Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Flying -- a sea change

Posted By on 07.01.08 at 01:40 PM

Before resuming my media patrol after ten days in the northwest, I want to say a word about the mode of transportation that got me there and brought me back. Flying has changed. Perhaps influenced by my choice of reading material on this holiday, Camus' The Plague, I observed that flying has become a collective misery so extreme that a collective human decency is emerging in response. Passengers are doomed to suffer, and no one -- not the pilots, nor the flight attendants, nor the check-in clerks -- can do anything about it, but they let us know that they care and that they'll be suffering right alongside us. Our haggard flight attendants, for instance, didn't pretend that the cheese snack packs they offered for $4 a pop (but in limited supply) were nourishing, or tasty, or anything but a humiliation. And as the night flight to Chicago left the Dallas airport (let's not get into why it was necessary to fly to Vancouver by way of Dallas), one flight attendant got on the PA and admitted to the whole plane that some passengers had been asking about blankets but there were no blankets.

Flying coach is like sailing steerage. It's like catching the bus, except that to ride the bus you don't have to plod through a security check in stockinged feet. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. What seems new is the way everyone feels everyone else's sadness. The pilot of the flight from Vancouver to Dallas made no attempt to gild the lily when he got on the speaker and explained that the reason we were all standing, carry-on bags in hand, in a darkened plane whose door did not open was that a new automated system had failed and as a result our 757 had taxied into a gate configured for a 737.

As a result of this delay, even though my galloping wife and I managed to arrive in time at our connecting flight in another terminal, our luggage did not. Three hours later, well past midnight, we were standing in a long line on O'Hare's lower level waiting to report the missing suitcases. The three clerks tending to this line could not have been more patient and concerned. The details that had to be exchanged about the contents of these suitcases and when and if we might see them again could be hard to hear -- a woman who'd gotten off a plane from Colombia and discovered that an expensive guitar and all of her family's clothing had mysteriously disappeared was standing nearby screaming profanely. But her frustration was understandable, and I could feel the clerks' compassion.

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