David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Travellers fly into clouds of misery

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This year I have joined the ranks of America's weary air warriors. I have not totted up all the flights I have taken since the first of the Democratic Party primaries at the start of January, but I know that the wheels on my trusty suitcase are falling off and my ears are in a state of permanent pop.

I don't mean to moan. The number of US states I have seen since coming to the US has just hit 49 after a dash to South Dakota – the other Dakota being the one still missing – and all those trips translate into healthy air-mile accounts. And that means sometimes being put up front.

It is silly how much pleasure we get from a mere upgrade to first class. On domestic US flights the service is rarely worthy of the name. Oh, but the joy of taking your seat early and sipping a cocktail (albeit from a plastic glass) while the cattle struggle through to the main cabin behind.

Flying within the US these days is as much fun as a visit to the dentist. It has become utterly gruelling. If the upgrade doesn't come through and I am in a middle seat aft of the wings, my blood pressure rises faster than mercury in Hell. The misery will only deepen. Flight attendants get more sour-faced because they know their employers are having their balls deep-fried by the ever-rising cost of oil and therefore aviation fuel. Now some US carriers are preparing to charge even for the first bag you check in.

The chief executives plead for understanding. Their fuel costs have tripled since 2000 and their business model has come apart. They have to squeeze us for more cash somehow. But making us pay to check baggage is a public relations own-goal. Now everyone will try to haul their bags on board, and fist fights, I predict, will break out for space in the overhead bins.

More insults are to follow. Forget about food. (Continental boasts it still feeds us but its microwaved sandwiches are foul.) US Airways will soon be charging for soft drinks, and Northwest, hunting new ways to reduce weight, is to ration water supplies in the lavatories. Not flushing? Can't wash hands? Hey, walk next time if you care so much.

It gets better. A federal aviation official spilt the beans this month that among other nifty revenue-raising options being pondered by airlines is introducing a fare structure pegged to the weight of the passenger. Madam seems a little puffy today; that will be a $200 surcharge.

They haven't figured out yet how they will enforce the rules for the size of bag you can take on board. American Airlines says spotters to the security screening area will pull aside passengers lugging too much baggage. Getting through security will be more of a nightmare than ever.

My worst mishap so far this year was at a security gate. This, was in South Dakota in the tiny airport at Sioux Falls. Scrambling to keep up with Hillary Clinton, I had bought the ticket at the last moment, something that instantly pegs you as a high-risk traveller who must suffer additional screening. They patted me down and swabbed my computer for traces of explosive dust.

No big deal, at least until I arrived in Minneapolis for a three-hour wait, time I had set aside to write on Hillary for the editors in London. But guess what? I open the computer and it is not mine. It looks like mine but, best I can tell, it belongs to a wind energy engineer on his way to a sales presentation. He presumably was opening mine. No presentation, just pictures of my pug.

So, some advice: if you fly frequently, remember the blood-pressure pills, and attach something bright to your computer and bag to avoid mix-ups. I actually got rather to like my wind guy's laptop, which was a few models up from my own. But eventually we tracked each other and our much-travelled machines have returned to their respective owners.

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