In my last post I wrote about a woman who was kicked off a Delta Airlines plane for feeding her baby. That could easily have been me; I fly often with my (breastfed) baby, and it would never occur to me to let him go hungry on the plane. If you’re planning to fly over the holidays and you’re an observant Muslim, you, too, might get booted — for feeding your soul. Yesterday six Muslim Imams were escorted from a US Airways jet for praying. According to news reports, a gate agent was distressed that the men were “praying very loud” in Arabic. Some passengers say they were upset by political discussion they overheard among the imams; the men deny they were talking about politics — but as one of the imams asked the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Even if we did, so what? What is suspicious about that?” The six imams were questioned by U.S. Marshals, the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration. Though neither government officials — nor a bomb-sniffing dog — found anying troubling about the men, their tickets were refunded and they were not allowed to take a later U.S. Airways flight; they ended up flying home on Northwest instead.
Praying, and feeding children, would rank pretty high on most people’s list of inoffensive and even wholesome activities. There are plenty of larger issues embedded in these two outrageous stories — about racism and religious intolerance in the war on terror, misogyny and puritanism, disregard for basic individual freedoms — but I’d like to also point out that flying is an increasingly miserable experience for everyone. A plane is essentially a Greyhound bus in the sky these days. The workers are short-staffed and stressed-out, laboring for stingier pay and benefits; thus, not surprisingly, they seem to have completely lost patience with the passengers. I think we’re seeing more and more examples of capricious and just plain rude treatment; you’re just particularly vulnerable to it if you’re praying in Arabic, taking off your shirt or doing anything the slightest bit unusual. Making matters worse, most companies, desperate to milk some profits out of us, overbook flights and cram seats closer and closer together. You have to bring your own food, and are too-rarely offered coffee, or even water. Only the fatcats in first class look comfortable. All the security regulations — which, by the way, seem stupidly based on a few high-profile incidents (because of the Shoe Bomber, we all have to take off our shoes, and because of the London liquid bomb scare, no sunblock for the kids) — add to the sour mood. Yet I know plenty of people who are flying more, even on short regional trips, because Amtrak has become so expensive. This is crazy: in addition to being no fun anymore, commercial flights contribute significantly to global warming. Taking the train is much better for the environment, and a far greater pleasure. We need significant public investment in the train system, to make it much cheaper and faster, with the goal of eventually phasing out plane travel for all but the longest trips. It’s one of many ways we can save the planet while creating great new jobs, and improving everyone’s quality of life.
An update on the breast-feeding incident: yesterday parents and children gathered at 30 airports around the country, staging a national “nurse-in” to protest Emily Gillette’s treatment by Delta Airlines. Protesters’ signs included “Best in-flight meal ever” and “Breasts — not just for selling cars anymore.”