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Monday, August 4, 2008

Dear Airline Passengers: STFU

posted by on August 4 at 12:28 PM

US Air has announced that it will be charging for all beverages on their flights—all beverages including water. This news will prompt another round of moaning and groaning about the dismal state of air travel, how we airline passengers are treated like cattle these days, how no one serves in-flight meals anymore, how we’re we’re charged to check bags, wocka wocka wocka. Being charged for water will be held up as the last and final insult and an angry American populace will no doubt rise up and demand that the federal government begin seriously subsidizing our state-owned rail system—including high-speed rail links between major cities—the same way it subsidizes air travel and roads.

Oh, and if you think a state-owned rail system has to be a perpetual money-loser, check out France’s national rail system. It turned a $1.7 billion profit—that’s $1.7 billion—last year. It’s going to make even more money this year.

But after we build our national rail system—and I’m not exactly holding my breath here—guess what new rail passengers are going to discover when they board a train for the first time? You have to pay for beverages—including water. And meals too.

Hey, Airlines Passengers… do you want free meals and beverages and the right to fly with ten checked bags and six carry-ons? Then we’re going to have to re-regulate the airlines, jack the prices back up—way the fuck up—and pay for the privilege(s). If we don’t want to pay four or five times as much for airline ticket as we’re paying now (and I’m pretty sure we don’t), then we’re going to have to stop whining about the free meals we’re not getting anymore (the food on airplanes was shit—can we please stop complaining about being deprived of it?) and the free beverages we’re not getting on US Air and soon won’t be getting on any other airline.

Bring an empty water bottle to the airport and fill it at a fountain. Buy some half-way decent food at the airport—or bring some really great food with you to the airport (you can carry food through security)—and carry it on the plane with you. For the prices we’re paying all the airlines owe us is getting our asses from Point A to Point B reasonably close to the time promised. They don’t owe us dinner or drinks or a cargo hold of our very own.

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All spot on, with the exception of suggesting buying food at the airport. That's a price gouge that does deserve to be continually railed against.

Posted by Wowza | August 4, 2008 12:33 PM

Dan, I'm great with all that except the water bit. Water, especially on long haul flights, should be available and free. I certainly don't want to risk drinking water that has been in a hold for who knows how long. And a quart of water on a flight from here to JFK is not enough with the dry air and length of the flight.

You can't get off an airplane like you can a bus or any other form of transport.

Posted by Dave Coffman | August 4, 2008 12:52 PM

That's why I carry an empty bottle through security -- I can't stand paying $4 for a bottle of fucking water. At Sea-Tac, the sandwiches at Dish Delish are pretty good, and they also sell cucumbers in vinegar, olives, and sliced chicken breast. That's what I usually carry on to the airplane with me.

Posted by Dan Savage | August 4, 2008 12:53 PM

I thought Sea-Tac had food pricing rules basically saying the vendors couldn't charge more than they would outside the airport?

Also: You can get free water on Amtrak. It's warm and sometimes tastes a little odd and sometimes they run out. And you have to have your own cup or bottle. But. Yeah. It's there. Sort of.

Posted by leek | August 4, 2008 12:53 PM
But after we build our national rail system—and I’m not exactly holding my breath here—guess what new rail passengers are going to discover when they board a train for the first time? You have to pay for beverages—including water. And meals too.

Yeah, the difference is that you're allowed to bring those things on the train with you. I always had a bunch of food in my pack when I was in the EU. Charging people for water when they're not allowed to bring water through the checkpoint is the bullshit part of US Air's plan.

Also, trains in France have leg room, luggage space, and sometimes a place to plug your computer in.

So please, don't even pretend that trains in France are as bad as planes in the U.S. They're really not.

Posted by Judah | August 4, 2008 12:53 PM

The biggest difference between rail and air is that you can bring almost anything you want on a train. My bf hates water and always wants to drink the most obscure soda. He is currently drinking Fresca with a special additive, Vanilla? I think it is gross by he could bring it on the train. The damn train is just too damn expensive at this point.

Posted by Clearlyhere | August 4, 2008 12:54 PM

I'm not pretending that planes are as bad as trains -- only pointing out that you have to buy your food and drink on a train, so why not on a plane? And you can't step off the train whenever you like to go get something to eat.

And you can carry food into airports, and on to planes. I do it all the time.

Posted by Dan Savage | August 4, 2008 12:56 PM

If you have ever been to the old terminal at National airport, their food sucks. The new terminal is good though.

Posted by Clearlyhere | August 4, 2008 12:56 PM

I already bring an empty water bottle with me through security, since I have been stuck on the tarmac with nothing to drink one too many times. Charging for drinks (including bottled water) does not bother me, though charging for a glass of water does seem a little crazy.

And I have never minded about not getting food. I actually think United's little $5 snack boxes are a good deal and pretty tasty. Except, one of them has tuna in it which is a pretty stupid idea for an airplane.

Posted by Julie | August 4, 2008 1:08 PM

*sign along folks*
M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-Air!

Posted by Schweighsr | August 4, 2008 1:13 PM

The next time I fly, I'm bringing brownies.

Posted by P to the J | August 4, 2008 1:14 PM


Trains here have those amenities as well - business class on The Cascades is only slightly more than regular fare, but definitely worth it for the extra leg room, the 110 outlet, and the general dearth of small, noisy children in your car.

Heck, they even show movies.

What I don't get is why the airlines don't just have done with all the nickel-and-dime crap and simply jack up fares across-the-board. Everybody knows fuel is more expensive these days, so why not raise prices accordingly, and keep the service levels - however minimal they might be - where they've been for the past decade or so?

Posted by COMTE | August 4, 2008 1:17 PM

It blows my mind that there's even drink service on short flights. I'm going SF to SEA/GEG/PDX often, all under 2 hours, and just when it's gonna be nap time, out comes the drink and snack cart. Can we really not go without eating for a whole 120 minutes? I still love South West for the most part, but I'd be more than happy if they scrapped that.

Food on airlines seems like a holdover from the days when flying was an extravagant affair. Even on cross-country trips, I won't miss it.

Posted by Dougsf | August 4, 2008 1:22 PM

Speaking of tuna, one time there was an instance where people on an airplane ordered fish, got sick, and it resulted in a nervous former flight officer having to land the jet. Good thing that old lady knew how to speak jive.

Posted by P to the J | August 4, 2008 1:24 PM

Dan, I thought you'd be in the front of the plane, where water still flows freely. At least when traveling on the ol' college talk circuit.

Posted by Matty | August 4, 2008 1:25 PM

the rising prices argument is bullshit. Have an option to tack on 5 dollars to my ticket price, that should covera few bottles of water or a soda.

or let me carry my own bottled water on the plan. its water. You can't blow up a plane with bottled water.

but god help us the day a terrorist makes a c4 dildo and smuggles it on the plane up his ass.

Posted by capt. tim | August 4, 2008 1:25 PM

You can go for a month without food, but only about 3 days without water.

And at the elevations planes fly, and without drinking fountains - which do exist on high-speed trains in France, by the way, maybe you need to wake up and actually take one - the lack of water can be a serious health risk, especially if someone is excited and skipping meals (both frequent).

Better to just get with the program and build high-speed passenger/freight trains nationwide that use 1/10th the energy and cause 1/8th the global warming emissions to move somebody at almost the same speed.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 4, 2008 1:27 PM

I don't think the U.S. *can* have a national rail service like France's SNCF because the country is too big. I mean, France is only geographically about the size of Texas or so, after all, so the analogy U.S. : France doesn't work for geographically dependent things. Instead, it's better to think of U.S.:E.U. for scale-based things like national rail.

What *can* work in this country is regional transportation systems. There should be a Pacific Northwest Railways, for instance, that would interlink everything from Vancouver, B.C., to Eugene, connect major towns and cities east of the Cascades, too. Trains departing every 1-2 hours weekdays in both directions. Electrified routes. 120 mph runs.

California would have one; New England/the Mid-Atlantic could have one. Other regions would follow.

Amtrak should then evolve into bullet train service between these regional systems, sort of like Shinkansen in Japan or TGV or ICE trains in Europe. Delorean-style hydraulic doors, 200-300 mph runs, electrified no-emissions locomotives, minimal stops at towns with 200,000 people or more only, restaurant cars, play cars for kids...


Posted by Simac | August 4, 2008 1:34 PM

and there really is enough room in the loo on the TGV to fuck...

truly paradise

Posted by Matty | August 4, 2008 1:39 PM

If you bring food through security, make sure it's not liquid or "gel"-like or else you'll have to toss it. And I agree with many commenters above. Not offering free tap water is bullshit. Air travel is extremely dehydrating.

Posted by keshmeshi | August 4, 2008 1:40 PM

Agree about everything except water. People occasionally really need water -- a coughing fit, didn't realize they were as dehydrated as they are, suddenly recall that they haven't taken their medication, whatever. You can't bring it with you. And maybe you don't have any cash. It's a closed system, and since you've got to arrange for water after you arrive, it presents too much of a burden. Not for most people most of the time, of course, but it CAN BE too much of a burden -- perhaps a traffic accident snarls traffic and you have to rush too quickly to the plane to stop for water, for example. Or maybe somebody is just forgetful. They need to provide water.

Posted by Terry | August 4, 2008 1:43 PM

I recently took a trip to Australia, and on both the 14 hour flight across the Pacific, and then on the 5 hour flight across Australia, there was free food and drink service. (On the long haul, 2 meals!). And by free drink, I mean alcohol as well as soda, water, coffee, tea, etc. I fail to understand how Qantas can do it, (actually, for the trans-ocean flight, it was United,) yet all American airline companies can't.

And yes, the plane tickets were expensive, but I was flying halfway around the world, so that was to be expected.

Posted by D.A.S. | August 4, 2008 1:46 PM

Totally agree w/ @12. Just charge an extra $10 per ticket and give me back my "free" bevvies and snackeroos.

It's not like they were ever "free" anyway. They were just included as part of the price. This latest system is just a marketing ploy...

Posted by fluteprof | August 4, 2008 1:56 PM

@13 I completely agree. I fly out of Austin a good bit and the usually connection point is in Dallas or Houston. Only a 40-minute flight and they still serve beverages. Why?!?

Like you said, it really bothers me that people can't go a few minutes without something to eat or drink.

Posted by Mark | August 4, 2008 2:00 PM

Some of us aren't complaining at all, but are silently voting with our dollars. With this latest announcement, US Air has made it clear that it no longer meets my needs. Should any other airlines implement a similar policy, they will also fail to meet my needs. It's my dollar, and I'll use airlines that don't nickel and dime me for every last little thing.

If all airlines start charging for water and I'm forced to fly (for work, for example) then I might have to concede on this, but until then the airlines can STFU about how hard it is to turn a profit.

Posted by Raven | August 4, 2008 2:00 PM

Right on, Dan.

The _one_ point on which I'd disagree is that I think water should have to be provided free, for the reasons pointed out by #21. I recently flew EasyJet, a famously cheap ticket, everything is an extra charge UK carrier, and even they gave me water for free.

Posted by asdf | August 4, 2008 2:04 PM

hey, doesn't eliminating meal and beverage service mean eliminating the need for stewardesses? isn't that basically all they do?

Posted by bluh? | August 4, 2008 2:08 PM

I carry food and water on even when I'm in the front of the plane, thanks to the largess of America's finer universities. The food they serve in first class wouldn't have been deemed fit for coach -- for steerage -- twenty years ago. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

The sandwich I make at home -- say, last night's left over roast chicken -- is so far superior to the cafeteria crap in first class...

Posted by Dan Savage | August 4, 2008 2:15 PM

The reason they're nickle and diming instead of just raising the ticket prices and giving free stuff again is because of the way people buy tickets. Most people buy the absolute cheapest ticket possible no matter what airline it is, so if an airline can eliminate all costs to offer the cheapest ticket, they'll end up with the most flyers... who will all complain about having to pay for drinks and snacks once they're there.

Posted by GS | August 4, 2008 2:19 PM

@27, other than providing food and beverages, flight attendants can also bring pillows and blankets, hand out immigration paperwork on international flights, ask assholes to chill out, etc.

Thinking about it, without staff on the airplane you'd have all the same asshole passengers you always get, but no half-assed authority figure to keep people from descending into petty infighting. Also, you need someone in a uniform who can calm passengers in a crisis, even if it's just a spot of turbulence that sends some off-balance person into a frenzy. Somebody's got to play that role, and if you took away food and beverages what would they do the rest of the time?

Another reason to ride the train, though as I recall trains have attendants too. They just have a different set of specific responsibilities and food and water aren't included.

Posted by Cascadian | August 4, 2008 2:24 PM

@18 they have trains running from Germany to Spain, actually, we're talking more of a San Diego (Spain) - LA - San Fran (France) - Portland (Germany) - Seattle (Germany) kind of multi-segmented route.

I agree about how spacious the loos are and their utility for conjugal relations - but I've done it in the old style rural trains in New Zealand and Australia too so it's not that important.

Stewards and stewardesses are actually there for flight emergencies and to make sure you behave while cooped up.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 4, 2008 2:28 PM


I agree about the food; my own is better, at least with domestic travel. Flying into Zurich or Tokyo I'll let the airline feed me. But really, water. It's just water. It should be available. First, business, coach. For people. For animals. For potted plants. On trains. On boats. On planes. Honestly, would rather pay a $5 drink tax on the ticket upfront than run out of my bottled water somewhere over the hinterland and slowly dehydrate. Oh well, guess I'll fly to Zurich and pick up the TGV in Geneva and...

Posted by Matty | August 4, 2008 2:32 PM

Little by not so little _they_ (the man) want to make travel no fun. They don't want us to move around anymore, I mean that would be some pretty uppity serfs, no? Now they can take your laptop at the boarder. Oh well. Now they charge us for baggage. Oh well. We've already stopped ourselves from speaking up when they man handle old ladies in the security line. So what if they don't feed us, it's just one more step. It used to be sort of fun. Hell, I know when I'm not welcome. I think I'll just stay home and wait until we have to get a permit to travel to Portland.

Posted by likealoon | August 4, 2008 2:38 PM

#31 - You can't (well, technically you COULD, but it's not in the plans) run a rail route route from SF, northbound. There's not northbound Amtrack here, either. There is an SF/LA/SD route in the works - and people are committed enough to it to actually have invested in a, SF terminal - but it's been contested for the better part of 10 years, and so far the infrastructure money doesn't exist.

Sadly, it's a long way off.

Posted by Dougsf | August 4, 2008 2:46 PM

6 months ago, when I took the train from Portland to San Jose, there was a free water dispenser right next to my seat.

Posted by blue | August 4, 2008 3:15 PM


It's an hour after your post and you might not look at this again, understanding is that CHSR is going to be on the ballot in November. That would fund SF/LA/SD if passed, and unlike in the past Arnold is not opposing it outright so it might just happen.

You're right, of course, that there are no plans for high-speed rail between California and the Northwest, and it would be a challenging project because really there are a lot of mountains and aren't that many people between Redding and Eugene and either of those cities is the last stop at best on any proposed high-speed rail system.

Still, regional systems with connecting flights between the regional rail hubs would be an improvement.

Posted by Cascadian | August 4, 2008 4:21 PM

SNCF is also the national freight rail operator. Freight rail in France is a state-run industry. I'd guess that a good chunk of that $1.7B came from freight rail operations.

Here in the US, BNSF and Union Pacific are also profitable.

Posted by Frank | August 4, 2008 4:45 PM

@34 - San Jose, SF, whatever, same diff. So long as it runs near I-5 part way, it's all gravy.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 4, 2008 4:58 PM

#36 - I knew it was going on the ballot, but I didn't realize the governor was unopposed to it. A haven't really followed the story for a while, last I heard it was set to go ahead, but the money had dried up.

Thanks for the update, I actually went to the CHSR sitall sorts of progress I was unaware of. God I hope this gets done in my lifetime.

Posted by Dougsf | August 4, 2008 6:00 PM

"I'm not pretending that planes are as bad as trains"

Dan, them's fighting words. The train is acres better than any plane. It just takes longer, and is sometimes more expensive. (back in the 80's, before the Repubs came along, you could get a sleeper for a song)

When you have the time - and time is the ultimate luxury, whether you make one hundred or one million dollars a year - it is delightful. Even Amtrak.

So there. If you disagree, I'm willing to meet in the alley behind Neighbors for drunken insults, slaps, and big weepy make-up hugs.

Posted by Catalina Vel-DuRay | August 4, 2008 7:28 PM

We have regional rail systems in places where there's enough population density for it to work, like around Chicago and New York. We need a lot more people in Vancouver and Seattle and in between before rail will make any kind of economic sense.

France population 64,057,790
Area 547,030 square km

US area: 9,826,630

The US needs about a population slightly bigger than China has for rail to make sense the way it does in Europe. France isn't even the densest country there.

This country is painfully underpopulated.

Posted by Luke Baggins | August 4, 2008 9:07 PM

I agree, except for water. And they don't have to do the whole beverage cart thing for that; it could be by request. Or available in the back of the plane, near the restroom, so people who need it could get up and get it.

I've never understood the fuss over food. I normally go 6-8 waking hours at a time without eating. Every day. Don't most people? And how hard is it, as a grown-up, to remember to bring a snack on a long flight?

I'm all for charging people for extras, so us poor people can pack light, fly cheap, and not subsidize your need to bring your entire wardrobe along and drink a liter of "free" soda in-flight.

Posted by violet_dagrinder | August 4, 2008 9:12 PM

I get this post.

Let's make airline travel miserable enough so people will demand other forms of travel. It's the 520 argument. Also, rallying for the benefit of major companies is oh so risky of you. Siding with multi-millionaires. Go Republican Dan, who shouldn't be siding with the airlines on anything, because they use a shitton of oil every trip.

But, since he takes the plane frequently, I guess it makes planes acceptable. Oh, and cars are good, only when he uses them to get to the airport.

Posted by TheMisanthrope | August 4, 2008 11:57 PM

No Dan, it's not okay to charge for water. Even places that makes their living selling beverages like Starbucks give you free water! And especially not $2 a beverage! If you are going to charge for sodas and such it should be a fair charge and we all know that you can buy an entire 6-pack for $2 - charging that much is price gouging.

Additionally, just because it's easy for you to carry a water bottle and lunch doesn't mean it's easy for the rest of us. Not all of us have the extra room in our one carry on bag and additional carry on piece. As a woman I simply need more to go for a three day jaunt to give a talk than you do. I can't just walk around a city in the same shoes I give my lecture in, and I can't get away with a pair of slacks and 3 shirts either! I'm willing to take go for hours without food...but without water? That's just cheap.

Posted by clarity | August 5, 2008 12:54 AM

The problem, Dan, is that these latest changes don't take place in a vacuum. Airline on-tine performance and customer service have also taken a terrible nose dive in the last few years. I'm never going to take the Empire Builder to Chicago, and neither are you.

This attitude of "rush to the bottom" where they strip every comfort or convenience feature out of air travel for the sake of an extra 50 cents off the ticket price is dooming the only long distance option for most people into a hellish experience, every time without fail.

To argue that the dissatisfaction is really about the bottle ginger ale is missing the big point.

Posted by Big Sven | August 5, 2008 8:20 AM

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