In addition to the infrastructure challenges of American airports are problems inherent in the dominant hub-and-spoke model, where passengers coming from smaller airports connect to their final destination via hubs like Atlanta, Chicago or Denver. Bad weather then ripples throughout the system, causing hundreds or thousands of delayed or canceled flights. Although this model sprung up after airline deregulation in 1978, it has thrived in the years since 9/11, Mr. Safdie said.
“The worst thing is to be in an American airport when bad weather starts delaying flights,” he said. Nearly a quarter of flights in the U.S. were delayed this summer.
There are ways to avoid the worst of the flying system, like enrolling in TSA PreCheck, a trusted traveler program from the Transportation Security Administration that speeds up the security process at the airport. The PreCheck website sums up its value: Trusted travelers “experience a smoother screening process — no need to remove shoes, belts, 3-1-1 liquids, laptops or light jackets.” As of March 2020, PreCheck had 10 million members. Other programs include Sentri (for the U.S.-Mexico border), Global Entry (for international passengers), NEXUS (for the U.S.-Canada border) and Clear (a nongovernment option). For those who combine their trusted traveler status with membership to airport lounges, and business or first class seats, the flying experience can be altogether different. At times even pleasant.
Membership has its privileges, as the saying goes, but it also requires money and a willingness to have governments dig into your private life. For the fortunate, the flying experience sometimes can approach the way it used it be. For most, however, it is a slog, something to endure. Some travelers have it even worse because of their religious beliefs or the color of their skin. Security and customs screenings or flight attendant scrutiny can lead to the stress of “traveling while Muslim” or “flying while brown” — profiling based on skin color or religious affiliation.
It can be hard to remember, but at one point, flying was considered part of a vacation, not just the means to get to it. Emily Thomas, a professor of philosophy at Durham University in England and the author of “The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad,” remembered as a child in the late 1980s being into the cockpit of planes while they were in flight. “It felt quite magical; this dark cabin filled with lights,” she said, recalling a “visceral thrill of standing in a cockpit and seeing clouds below you and thinking, my God, there’s a person here who is ensuring that this metal can doesn’t drop through the clouds.” That’s impossible today.