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Boycott the Airlines, Hit the Open Road

Instead of subjecting yourself to mask mandates and TSA pat-downs, consider taking a road trip instead.

The Biden administration may ultimately do away with the federal aviation mask mandate set to expire on April 18, though it is clearly looking for an excuse not to. But what the mandate has revealed about airlines’ attitudes towards their passengers should not be forgotten.

A year or so ago—in the final days of the Trump administration, before the federal mandate—I watched as a Southwest flight attendant strode to the front of the plane and bellowed that passengers needed to wear a “nice, beautiful mask” like hers (fact check: it wasn’t) since we had agreed to do so upon purchasing our tickets. If we had any problems, she said, we were free to find another way to California.

“Does everyone agree? I WANT TO SEE YOU NODDING!”

This is just one example, hardly the most flagrant, of many examples of airlines and their employees treating passengers less like paying customers and more like prisoners or recalcitrant cattle. Such contemptuous treatment has become standard practice in the industry. In our moment, passengers have come to meekly accept this as the price of travel.

Being a flight attendant is certainly a difficult, stressful job. But so are a great many other jobs, none of which would allow employees to berate customers this way. Indeed, McDonald’s drive-through attendants are expected to maintain a higher degree of politeness and decorum than these flight attendants display. One gets the sense that all of this is less about safety or flight attendants’ supposed compassion for immunocompromised passengers than it is about control—about allowing a group of people relatively low in the aviation hierarchy to exert some level of power over a captive audience.

There is nothing uniquely evil about flight attendants. It is predictable that, when one group is given the chance to lord power over another, many of its members will do so with gusto. Indeed, flying today resembles nothing so much as a reenactment of the Stanford Prison Experiment, with flight attendants playing the role of the guards.

As someone too young to remember pre-9/11 air travel, I can only pine for the days when airlines made an attempt to make flying a pleasant experience. In the intervening years since 9/11, the airplane has become a site of great neurosis and superstition for Americans, despite the fact that a 9/11-style suicide hijacking will never happen again. The 9/11 attacks were surprise attacks that could only have worked once. The attackers relied on the era’s weak cockpit doors and passengers following the 1970s script of complying with hijackers.

But despite the major airlines’ oligopoly, invasive security protocols, and federal enforcement of the mask mandate, consumers still have choice at our disposal. It is time to boycott the airlines, at least partially. While it may not be realistic for all of us to completely jettison flying, we can at least cut some nonessential trips, to send a message that airlines cannot take their passengers for granted any longer.

For an alternate means of travel, allow me to put in a good word for the great American road trip. Driving long distances is less costly and time consuming than people think: you can cross the country in a few days for not much more than the price of a plane ticket if you plan carefully. And it is liberating in a way that flight can never be.

Long-distance driving is an extraordinarily meditative act. It is a practice of endurance, demanding sustained dedication and willpower, a chance to be simultaneously very free and not free at all—to have a continent at your fingertips while bodily confined to a few square feet. In that way, it mirrors the human experience itself. The open road can impart one with a sense of perspective and a chance to reflect. I have had a number of important realizations, both good and bad, while driving long distances alone.

Driving through the “flyover states” can also gives coastal dwellers like myself a feel for heartland America. You can learn more from exploring the rural parts of your own country than from visiting a foreign metropolis. Many young people with a hankering to travel would do better to spend a few weeks driving around Montana and the Dakotas than to fly to Europe or Asia, only to visit big global cities increasingly indistinguishable from each other.

Besides, the days of the road trip may be limited. The Department of Transportation, under Secretary Pete Buttigieg, recently released a plan that calls for “zero roadway fatalities.” If “Zero Covid” is any guide, then we can expect significant restrictions on Americans’ freedom to drive coming in the near future.

Congress has already mandated the implementation of anti-drunk-driving technology by 2026, treating all drivers like potential criminals. In the future, you may need to blow into an ignition interlock device every time you drive, to prove you are sober. This may sound crazy now, but no more than mask and vaccine mandates would have sounded in January 2020.

This is coupled with the push for electric cars, which—unless charging technology significantly improves in the near future—are much more difficult to drive long distances. It may behoove citizens to see as much of this great country as they can before it is no longer an option.

Once implemented, airplane safety precautions are difficult to repeal. We should show the airlines that we do not need their services as much as they think we do. While many of us will at times have no choice but to fly, let us at least consider other means of travel until the day when airlines can again treat their passengers with some vestige of humanity. The open road calls.

Jason Garshfield is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Townhall, RealClearPolitics, and numerous other publications.

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