This is plane insanity!
Common sense is in short supply during the holidays — just ask the cargo cultists
Have travelers lost their minds?
I'm not even talking about the omicron hype, which is making many people rethink their upcoming travel plans (we had a wild discussion about that on Friday). Omicron, a possibly more infectious COVID variant, is still being studied by scientists. Early reports say the symptoms are milder than other variants and that people who have been vaccinated are somewhat protected.
But readers are still asking me if they should cancel their Christmas vacations or spring break trips.
My answer: Whoah, there! It's way too early to know if this thing will be a problem in a few weeks or months.
Subscribe now and get a Pom Pouch
Common sense may be free but it's not cheap. Every day I research the consumer issues and report back so you don't have to. Signing up for the full version helps fund this important consumer journalism.
This week, I'm giving away the new Pom Pouch to random new subscribers. These are very cool and useful accessories from our friends at Pomchies!
But no, when I talk about losing our minds, I'm also thinking of the craziness I've seen during my travels in the last month. And there's a lot of crazy.
Are you a plane worshipper?
Whenever the subject of travel comes up, people automatically assume we're talking about air travel. (See, I'm doing it right now.) But as I've said repeatedly, more than 90 percent of Americans get to their destination by car, a number that has remained fairly consistent for many years.
Some people find it difficult to think about air travel rationally. They assign a special, almost cult-like value not just to planes, but also to airport waiting areas, airline seats and loyalty programs. Common sense goes out the cabin door. The result is a dangerously distorted and dumbed-down view of travel.
Here are the ways people have lost their minds:
I recently wrote a story about airport lounges for one of my mainstream media outlets. As part of my research, I visited one of the major lounges in San Francisco. Nice place, with a lunch buffet, "free" drinks and comfortable furniture. People spend hundreds of dollars a year on credit cards that give them access to these facilities. Bloggers post glam shots of the lounges as if they were inside a medieval cathedral.
But what would happen to these lounges if you took them out of the airport? They'd be little more than an all-you-can-eat buffet in a strip mall that you'd take your favorite aunt to on her birthday. Would you spend $695 a year so that you could eat at the Golden Corral a few times? No, you would not.
The plane worship becomes more devout as you near the front of the aircraft. You've probably seen the online influencers with their videos of flying in first class. Oh, the champagne! The service! But they are behaving like a distant offshoot of the South Pacific Cargo Cult. They expect you to accept the bizarre idea that it's worth spending thousands of extra dollars for a slightly bigger seat on the plane with a few additional creature comforts.
But take that same lie-flat seat off a plane and put it anywhere else — on a bus, a train, a car — and it loses much of its appeal. In your living room, it just becomes grandpa's easy chair, which you might pay a small premium for at La-Z-Boy, but not the premium prices the airlines command for spending a few hours in it. And certainly not the lifetime of mindless obedience to a loyalty program.
You already know how I feel about loyalty programs (because I just told you). But let's stay there for a moment.
Remove the loyalty program from the plane and what do you get? The flimsy metal cards shed almost all of their value. Imagine the tortured logic of an airline running the Starbucks loyalty program. How to duplicate the success of luggage fees? You know, taking away something that was once included in the product and then either reselling it to you or forcing you to join the loyalty program to get it "free." Perhaps they would start charging extra for cups (unbundling, they would call it). Then they would offer their rewards members "free" cups when they order coffee. All others must pay a 50 cent surcharge.
No, that wouldn't fly.
Airline loyalty programs specialize in taking money from you and giving you a uniformly substandard customer experience. They could not survive in the real world.
Finally, there is food — both airport and airline food. A lot of it is inedible or overpriced, or both. Airport food generally ranges from so-so to absolutely horrible. And you should never even touch the stuff they try to sell you in economy class. If you want to step off the plane weighing another 10 pounds, feel free to eat the meals they serve in the premium seats.
What if you took the costly airport food and the unpalatable airline meals away from the airport? Well, you could start an airline food restaurant. You would be out of business in a day. But somehow, we not only tolerate these culinary sins, but when someone puts in a minimal effort, the online influencers hover over them with their cameras, writing about the reincarnation of Julia Child. Come on.
Don't lose your mind, please
Now, I realize there are some good people reading this who will say, "But Chris, I love my points and I fly all over the place for free!" Others will react more angrily. One loyalty program blogger recently emailed me, proudly declaring he would "fight to the death" to defend loyalty programs. If that doesn't sound like a religion, then I don't know what does.
But think about it. How much money have you mindlessly spent on tickets or lounge access without even considering the logic of it all? Maybe we've all engaged in a little plane worship.
I know I have.
When I write my book about the death of common sense, I will have to devote a chapter or two to airlines and airports. We're not just overreacting to a new COVID variant. Reason itself is going out the window when it comes to this unpopular and overpublicized mode of transportation.
Can I hear an "amen"?
How to not lose your mind when you travel
It's a fact: Common sense is in short supply these days. But here are a few ways to make sure you don't become a sucker.
Don't follow the crowd. You've heard of the wisdom of the crowd. It doesn't always apply to consumer products, and it definitely doesn't apply to air travel. When they zig, you should zag.
Beware of self-styled experts. I've heard some of the worst advice from self-described experts, thought leaders and influencers. The recommendations they give you are often self-serving — and wrong. I could name names, but they don't deserve the publicity.
If something feels off, remember Elliott's Displacement Rule. Try asking yourself how this would look if it were happening away from the airport (or hotel or anywhere). For example, would it make sense to you if your restaurant charged you extra to skip to the front of the line or added a $7,500 surcharge for a more comfortable seat? Yeah, crazy.
Your turn. How do you think travelers have lost their minds? Or then again, maybe I've lost my mind (always a possibility)? It's comment time.
About the art
For this piece, artist Dustin Elliott drew from Vanuatu's Cargo Cult — the real plane worshippers — as well as his own experience of growing up in a deeply religious home. "Just a fun mix, if you ask me," he says. Tell me about it!