SAUNDERS: Whiny but secure in airborne steerage

Flying is so safe that the only thing to fuss over is the snack

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I used to pack a smoke hood in my carry-on luggage. I knew that most passengers survived plane crashes on impact but that many died before they could escape the toxic smoking fuselage. I didn’t pack a smoke hood for the trip that ended with a safe landing at San Francisco International Airport on Friday.

I figured my old smoke hood had outlived its shelf life. My husband, Wesley J. Smith, bought it for me in 1994 on the release of “Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety,” a book he co-authored with Ralph Nader.

Also, flying is safer than it used to be. Although a regional carrier crash in Buffalo, N.Y., killed 50 people in 2009, there hasn’t been a fatal accident with a major American airline in more than a decade. (For the record, Asiana Airlines is a South Korean carrier.)

Credit federal safety regulations for reducing seat flammability and the danger of seat collapse inside the Boeing 777 jetliner. Those advances allowed Asiana Flight 214 passengers to get out of the wreckage.

Flying never will be risk-free — as the families of the two dead 16-year-old girls, as well as the seriously injured civilians and crew members, can attest. However, air travel has become so safe that rather than worry about falling out of the sky, the flying public obsesses about the indignity of Transportation Security Administration searches and having to pay for airline food. We live in this amazing age that allows people to fly from one end of the country to the other in six hours — and at affordable prices — and all we do is complain that flying isn’t so glamorous as it used to be.

The Sunday New York Times had the unfortunate timing to run an opinion piece titled “Class Struggle in the Sky” by contributor James Atlas. It was about the travails of flying coach — bad snacks, less legroom and too many people. Mr. Atlas likened flying coach class to sailing in steerage. He marveled, “The hardships of economy [class] don’t seem to deter us from air travel.”

Hardships? We in the writing class truly are a bunch of crybabies. Mr. Atlas should ask those in the Donner Party trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevadas in 1847 how they liked their snacks.

Like many other journalists, I am a world-class complainer. My repertoire of airline horror stories includes a 48-hour hitch at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. I can talk for a full five minutes about the challenges involved in getting to the Republican National Convention in 2000. (Long story short: After sitting on a tarmac for hours and not getting my luggage, I had to take the train from Chicago to Philadelphia.) I don’t like sitting in the middle seat. I hoard my miles so that I can fly business class on international flights. I envy those with “elite” frequent-flier status.

I also know that I get to fly because I live in a country where middle-class people have the wherewithal to see different continents. Because of airline regulations and smart engineering, it’s more dangerous to drive to the airport than it is to board the plane. I started to feel silly carrying a smoke hood, although I always spend a moment to scope out the exit options at takeoff.

At the end of a journey that takes hours, not weeks, if you’re lucky, you get to complain — about peanuts.

Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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