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Why Airports And Flying Have Become So Bad

The great air travel race to the bottom.

Man in airport in pajamas
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MIAMI DADE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Miami, USA- Airports are now the place where you can best watch the collapse of civilization happening in real time.

“Why do everyone in airports in the US look like kids watching Saturday morning cartoons until noon in their pajamas?” I asked a pilot friend while I stood in line to go through security at the Miami airport.

While he is a bonafide aviator, not even he had any idea — “It’s really bad, man” — but he does often find himself grateful that he gets to shut himself in behind a steel reinforced door from the rabble on the other side.

I walked through the terminal in Miami, just watching the show. Full-grown adults were literally wearing their pajamas, a thirty-something-year-old woman had a pair of giant animal slippers on her feet, examples of combed hair and washed faces were far and few between, and one hefty woman in a gown with two suction drains half full of blood dangling off of her was hastily making her way to the gate looking as though she had just escaped from the ER. Then at my gate, sprawled out on the floor, was a bum. A real one.

It was the bum that I found to be the least offensive. At least he was just doing his bum thing — going north for the summer, and a flight on a budget airline is vastly cheaper than a day and a half slog on the Greyhound. But you probably wouldn’t have seen a bum on an airplane twenty years ago.

Flying was just different then. I came into traveling in 1999, well after the end of what’s called the golden era of aviation but before the start of the race to the bottom that we’re seeing now. This was a time when flying could still be seen as a luxury experience, where people wouldn’t necessarily dress their best but would still maintain some semblance of public presentability.

Looking back with the power of hindsight, the airlines coddled us then with respect, hospitality, and amenities — no baggage fees, free meals, and open bars. To fly then was to feel a sense of convenience and locomotive superiority over those on trains, busses, or slogging in out in cars. You’d say that you were flying somewhere and people would go “ouuu.” Being a frequent flier was a badge of honor — it was a demarcator of class, a statement of who you were and where you fit in the matrix of broader society.

I would like to say that the cultural bottom has fallen out of air travel because it’s now cheaper to fly and it’s more accessible to a wider swath of society — apparently, even bums. But I’m not sure if this is the case. While the airfares themselves are much cheaper, once you add baggage, seat selection, meals, and everything else that was once free into the mix — along with all kinds of novel taxes and fees — it is my impression that it averages out to being very much the same as it’s always been since I first began traveling:

The adoption of ancillary service-based fares has also added a different edge to operations. While you may be able to scoop up an affordable ticket at base fare, tacking on seat bookings, suitcases, carry-on luggage, and other services once offered as part of a standard ticket can quickly cause your cheap flight to double or even triple in price. Once exclusive to low-cost carriers, the model has slowly evolved to be included in ticket prices for major airlines and flag carriers, to mixed public reception.

Something else is at play here.

Woman in airport

Woman in airport with bags of blood hanging from her.

Woman in airport with bags of blood

Now flying is very much a similar experience as taking the bus. Many airports in the United States have effectively become over-glorified loading docks. They are grody, outdated, and crammed; essentials, such as drinking fountains, often don’t work, there aren’t enough places to sit down, everything is exorbitantly priced, and airline’s seem to pluck their gate agents from the same employment pool as McDonald’s … and then train them to merely say one term: “There’s nothing I can do, contact us on the app.”

This is a public sphere where everyone looks like shit, doesn’t give a shit, and treats others / expects to be treated like shit …

And why shouldn’t they?

Horrible airport

In this venerable zoo of humanity what’s the point of putting in the effort? Why wouldn’t passengers be on edge when they know that there is a good chance they’re going to be nailed for an outrageous fee for having a checked bag over the weight limit, yelled at by the person checking boarding passes at the entrance to security, stripped of dignity by TSA, have their gate changed at the last minute, have to pay $5 for a bottle of water, be sniped for having a carryon bag that doesn’t fit in the box, endure extended delays, and then, after all that, go and sit in a crammed little seat for hours next to some guy wearing pajamas and slippers — if they’re lucky enough to be on a flight that’s not cancelled outright.

Flying is now a gruesome experience.

Definitely not something to get dressed up for.

Grotty drinking fountain in Miami airport.

Grotty bottle refill station in Miami airport.

I believe this change happened in the aftermath of 9/11. This was when flying became an exercise in security theater, when ridiculous taxes and fees began being added to ticket prices, and the rise in operational costs and the ease of finding the lowest airfares on booking aggregator sites and apps began putting enormous financial pressure on the airlines … a margin that they began making up by cutting amenities, charging for everything, stuffing as many seats as possible on aircraft, overbooking flights, automating / outsourcing / eliminating customer service, tricking passengers with misc fees and penalties, and basically making the flying experience as uncomfortable and undignified as they can without being regulated by the government.

If you treat us like cattle we will act like cattle.

This is a race to the bottom.

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Filed under: Air Travel, Travel Diary, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 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 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

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  • Trevor July 9, 2024, 3:51 am

    So many things have become a race to the bottom.

    How were you received when travelling with almost nothing?

    Going Jack Reacher style with just a toothbrush, passport and a money clip. Would be fun to see. Well i guess you need a phone for having your boarding card on it.

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    • VBJ July 10, 2024, 11:42 am

      They really have. It’s like Covid gave everyone an excuse to not try anymore … and we seem to like things better that way.

      It was fine traveling with almost nothing. My bag was standard personal item size, so no problems there. I also traveled with a grocery bag of food that I guess they could have nailed me for but they usually don’t … and they didn’t.

      It’s a tossup as to whether it was worth it traveling this way. Not being able to have real cameras was convenient but there was a bunch that I could have done better otherwise.

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  • John Taylor July 16, 2024, 10:16 am

    Is it true you are traveling with Andy to Israel and then entering the Gaza Strip? Not sure if Andy is serious with some of the claims he is making. If it is true how is this even possible with a war waging?

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    • VBJ July 16, 2024, 10:17 pm

      He didn’t mention anything to me about going with him. Would be interesting though.

      War zones tend to be surprisingly accessible places … and foreigners wandering around are often the least of their worries.

      He could definitely get there, but how he will be received will be another question.

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