Thank you all for being here. With the fifth anniversary of 9/11 upon us, the Federal Aviation Administration has been asked to project developments in air safety over the next five years. We thought this could best be conveyed from the perspective of a typical passenger in the year 2011.
While it may seem a bit extreme to those of you still living in 2006, in the year 2011, all clothes, including the ones on your back, are checked. Gastrointestinal probes and full enemas are both mandatory and unspeakably invasive, though fortunately, modern technology has rendered them relatively swift and painless. Probing is followed by a four-minute walk through the high-pressure showers, which some passengers have commented make one feel a bit like a four-door sedan going through a car wash. At the far end of the showers, passengers are greeted with the automatic body blowdryers and towels and ultimately issued standard white, loose-fitting boxer shorts and pajama tops with airline logo.
Of course, it’s not quite so quick and easy since the "Hair Bomber" of 2008 shook things up. Passengers are now restricted from wearing any form of facial, body, or pubic hair. For all but the most frequent air travelers, this means a preflight shave-down in one of the hair shearing atriums that line the terminals. Fingernails, toenails, lashes, nose hairs -- everything must go. It is said that today’s airline traveler looks like a hybrid space alien and concentration camp prisoner.
Next, all passengers are put to sleep preflight. This is achieved in a somnolence chamber at the edge of the Tarmac. In the chamber, small doses of Leritine are administered intravenously. Low-level electric currents are sent to the hypothalamus to allow regulation of the circadian clock according to arrival and departure times. As a result, most seasoned commuters have not seen the inside of a Boeing 777 in years.
There are, however, exceptions. While sedatives and electric pulses are hooked into a biofeedback system and administered continually in-flight, the technology is far from foolproof. Passengers may find themselves drifting into consciousness mid-flight. This can be an eerie, even traumatic experience, comparable to waking up from general anesthesia during surgery. There is often lingering physical paralysis and confusion regarding one’s whereabouts. The interior of the plane appears to be a dimly lit cargo of expressionless, pasty-faced, crash test dummies. Panic may set in, but typically one’s limbs are too numb and lifeless to be of any real use. The best one can hope for is the flight crew to take notice or simply to get lucky and fall back asleep.
In-flight somnolence may be the most controversial aspect of New Flight. From the airline’s point of view, there is a tangible savings on meals, drinks, and snacks. In-flight somnolence has, in fact, proven to be the great equalizer in the airline industry, making flight quality and service in first class on Paris Hilton Airways no better than coach on the lowliest regional airline in Chapter 11. There is, as well, little need for flight attendants to give preflight emergency instructions to half-asleep passengers pretending to listen. Passengers have stopped pretending. Similarly, most sky marshals now find work primarily in shopping malls and bowling alleys.
The other side of the coin is, however, compelling. Beyond the added time and expense of preflight passenger preparation -- which priced all but a select few short commuter hops out of the market -- connecting flights have become problematic at best. During layovers, connecting flights require transfer of somnolent passengers, much like the baggage of old. There have been countless instances of luggage reaching the correct destination and passengers reaching the wrong one. Popular nightmares include waking in the wrong airport, time zone, or continent. Such instances have become the stuff of both legend and oft-quoted stand-up comedy routines in the post-Alan King era.
Less comical realities have included notable instances of passengers waking up to permanent partial or complete paralysis and brain damage or simply not waking up at all. The "Honeymooners" case of 2009 -- in which the groom is to this day fighting in federal court to pull life-support from his flight-comatized bride, as well as for full control of her frequent flyer miles -- has shaken the business to the core and will undoubtedly help to define air travel in the 21st Century.
On the plus side, there have been no successful acts of in-flight terrorism. The few unsuccessful attempts have bordered on the pathetic, with isolated, naked, unarmed, semiconscious aspiring assailants wandering the aisles aimlessly and babbling incoherently. Though still being challenged in the courts by civil liberties advocates, new FAA regulations allowing flight crews to eject terror suspects mid-air have, in every case documented, proved effective. In fact, in each instance, fellow passengers reported no recollection whatsoever of the incident, and in follow-up surveys gave the airlines an "above average" rating for overall service and timeliness.
Most recently, two commercial airlines have received limited permits to allow wakefulness in-flight within titanium alloy cages. "Fly American, Fly Awake," a new ad campaign, has boosted ticket sales as much as 20 percent for at least one airline. But the terms and results of this experiment are subject to review by the House Subcommittee on Aviation. Whether passengers will ever again routinely enjoy the pleasures of an Olsen Twins movie in-flight or the privileges of the mile-high club remains in some doubt. And with the price of crude oil now topping $175 a barrel, it is conceivable that any day now, the airline industry itself will be saying bub-bye.