I just flew for the first time since COVID. It was disgusting

Travelers crowd into a gate while waiting to board their flight at Oakland International Airport in January.
Travelers crowd into a gate while waiting to board their flight at Oakland International Airport in January.Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020

By Matthew Fleischer

July 4, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)

I didn’t want to fly. I really didn’t. COVID had kept me earthbound for over a year, and I was fine with it. I was vaccinated now, sure. But the idea of huffing everyone’s breath for hours at a time still didn’t appeal. Nor was I in a hurry to participate in the pumping of metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere while deluding myself into pretending that was OK.

But circumstances demanded I take a quick trip between San Francisco and L.A. — and transit options were limited.

Sure, Amtrak runs between Oakland and L.A. But the ride takes 12 hours. And there’s only one daily route that sucks up an entire work day.

Buses, meanwhile, go faster. But they aren’t running nearly as frequently as they used to. And, no, I did not want to take an overnight trip and show up to work at 5 a.m. smelling like the Greyhound, thank you.

I don’t own a car. Renting one and driving solo was even more expensive than flying. And it was the worst option possible from a climate perspective.

So a flight it was. And the experience was even more miserable than I remembered it.

COVID lockdowns felt restrictive at times, of course. But nothing, I realized, like the old normal of being herded like a farm animal from one absurdist queue to the next.

Yes, taking our shoes off to go through security is still a thing. Yes, we’re still doing those invasive body scans. Yes, we’re still getting wanded and patted down if we leave so much as a scrap of paper in our pockets. And, yes, the lines to participate in this security theater are back to being an hour long, and not even remotely socially distanced.

Things don’t get much better onboard. Everyone was still crammed on top of one another in seats built for children. There was the same manic jockeying for overhead space and armrest position. People still sociopathically lower their seats right into your lap.

And the surfaces. So many surfaces that can’t avoid being touched. I couldn’t even look at the bathrooms.

Even the mildest cough in my vicinity brought levels of anxiety I hadn’t felt in months.

How absurd that this dehumanizing, greenhouse gas-pumping germ factory remained the best option for moving people across California. If ever there was a reminder how badly we need high-speed rail, this was it.

The Bay Area to Los Angeles was the ninth-busiest flight corridor in the world in 2019. More than 2 million people make the trip annually in non-pandemic years. And it is almost impossible for the airline industry to green this mass migration.

None of these realizations are new, of course. They’re the reason the majority of us voted to fund high-speed rail in the first place in 2008. But they feel even more urgent in the wake of COVID.

Construction woes and political wrangling have turned California rail into something of a national joke. But I think I can safely speak for most Californians when I say that it’s not high-speed rail we’re sick of. Our ire is reserved for state leaders who cannot or will not bring this project home.

The latest rail saboteur is Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who fired off a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg last week asking for permission to forgo overhead electrification on large portions of the route. Rendon argued that battery technology would render these investments obsolete in the coming years.

Except that’s not how high-speed trains work. Now or in the future.

Rendon and other L.A. officials are just trying to siphon off funds for pet rail projects in their districts — and are willing to compromise the efficacy of the entire system to do so.

This isn’t to suggest that high-speed rail in California is going well. The decision to start building in the Central Valley instead of the high-traffic corridors of L.A. or the Bay was a mistake born of out of political expediency instead of smart transportation planning.

Unfortunately, we’re stuck with that decision. And we’re not going to solve it with more political expediency. Abandoning the billions in investments that have already been made is absurd. Especially with a state budget surplus of $76 billion and the prospect of billions more in federal dollars at our fingertips should Biden pass an infrastructure bill.

Besides, the real boondoggle is the airline industry. It took over $50 billion in government handouts to survive the pandemic, with most of those funds earmarked to avoid laying off employees. Then it laid off thousands of workers anyway. And that’s when its planes aren’t dumping fuel on schoolchildren in California communities of color.

High-speed rail construction in California is a mess. But the status quo is a nightmare. Take a flight in the middle seat if you don’t believe me.

Matthew Fleischer is The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor. Email: matt.fleischer@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MatteFleischer

Matthew Fleischer is The Chronicle’s editorial page editor. He came to the paper from the L.A. Times, where he spent six years as senior digital editor of the Opinion team – writing, editing and collaboratively planning stories to resonate with an online audience. 

Prior to joining The Times, Matthew was a staff writer for LA Weekly and an investigative reporter for the watchdog site Witness L.A., where his work helped expose the abuse and corruption in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that led to the convictions of Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka for obstruction of justice. 

His work has been honored by the Overseas Press Club Foundation and Investigative Reporters and Editors. When he’s not writing or editing, he’s wandering, usually by foot.

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