and scorned.

      “I don’t really see a way out for the next decade or so, but America always feels like it can turn itself around, maybe that is just the optimistic nature of the place.”

      That’s true as well. Every once in a while we like life is descending into chaos here and we just end up back at normal … or maybe we just get used to the chaos after a while?

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