Airlines In America Are Now As Terrible As Airlines In Russia

Boarding A Flight in AshgabatLet me make this prefatory remark up front: I take absolutely no joy in writing this or in making these criticisms, but someone has to tell you how it really is. If you disagree, fine, but back your disagreement up with something more than a mindless assertion that “‘Murica is the best.” Why? Well, for starters, chances are I’ve forgotten about more of my travel experiences than you’ve ever had travel experiences. Second, I have observation and experience on my side. Third, well, do you really want to have a pissing match you’ll lose? Just trust me, I know what I am talking about.

I say this each time I am at IAH (Houston Intercontinental) airport: it’s a filthy pit. And I’ve seen some in my time. While I was waiting for my last flight to San Antonio (having flown from Istanbul to Munich to Houston) a man said in Spanish to his wife, “this airport is filthy.” I was embarrassed. But then I looked around even more closely. The paint on the walls was peeling, the blue carpet was filthy, the chairs were leaning at angles and the fabric was torn or stained. I expect this in an Uzbek airport or one in some other post-imperial shit hole. But in America, the so-called greatest, richest, most awesomest country in the entire galaxy?

We should be ashamed of shitty air travel infrastructure.

Second, American airlines are fast approaching the quality of Russian airlines. United, Delta and American are and should be a national disgrace. Turkish National Airlines is better than all three and there are many airlines in the world better than Turkish. The point is that our domestic airlines are pathetic and now equal post-Soviet Russian planes in decrepitude, discomfort and cost. The food is not much better, either. I now do everything I can to avoid flying American airlines internationally. They are that bad. Domestically? Hell, I will sit on a bus for ten hours to avoid a three hour flight and the subsequent TSA bullshit involved.

Oh, you don’t believe me when I say the quality is as terrible as Russian airlines? Well, have you ever flown on a Yak-40 from Bukhara to Tashkent? Or a Tupolev 154 from Amsterdam to Moscow? Or an Ilyushin-96 from Tashkent to Moscow? Well, I have and they aren’t much different than the crap planes Boeing is now making. Airbus Industries in Europe simply makes a better quality and comfort plane.

Added to original post and edited at 5:07 pm, June 9: As reader Rodd noted, accurately and fairly, on Facebook, “[I] take umbrage with you asserting that Boeing makes crappy, low quality airplanes. It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service, Sean Paul, not Boeing.”

My reply: That’s a fair criticism on your part to make of me but allow me to elaborate in a better manner. Why? Well, most Americans wouldn’t understand. They are trained by propaganda to believe that Russian planes just fall out of the sky, whereas in reality Russian planes are excellent. (So were there space stations, and apparently their rockets as good enough to shoot our satellites into the sky). The Tupolev 154, especially. It’s like a Volkswagen Bug of the sky. It never quits. However, the service and seating and food is terrible. So, Americans have this idea that Russian planes are terrible, when in reality, they are exactly as you describe, “It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service.” So, point taken. I should have communicated that better.

This should be a national disgrace and scandal.

Furthermore, I’ve crossed at least sixty international borders, passport control and customs posts. Only three nations are more difficult, time consuming, aggressively bureaucratic and rude (read: hostile) than the USA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. That’s quite a stand up list. Seriously, it was easier and less intrusive as an American getting into Iran than it is being an American citizen getting back into America. The ICE/TSA are a bad joke. Moreover, after comparing multiple international airports with the “best” American airports, which are really decrepit dumps, our US airports flat out resemble more and more the post-Soviet Russian airports and infrastructure I saw traveling in Russia in the late 90s and early 2000s. As my friend Alexi replied to my tweet on the subject, “Weird to look back and see the future, ain’t it?” No doubt.

But there’s more: it is always sad to come home to America and realize how far behind the rest of the world we are falling. I love my country and want to see it succeed. But what I see saddens me. Our decline is now accelerating. As I already said, our TSA/ICE security theatre is a grotesque farce compared to real security procedures in places like Europe. US security procedures resemble the bureaucratic heavy-handedness in places like Russia, Uzbekistan and Nepal before the revolution. And can someone explain to me what exactly the purpose of APC is? It seemed a redundant disaster that only aggravated citizens returning from abroad than any time saving measure. What’s worse is that if you are flying business class you get to go through the speedy line. Except, there are now so many elite award card holders it really makes no difference. The only difference is you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off. Lastly, you can apply for TSA pre-check to avoid all this. But it’s pricey.

Of course, less than 1/3 Americans have a passport so I don’t expect this to change. America will soon be a second class country. But in the scheme of time, comparing Asia to the US during my first trip to Korea in ’95, is there a difference? Back then South Korea, Japan and just a little Chinese infrastructure was better than US infrastructure. Port facilities, airports, roads, etc. but y’all know this. Here’s what you don’t know: today Singapore, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and about 1/4 of Chinese infrastructure is superior to that in the United States of America.


That means better than ours, by the way.

What’s worse is that the differential is now accelerating and we’re rapidly falling behind.

But hey, I’m just a pointy-headed academic. What the hell do I know about the real ‘Murica?

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

26 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thanks for updating with our conversation. I was thinking of posting it on here, but while I was outside for a moment, I saw that you cross posted on FB, so I responded on that medium. 🙂

    You should be aware that I have a strong bias towards Boeing as my late father was a chief engineer for the empennage of their aircraft from the 737 up to the 787 and still worked for them until his passing last year. My step sister still werks for them and at one point was part of their skunk works. So I’m very proud of them and am proud to be from Seattle, where just a couple weeks ago a mighty B-17 Flying Fortress went right over my head as I stood out on my deck in the back yard. It’s hard to take that pride away.

    I just couldn’t let your comment go without pointing out the obvious.

    I also have flown on other aircraft, such as some of the airbus aircraft. For me, as long as they get me there and back in one piece, I cannot complain too much, but yes, things have certainly changed when driven by increasing monopolistic carriers with a bottom line to attend to. This typically equals cramped seating with extra charges for basic amenities and increasingly unpalatable fare. 😉

  • I have to agree about the new airbuses. At the capacity they were originally designed for, they would not be horrible, but extra rows and odd additional seating make them a horror. Jet Blue and Southwest are a little better. but have also caught on to the extra charges for everything meme. This hell is not true of business and first class of course, which airlines are “competing” for.

    US Airlines constantly say they have hardly any margin of profit on economy, Many young people I talked to in the US say they are not willing to pay any more money for comfort- they don’t want to pay any more for salaries, that they just want to get there. As an older disabled traveller, I know it takes me a day to recover from the distorted position I have to sit in- but at least I don’t have to stand in line, I sit in line:-)

    How does Asia do it?

    • Asian airlines like Thai, Singapore, Korea, Asiana, and at least two Chinese airlines, Eva and Cathay Pacific all have more legroom than American international flights. That’s how they do it, Moley.

          • SP- I understand-I wasn’t making fun of you- the whole trip. not just one flight, was in danger of toppling. It is amazing that you did get where you needed to be, eventually, after the 24 hours in Newark, given how little flexibility there now is.

        • “You’ll be stuffed into seats that are at least two inches too narrow to accommodate Americans on those long international flights.”

          I’m confused. They would accommodate Americans on shorter flights? They would accommodate non-Americans? Americans need to go on a diet?

          • Steeleweed- the sentence in the link isn’t written all that well, but it means all of those. Americans flying economy need to lose weight and height and a few years off their age. “accommodate” means “accommodate without pain on these planes written about in the article”- the planes are not usually used on short flights. Short flights in a seat with limited space don’t give you so much time to get contorted into agony. Just try it! (especially with any kind of knee problem like arthritis) . I am not willing to stop flying except for short trips so at this point I suck it up. I don’t try for the cheapest flights- I try for direct flights on off-peak hours. So shoot me!

            Last year, I thought I had gamed the system correctly 🙂 Hah- I paid a little extra for an “economy plus” flight to London with “extra leg room”

            It turned out they had just created a seat, in a location that had previously held no seats at all, just beyond the food-loadup. There was no longer any space to maneuver the cart out of the “kitchen” .
            Every time the cart started it banged hard into my knee.

            (the poor attendant swore she never had seen a seat there before .Turns out they had just reengineered that model to cram more people in.)!.

            Funny but sad.
            End of rant.

  • I worked at an airline and aircraft manufacturers could give away the planes and still make a profit because the airlines have to buy for each aircraft, a plane and a half roughly in spare parts, which sell at a premium. Boeing’s favourite trick was to overdesign so that there were no common parts, every widget was particular to an aircraft model. Airbus on the other hand design with common parts so that airlines don’t have to purchase a whole new aircraft in parts, they can be shared between aircraft types.

  • Several years ago I flew from London to Kathmandu via Bahrain on Emirates Airline. The flight between Bahrain was completely filled with Nepali guest workers and was one of the nicer airplanes I have ever flown on. Plenty of leg room, clean, comfortable. Cheap tickets too. And yes, probably subsidized with oil money.
    But with the Oligarchy running the show in the US now, why should the “little people” have a nice or comfortable way to travel. If you can’t bootstrap your way into business or first class, you deserve something dirty and uncomfortable. Irony alert.

  • Guess comfort is all relative. I’m skinny enough to fit most anywhere and have flown DC3s, sitting on a metal bench – just like you see paratroopers do in the old WWII movies.

    Back in the late ’70s, early ’80s my wife danced with the Tomov Ensemble, a Yugoslav Folk Dance/Song group. On a tour to Yugoslavia (coals to Newcastle, eh?) they did a lot of short flights on local airlines, sometimes standing-room-only.
    (And when they landed, the passengers applauded the pilot).

      Steeleweed, this is for both you and Synoia below-
      sorry I’m not in good enough condition to swim the Atlantic,

      (and yes, I do know about cargo ships)…

  • I’ve been flying as a passenger since 1950. The first I remember was an Argonaut.

    The economy section in planes have always been cattle cars.

    Each incremental ticket sold, and passenger carried, is a major source of profit.

    Profit also drive maintenance. Old planes have crappy interiors, because that’s a place wher it is legal to skimp on maintenance.

    The alternative is to walk. But that takes a lifetime.

    If you don’t like it, then don’t fly. A tip is that any flight under 3 hours is better by surface transport.

  • I so despise the U.S. airlines. Having done some technical work at different major airport out where the planes are at the loading ramps and service areas, I have a different view of how truly dirty these planes are.

    An acquaintance of mine is a plane surveyor, like a real estate agent hires an appraiser to value the property. He was surveying some 727 that a Turkish airline was selling for a buyer in South America. He said the Turkish airliners were maintained above standard and every inch of mechanical areas was spotless, such as the landing gear area. This made spotting oil and hydraulic leaks easier and repairs done in a safe and timely manor. Now without exception all U.S. aircraft are filthy and dripping oil all the time in places you cant see because you are in the cabin. There is so much oil on the ground in the loading ramps, every night special sweepers with oil busting solution cleans the ramp areas.

    TSA security is a joke, a very dangerous situation of false security.

    The Rich have won the war. Cutting their Taxes to almost 0. If you are on the very top of money pile you don’t pay tax, but control the levers of power. Paying taxes is for the little people.

    So with spending for Wars and Weapons up, by borrowing, will not end well.

    If you’re rich, you can just jump on your G-5 and fly to somewhere else if things get a bit out of hand.

  • I no longer travel by air; it’s barbaric! That people subject themselves to this is a symptom of our subservience to the authority.
    Stop traveling by air! But then as in all things we’ll continue to be abused with impunity…
    Because we’re just too stupid to resist…

    • “That people subject themselves to this is a symptom of our subservience to the authority.”

      It’s that, and it’s an example of the remarkable proclivity of a tendency to hide under our beds and tremble in fear. We surrender civil liberties, permit indiscriminate killing by drones, accept assasination of our citizens without due process, and condone the torture of prisoners, all based on the fiction that it is “keeping us safe.”

  • Since air travel is so destructive in terms of carbon pollution, I can’t cry too hard about it’s becoming a less desirable transportation method. If we’re going to call for reinvestment in civil infrastructure, let’s push for more and better trains instead.

    • Yep, this is the biggest secret of air travel: it’s so filthy. I remember reading the story about how the heat spiked globally in the two days after 9/11 cut all air traffic around the world. It’s that fucking dirty. It’s why I have tried my best to limit my travel and when traveling to engage in less polluting ground travel between places like Bishkek and Ashgabat. That’s almost a thousand miles. I did it all via ground. I’m 100% for trains in America.

  • A number of answers seem to assume the discussion is purely about travel that does not need to span oceans.

    While legitimate responses to domestic air flights, I don’t see where they address the increasing problems with long-haul travel originating in North America.

    The problem is “solved” for an increasing number of Americans by not ever crossing large bodies of water
    with our worthless currency.

    • Boats travel across oceans and have two wonderful aspects airplanes do not: 1.) no jet leg and 2.) they are much more relaxing and comfortable. I took a boat from Malaysia to India, believe me, I know what of I speak.

      • no argument there- did many transatlantic crossings when I was younger -there are still freighters and container ships -just not always possible, especially for Americans with limited vacation time.

        I myself am looking forward to teleportation – my feeling is that if Security can scan me then they ought to be able to move me…..!

  • I gotta believe that a lot of this decreased quality is driven by internet shopping. I have long been bugged by the loss of little amenities like blankets or pillows, and now it even a little drink or a bag of peanuts.

    But I think the airlines are in a quandry. People shop online now for flights, and if one is $325.00 the next one is $325.75, most are just going to click on the cheaper one. And for that 75 cents, there goes your cup of coke and bag of peanuts. Its so true: Duhmerikans know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

    • Airlines, added up over the course of their existence, have never been profitable. In fact, transport, over the long haul, is not a profit center, anywhere. Ever. It’s something that governments must engage in for the common good. So, this whining by the airlines over the internet, is rubbish. The airlines should never have been deregulated in the first place and the US should have a nationalized national carrier like ever other advanced country on the planet.

      But, as you aptly note, Zman, Americans know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

  • On the subject of Boeing/Airbus versus the airlines as the culprit for the planes’ interior setup vis a vis the customer experience, last year I flew two long distance legs into and out of Dubai on Emirates Airlines. The first leg was the newest Boeing jumbo and the second was the newest Airbus jumbo. Really new planes, very good service from Emirates, both legs were standard economy class. The Boeing plane was quite nice; the Airbus was fantastic. Way, way better.

    Airbus has simply surpassed Boeing in making good planes as far as the customer experience goes. Unless you think that Emirates, for some reason, is out spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying Boeing jumbo jets and then sabotaging the setups just to make Airbus look better.

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