Travel Is Getting Harder to Do

The story of travel over the last three centuries was a series of improvements. With canals, railroads, paved highways, and airports, travel was easier, faster, and more frequent. Suddenly in this century, that trend has reversed.

There were signs that this was coming as far back as 1950. Acts of political violence disproportionately targeted people going from one place to another, then specifically focused on air travel. Increased security made it harder to carry out these attacks but did not reduce their toll. By 2001 in the United States, the cost of air travel security in the United States exceeded the total cost of political violence worldwide. In 2017, the security personnel are a greater threat to air travelers than are the criminals they are meant to deter. An air traveler is more likely to be detained or harmed by security forces than by crime, mechanical failures, weather, volcanos, and all other causes combined.

But it not just a matter of security turned sinister. The air carriers are no longer travelers’ friends. A policy of trying to sell 99 percent of the seats on flights, to boost profit margins, has been bumped up to 100 percent, with the result on major routes that passengers are bumped from more flights than not. What that means is that passengers who paid for tickets are either not allowed to board or are removed by force after they have already taken their seats on the airplane.

Airlines have gone too far with overbooking because they are squeezed by the higher cost of energy, and this has affected every mode of transportation. This also means that travel is more costly than before. Some energy costs will decline eventually, but this will not help the fastest modes of travel. Aircraft especially depend on fossil fuels that will run out within centuries — and fuel prices will go up long before the tanks go dry.

Epidemics are another recent trend affecting travelers. Depending on where and when you travel, you might face the risk of catching a novel infectious disease — and a far greater risk of being quarantined, being locked up, if authorities worry that you might be carrying an illness.

For all these reasons and others, travel is less certain than it was for the last half century. Overbooked flights and an increasing trend toward flight cancellations means you have a lower chance of reaching your destination at all. Heightened border security also means you may reach your destination country with all your papers in order only to be detained for hours or days or turned back without explanation. In the United States this year, this can happen to you at random in any international airport even if you do not cross a national boundary yourself. A 99 percent chance of getting to where you’re going sounds pretty good, but the 1 percent chance of not getting there is enough of a risk to deter travelers. Why go to the trouble of planning a trip when the outcome is out of your hands?

Travel statistics show a decline in travel to, within, and through the United States this year, and the numbers are stark enough to make me doubt the long-term trend toward more travel. If Americans are worried enough about travel to want to stay close to home, this can happen in other places too. Instead of an upward trend, we may see travel go up and down as conditions become more and less favorable.

Fish Nation Information Station | Rick Aster’s World | Rick Aster