Fri, Nov 28, 2014 ●
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The View From Away: Flying the friendly skies isn't what it used to be

Opinion

The View From Away: Flying the friendly skies isn't what it used to be

Not too long ago I found myself watching a Poverty Row movie from the 1940s, the kind where a microphone occasionally strays into the shot, and the actors just roll their eyes and keep talking, knowing there won’t be a second take.

But it took place on a long plane flight. For all its cheapness, the movie painted a picture of air travel in the '40s that is a pipe dream in today’s age of unregulated air travel.

The passengers in the spacious cabin sat in plush chairs facing each other at tables for four. The "stews" – I think it is fair to call them that – wore designer uniforms and were more geishas than flight attendants. They catered to the passengers’ every whim, made meals to order, mixed drinks from a full bar and made up the passengers’ beds. Did I mention there were beds?

Contrast this with my flight to Los Angeles last week.

I did not mind a 7 p.m. takeoff to get a flight with only one connection. Theoretically, I would still get in at a fairly reasonable hour. The difference between theory and practice soon became clear when I opted to receive updates about my flight status via text message. Rookie mistake. In airline speak, “updates” means “increasingly alarming bad news that you can do nothing about.”

The stress factor was raised further by the fact that the other passengers got the bad news on their phones, too, starting a rush to the gate agent for more information. One of those passengers also happened to be an airline employee who commented in a loud voice, “This is not good, people. I’m a ticketing agent, and if they’re already saying the plane is 45 minutes late, it is not good.”

Because nothing helps a bad situation like a Cassandra telling everybody it is going to get worse.

It must be tough for gate agents. They hear about flight changes at about the same time as the passengers, they can’t do anything more about them than the passengers, and yet it is their job to tell the passengers everything will be fine when it is obvious that it won’t. Based on my experience last week, the airline training manual says that the way to calm people is to smile, speak in a low, reassuring tone, and say things that are patently false, especially to people with connections to make.

My connection went from tight to “you haven’t got a chance” when a second text message came through as I waited to speak to an agent. The text announced a gate change that put my connecting flight farther away. The agent’s response to my concern:

“Oh, these concourses are all right next to each other. You should be fine.”

He seemed so confident and relaxed, you couldn’t help but feel better. Unless you had been in an airport before, which I have. My response to his response:

“Are you sure? Because my second plane now starts boarding 10 minutes before the first plane lands, and I have to get from the far end of one concourse to the far end of another, so ...”

“... But those gates are all in a straight line. It’s like one big building.”

True statement. That particular terminal at Dulles Airport is one big building, a building roughly the length of Portland. So assuming there were no further delays, and the plane levitated to the gate instead of using a runway, and beamed the passengers out "Star Trek"-style, I would be able to run a quick 5K to the second gate in time to wave good-bye to my plane.

Since there was nothing either of us could do about it, I opted not to point any of this out to the agent. This avoided an argument that would have seemed really stupid 10 minutes later when a third update informed me that the L.A. leg of my flight had also been delayed, solving my connection problem at the cost of a much later arrival.

The ultimate irony of our flight delay occurred when the late plane finally did arrive. Another gate agent – let’s call her the loading specialist, or “pusher” – made us all stand against one wall so a) we would not be in the way of the deplaning passengers as b) we simultaneously boarded the plane while c) boarding by group number only. Picture two-way traffic at the running of the bulls in Pamplona, in a space 10 feet wide, with everyone trying to manage a carry-on bag and one personal item.

What we all need to understand as travelers in the modern era of air travel is that flight times are not really even estimates any more. They are just numbers the airlines use for some opaque bookkeeping purpose that has nothing to do with when planes actually take off or land.

If they were honest, every boarding pass would include a disclaimer something like, “Realistically, you should think of your departure time not so much as when you leave as when you start waiting to get on the plane. Could be an hour, could be a day; we don’t know.

“Our advice? Don’t travel if you need to be someplace. That’s just common sense.”