[This piece was written in the Alaska Airlines terminal in Seattle and subsequently printed as an Op-Ed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.]
Somewhere in our fourth hour as hostages of a major airline at SeaTac, I couldn’t help but reflect that if our captors were terrorists, there would at least be someone negotiating for our release.
The terrorists, if they were the Old School type more interested in airplanes as a negotiating ploy than airborne missiles, would even demand food. And unlike passengers, they would get it. They might even let the elderly go free. We hope we would qualify.
My 59 year old husband and I are so old we remember back to the halcyon days when a flight delayed even a half hour was cause for mass apologies and free champagne, and airlines happily accepted their delayed competitor’s tickets, creating a powerful incentive to get one’s plane back in the air before passengers were flying someone else’s friendly skies. Even more fondly, we remember when airlines had a customer service model other than lying.
Lured into a false sense of security by an actual aircraft at the gate last week, we were dismayed when, forty-five minutes prior to flight time, the On Time status suddenly flashed Delayed. Yes, they announced soon after, the plane was here but the crew was temporarily stranded by a maintenance problem in Sacramento – two hours flying time away. It didn't take much in the way of math skills to realize that long before the official status changed, they knew.
My business traveler husband, the Airplane Whisperer, barely looked up from his 30 pound copy of Professional Asp.Net 2.0, a tome ideally suited for today’s not-going-anywhere-soon flier. “Won’t matter,” he said. “They’ll be out of flight time by then.” He has a 100% accuracy rate for predicting when flights aren’t going to go.
As the hours wore on and the departure time continued to be pushed back, the cheery blond gate agent updated our status with practiced perfidy: the crew is in the air and will land at 6:17. But as each new departure time approached, more bad news: We aren’t going to board quite yet as we’d hate for you sit on the ground. Then, oops! The crew is now in Portland. But they’re still on their way! And finally (my husband only smiled): alas, the crew is out of flight time for the day. We’ll have to find a new crew.
Just to be clear, we realize this isn’t the gate agents’ personal faults. Like prison guards everywhere, they’re just following orders. And they probably deserve combat pay since I can’t imagine what possesses anyone to take a job as the ground interface with the flying public. Travel benefits, presumably, but anymore that’s like working for a radiologist for the free barium enemas. No, they’re just the hapless front men for the management grinches who don’t have to look into the faces of vacationers whose $500 a night Caribbean hotel room is sitting empty, or the distraught daughter who is going to miss Dad’s funeral.
Sadly, we don’t think it’s going to be getting any better. In fact, my husband continues to be grateful that no terrorist has yet been caught trying to board a plane with booby trapped underwear, triggering the inevitable next level of personal degradation.
In the meantime, however, a free glass of champagne would be really nice.
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