Donaldus. So for two weeks we worked our way around Greece. This involved planes, trains, automobiles, buses, rental cars, and more. Everything worked flawlessly. The flight from Athens left precisely on time, and landed in New York City 10.3 hours later. Then things began to get … well, American.
Usual tedium of 1) passport control (long line); baggage collection (easy); customs (easy); 2) dropping off bags at new baggage line; 3) then through NYC JFK TSA (tedious). Total time of this turnaround: 1.25 hours. It turns out our Minneapolis flight was from a satellite terminal to be reached via something called a Jitney. We queue up for it, take the seven-minute shuttle, check in at the gate. That’s when the evil words appear: Flight Delayed.
This is not my first rodeo (to put it lightly) so I go to the desk and ask if the delayed flight is “in the air” (the key question, always). Desk clerk gives me a look, and says, “Of course, how else would we be able to announce the new departure time?” Turns away in indifference and disgust. (You have had this experience, I promise). I ask followup question. “Yes, thanks, I’m just concerned about our close connection in Minneapolis.” She doesn’t even look back at me. “There’s a kiosk down the hall. They will be able to tell you about alternative flights to your destination.” Ok, now I’m unhappy, because we are booked on the last connecting flight to my “destination.” If we miss it, tomorrow’s going to be a long day after a relatively sleepless night. But she’s done with me.
Because this is not my first rodeo (hereafter NMFR) I know that the posted new departure time is essentially an arbitrary number, certainly a “hopeful” number, especially at a New York airport. We sit down to have a glass of sparkling water at one of those iPad ordering places.
When we finish, we go to our gate (moderately early), only to discover that the flight has been changed to another gate, UNANNOUNCED, which requires us to get into an insanely long Jitney line to take the Jitney back to the major terminal. When we finally get there, we have to jog down to our gate, where, of course, we are told (not by the electronic signs) that the flight is further delayed. So much for the answer earlier to the “in the air” question. By the time we board the aircraft we are sweating like pigs (hereafter SLP). And we have grave concerns about our connecting flight.
We board the Minneapolis flight, along with 200 others, some of whom appear to think there is no relationship between how many minutes you spend standing in the aisle puttering about, finding your reading glasses, folding your sports jacket, trying your oversize roller bag four or five different ways in the overhead bins, looking for that elusive magazine you earlier tucked into your backpack, etc. The pilot announces 1) a long taxi; 2) thunderstorms at both ends of the itinerary, which means “vectors,” and 3) headwinds. I know now that we are going to miss our connection flight to Bismarck. The lead flight attendant comes on, at the top of her voice, to tell us not to bother to ask her or anyone else anything about our connections. She does announce that it is usually company policy (a lie) to “hold” flights for people with close connections. Has she flown recently–say in the last fifteen years? She also tells us, with all the sanctimonious righteousness of the seasoned flight attendant. “Don’t worry. The folks on the ground have been made aware of each of your situations, so the clerks working your flights will be looking for you when we land. If you miss the flight, you will be automatically rebooked. Our computers enable us to follow your individual itineraries and take care of you.” Remember this one.
Long flight, uneventful. Plane lands at precisely 9:30 Mpls. Gate C-22. Our connecting flight, THE LAST TO BISMARCK, is at F-13. This means a very long journey from C-22 to F-13. Although the airport is now almost deserted, no carts are handy to whisk us there. So we hoof it. By which I mean sprint down endless Concourse C, across the main lobby of the terminal past the grand piano, the harp, the Minnesota products stores, and then down Concourse F. Our lungs are bursting. We know we are going to miss our flight. I actually say, to my traveling companion, as if this were a marathon, “We have to dig down now, because if we keep running we just may make our flight.”
I arrive within hailing distance of the deserted gate, and shout “Bismarck!” Two at the desk, a youngish woman and a middle aged bald man. She says, “Jenkins?” “Yes, i gasp, and my daughter is right behind me.” I’m unable to talk, SLP squared or cubed, amazed that we are going to make it after all.
The the male clerk says, “Whadya lose track of the time or something?” At this point I only wanted to vault over the desk and kick the living daylights out of him for a protracted period of time, like something you’d see in a Joe Pesci film. I manage only, “Lose track of time?!! Our plane just landed from New York. We had to sprint the whole length of the airport.” I’m doubled over, coughing up buttons and bobby pins. He makes no attempt to apologize, and it is clear that he may not actually believe me. “Well, monitor says it landed on time.” Now I really want to just kill him. Any reasonably decent human being would have recognized, at the very least, that the passenger in question was under physical and emotional stress, that perhaps this might be the moment to say, “Don’t worry, you’re going to make the flight.” But no.
We board the flight. The people on the plane look at us like we have just been released from a Panamanian summer tropical prison camp wearing the clothes we had on when we were imprisoned there seven weeks ago. If they could vote us off the flight they would (by secret ballot) do so.
OK. We made it home. At no point in all of this did I say, “Look, we started this day in a Mediterranean country!, Greece!, and we have flown halfway across the earth. We are tired, very eager for a shower, and needing a little of the professional honesty, courtesy, and warmth that all of your advertising mentions all the time. You say that your job is to treat the customer right, but since we landed in New York we have been treated like individuals whose only virtue in the world is that we had the money to pay for your reluctant, sullen, half-hearted, imprecise, and often mendacious services. At no point has any domestic flight employee stopped to smile, ask how s/he could help us, or offer to do anything more than the merest (get them out of your face as quickly as possible and with as little real service) response to their earnest and politely-delivered question. In what sense, may I ask, do you really put customers first?” Shouldn’t the airlines be forced to suspend their heroic advertising and just say, “Look, we’ll get you there. Can’t say quite when. Shut up and don’t ask for the ‘whole can.'”
We just took the institutional abuse, because in American travel, if you actually get to your destination on the day you had in mind your job is to shut the (er) hell up, and feel grateful.
I remember once going up to the departure desk in a provincial French airport. The desk clerk, dressed impeccably in a blue suit, a clerk who spoke five languages, said, in flawless English, “I’m terribly sorry Mr. Jenkinson, I am afraid I have bad news.” (Stage pause). “Your flight will be departing seven minutes late today.” There is no laughter sufficiently sardonic for an announcement of this sort, in a SOCIALIST country, for goodness sake. In America you would be ignored, lied to, lied to repeatedly, given vague and erroneous information merely designed to get you out of the clerk’s hair, and the general feeling you would emerge with, when you finally got to your destination, is that you should be grateful that they bothered to haul your ass there at all, since they clearly took no pleasure of any sort in flying you to your destination, and your very presence, with you insane “needs,” was an affront to their sense that the passenger has no rights, dignity, or concerns.
“Whadja lose track of the time or something?” That guy’s fortunate to be alive. I would rat him out to the airlines if I could have seen his name badge through the sweat monsoon on my face. If I had killed him, as he so richly deserved, I believe any jury of routine airline travelers would have reduced this to manslaughter, and I might have been given a standing ovation.