One of the greatest triumphs and failures of modern civilization might be airline travel. As a comedian has argued, it is a miracle and we should stop whining if there are some kinks. But on the other hand, it can make you crazy because you’ve been led to believe it is possible and the refutation of that promise feels like utter betrayal.
Increasingly, it is hard to pretend that travelling by air, especially in recent years, hasn’t become progressively (regressively?) worse. Witness the following:
I am scheduled for a transatlantic flight at 7:10 p.m. on a Saturday. I try to check in online when the pre-departure 24 hour window opens. After navigating American’s website and putting in details like my known traveler number (Global Entry/TSA pre-check), I’m eventually told I have to check-in in person. The reason is not explained. I also get a text saying the flight has been delayed and the new departure is 7:50.
4:25 p.m. on Saturday: Mindful that people who aren’t checked in get bumped off the flight because of routine overbooking of seats by airlines, I leave home to catch the 32 bus that takes me to the E train in Jackson Heights, which pokes along as a local rather than an express most weekends.
5:25: Arrive at the Archer Ave/Sutphin blvd subway stop and go up three floors to the Airtrain.
5:45: Arrive at the American terminal (8), find a self-check-in kiosk, repeat the entire data entry process, and am then refused check-in again. Staff are trying to assist multiple people. Turns out they are tasked with ensuring people like me have a visa to the country of travel. I have to point out the exact page with the correct visa on my passport to the baby-faced staffer two times. He then wants to see my return ticket, and then has to be pointed to the exact place on that page where it mentions the date of departure. He completes check in.
6:10 Drop off checked bag. I have a rule against checking bags, and this trip proves that I shouldn’t break my rules. More on this in a minute.
6:25: Complete security screening in a few minutes, thanks to the TSA Precheck verification on my boarding pass.
6:30: At gate.
7:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 8:20. Allegedly the craft we’re using has been late in arriving from Zurich.
7:45: At gate. Flight delayed to 9:00. Mechanical problem.
8:30: At gate. Flight delayed to 10:00. No explanation but passengers who are complaining about missing later connecting flights are advised to go to re-booking desks.
9:00: At gate. Flight delayed to 11:00. People are getting sloshed at the conveniently placed bar next to the gate.
10:00 At gate. Flight delayed to 11:30. People make a rush to the gate. Turns out to be sandwiches and tiny bags of junk food, not boarding.
10:45: At gate. Flight cancellation announcement via text. I’m rebooked the next day via a long connection through North Carolina. No. I run to the rebooking desk but there are already 8 people in front of me and matters are proceeding verry slowly. I call the number posted on the screen behind the desk. Told that the next day’s direct flights are booked solid. I ask about the following day, since I’ve already lost one day’s cost on my hotel so I might as well go straight through to my connecting flight two days later. Yes, that is available. We make the change and I get out of the line.
11:15: Realize that I forgot to ask about the checked bag. Uh-oh. Both the staffer at the gate and the rebooking desk are mobbed. No way I’ll get an answer within even 2 hours. I call the number again and I’m told the bag will be released (since I’m flying 48 hours later) and I should pick it up . I decide to walk around and find someone else to confirm. Locate another desk several gates away. The staff person is ready to send me back to the previous desks but I explain that I just have a question about what the process is for checked baggage in these circumstances. I’m told to pick it up from baggage claim.
11:45: Staff person happens to be walking in the direction of baggage claim. We get to talking. She advises me not to wait 48 hours to fly because the forecast is ominous. Offers to help. I take her up on it. She reviews and discards several options and finally finds me a direct flight on a partner airline for the next evening. Prints out new boarding passes and asks if I need taxi vouchers to go home and come back the next day. Yes, please. She prints those out. What about checked bag? Pick it up, she says. It’s a different airline now. Okay.
12:00: No sign of bag in baggage claim near belt. Staffer there tells me it will take a while and that I should give the bag tag to her colleague in their office plus details of my new flight. Promises to find my bag and switch it to correct flight. I do as advised.
12:12: Call car service that American uses. They promise to send someone in 15 minutes.
12:40: Call for update. Told to wait a few minutes.
12:55: Call for update. Told to wait.
1:15: Call for update and try hard not to lose temper. Explain that I could have taken the subway if they had been honest about their availability. She promises to send a car in 3 minutes.
1:25: Get a call from driver. Asks me to come up two levels from arrivals to departure. Haul myself up. Find car. Told to sit in front seat. Two passengers in back already. Woman starts to complain that she has been travelling for days and the car is specially sent for them by another airline and she doesn’t want me to cause her details. Her husband tries to calm her down while driver asks me to explain in English that Jersey is not closer than Queens and they have to go past my address anyway.
2:00 Home after 9.5 hours. Could have been at my destination across the Atlantic in less time.
And this is just part I of this story. So no, we’re not there yet.