What our airlines say about America

Story highlights

  • Jennifer S. Hirsch: As far as air travel goes, the American century is long over
  • Service reflects not just corporate culture, but early 21st-century American culture, she says

Jennifer S. Hirsch is professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)I was eight hours into the 15-hour Hong Kong-to-Newark trip when the United Airlines flight attendant asked if I'd like to buy a snack. Buy a snack? I'd like to think that my $2,854.60 round-trip ticket would come with three meals, as it had in the past. After all, it's not like we can hop out to the corner deli when we are over the Bering Sea.

Over the past decade, I've been a frequent flier between the United States and Vietnam (this time via Hong Kong), but this was a first. The basic drill on such trips has always been lunch, a substantial snack (which worked for me as dinner) and then breakfast, even in cattle class. But not anymore. A new United policy, which took effect on June 1, puts an end to free food between lunch and breakfast.
Jennifer S. Hirsch
As the flight attendant sheepishly explained, in exchange for the lost meal, we now received the inedibly salty "bruschetta chips" distributed before lunch and that tiny post-lunch ice cream cup, which, in United public relations speak, constitutes a "premium dessert." Fueled by these "enhancements," it was assumed we could hang on until breakfast (or else would opt to pay for food ourselves from an overpriced selection of unappetizing snacks).
    This was just one more reminder that, as far as air travel goes, the American century is long over. In fact, the experience on American carriers pales in comparison with those of their Asian counterparts, which offer better food, touchscreens that actually respond to touch and bathrooms kept clean for the entire duration of the flight.
    Asian carriers remind me that flying need not be excruciating. On the Tokyo-Hanoi leg of a trip, the Japan Airlines flight attendants were so friendly that I wanted to invite them to meet me for tea in New York, and the meal actually resembled food for which one might pay in a restaurant.
    Don't just take my word for it. Last month, Skytrax announced its latest airline rankings, which were dominated by Asian and Middle Eastern carriers -- five of the top 10 airlines were from East or Southeast Asia. And the number of U.S. airlines that cracked the top 25? Zero.
    So, what does it say about America that one of our major carriers would cut back food service in economy class on a round-the-world flight, even as its profits remain strong and the folks upfront in business class yuk it up with champagne and flatbed seats? (In fact, profits have been strong enough to have piqued the curiosity of the Justice Department, which just announced an investigation into possible collusion by some of America's largest carriers). Well, it tells us that the leading U.S. airlines really don't care about our business or our comfort -- that if they could model a way to do away with economy class altogether and devote themselves entirely to flying rich people, movie stars and business executives around the world, they'd probably do just that.
    Sadly, this is not just corporate culture -- it's early 21st-century American culture. Call it the one-percentification of our transportation infrastructure. It's not just our bridges and our train tracks that need some work; it's the values that they reflect.
    There are many things that make me proud to be American, and when I am in Vietnam, I happily share them with my colleagues. We don't throw bloggers in jail. People work voluntarily on political campaigns because they believe that elections make a difference. Even though mostly only rich people can be elected to statewide or national office, we have still managed a peaceful transfer of power between the highest elected official in the land every four years.
    Streets across the nation filled with protesters chanting "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" and "Black Lives Matter" may have led to some modest changes in police practices, and the feds even seem to be cutting back a tiny bit on their surveillance of our phone calls. Not to mention, we invented (I think) the fried Oreo. So don't say I am a self-hating American.
    But those recent trips on Asian airlines, where I felt cosseted and cared for even in economy class, gave me that same "end of America" feeling that I have when I see the subway custodians in Hong Kong hand-washing the risers on the subway steps, or when I stumble, agog not just with jet lag but with awe, through the gleaming new terminal of Seoul's Incheon International Airport. It's the same embarrassment I feel at the contrast between the hourlong queues at passport control when returning home to the United States (talk about huddled masses yearning to breathe free!) and the brisk efficiency that welcomes travelers in those Asian hubs.
    Knowing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has actually developed a system in which those who qualify can pay $100 for the privilege of bypassing long lines only added to my chagrin (and though I hate to admit it, I've signed up for this). My fellow travelers on that United flight likely had no idea of the wait that lay in store, but still, I wanted to roam the aisles, apologizing on behalf of America to all the Chinese who had unsuspectingly boarded without lugging a sack of groceries along so they would have something to eat. And you know, I might have done that -- except for the fact that I'd have felt compelled to share my apricots.