I hate airports. Airports are the most soul-destroying things that most of us ever see.
Well, probably not. But they aren’t good. I mean, everything about them is unpleasant. They’re ugly, expensive, annoying to get to and are a lot like shopping malls — without the free parking, easy access and places to buy things you might actually need.
They’re also monuments to waiting. From the time you enter until the time you leave, you’re probably waiting for something. You wait to check in. You wait to take off your shoes so you can wait to be X-rayed, scanned, prodded, poked, whatever. (Arlo Guthrie said, about something completely different, “injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected and selected”. That hits pretty close, really. Of course, he was talking about the draft — he has a story or two about airports but as far as I know they aren’t about waiting.) You wait for your plane to arrive. You wait for your row to be called. You wait for… but you probably know what I mean.
And there’s the fact that airports seem to operate on a… different reality than the rest of the world: the glossy, gleaming screen says your plane is on time and will leave in 20 minutes but you look out the window and there’s nothing there. The line up with 500 people in it, three people to check them in and an hour to do it.
And that’s where this story ‘starts’. Ms. Rose and I were visiting friends in the Los Angeles area. It was a good visit — there were wineries, no yellow-billed magpies, roller coasters (our favourite was this one), museums (our favourite was this one), old movie lots (now a park) and, most surprisingly, a monument to a dead politician (Ron) — the monument wasn’t surprising, but the fact that we liked it as much as we did was. But all things come to an end and it was time to go home.
Which is where the airport comes in.
Our flight out of LAX was scheduled for moderately early in the morning (0900-ish; not the crack of dawn or anything). We arrived there in reasonable time to check in. Which is where the waiting started.
Our ‘carrier’, a moderately well-known one, had two largish flights scheduled to leave within half an hour or so of each other. Which means that there were 500-odd people trying to check in at more or less the same time. That part of the terminal was moderately non-busy except for this line of hundreds of people snaking through about a mile of velvet rope and then across a vast expanse of floor.
The line moved… slowly. Because there were at most three check-in desks open and one of them was reserved for First Class only, not for the, you know, peons. So while that desk stood almost uniformly idle the harried folks at the other ones tried their best to process the never-ending line of cattle all the while watching the clock tick down to the Official Departure Time. They did try closing one desk and sending the employee to try to ‘stream’ the line into two sub-lines (one per flight) within the velvet ropes but that didn’t work nearly as well as they hoped so eventually he (I think it was a he; it’s been a long time) went back to actually processing people. The first class desk remained idle.
It took a long time. We made it to the front of the line just before the Official Departure Time but that was clearly irrelevant by that point; there were still hundreds of people behind us. So we waited some more and eventually got on the plane. I don’t recall the actual numbers, but eventually it did take off, more or less an hour behind schedule. I have no idea how many people on the plane were worried about connections, but we certainly were.
In those days international flights in Toronto landed there, short-distance connections were there, at the other end of the terminal, through a tunnel and in another building. When we landed we had something like five minutes to make our connection.
We wasted one of those minutes talking to someone about a shuttle bus he thought we should take but we managed to establish that it was guaranteed to get us there too late, so we just ran. You see people running in airports on TV shows and movies from time to time and it’s invariably played for laughs. Having been one of those people, I can tell you that it’s not funny. It was especially not funny when one of our knapsacks had a small explosion while we were at a dead run. But we made it there and…
there was no plane. Crap — too late. Except that the departure lounge was full of people. Say what? Apparently this flight was behind schedule too. I have rarely been that happy about something being behind schedule.
The feeling didn’t last. Because the plane didn’t show up and didn’t show up and didn’t show up until it finally arrived — twice. It was so late that it arrived at the same time as the next flight. God bless <carrier>. So they pushed two flights worth of people and two flights worth of luggage onto two planes and, despite a moderate scare when we saw them removing our luggage from our plane in order to put it on the other one, we made it home with only the expected amount of stress (and waiting — there’s always waiting).
I wrote this up as a rant and sent it to the president of <carrier>. The only reply I got was two coupons for a discount on our next flight. (Insert snide remark of your choice about customer service here.)
Of course, the story doesn’t really end there — we used the coupons the next year. We had another good visit — more roller coasters (well, mostly the same ones over again), more wineries, yellow-billed magpies (they’re noisy), a huge rock, seals in various sizes and the happiest place in america (not Disney at all). And again, the trip ended at the airport.
This time our travel plans were different, courtesy of <carrier> — while we were there they cancelled our 0900-ish flight and moved our booking to one sort of midday. They also changed our booking on the connecting flight. This wasn’t (we thought) a huge issue; we didn’t have to change our plans all that much — we headed to the airport when our friends went to work. We were greeted by a scene eerily similar to the previous year, differing mainly in the fact that the 0900-ish flight didn’t exist so the line was correspondingly shorter. They were still understaffed and the line still moved darned slowly. Eventually we got to the front. “We’d like to check in for our midday-ish flight, please.” Apparently that was a problem. As I understand it, she could ‘see’ our ‘new’ booking from LA to Toronto and also ‘see’ our new booking from Toronto to Kingston, but she couldn’t ‘link them up’. Or something like that.
Time passed. There was much frantic hitting of keys. Eventually, a supervisor was summoned and the situation was explained. “Oh. That happens sometimes. Try meta-shift-control-cokebottle X followed by….” More hitting of keys.
It didn’t work.
Now we had two people trying to get us checked in. We weren’t particularly stressed since our flight didn’t leave for some time, but the same can’t be said for all of the folks behind us.
After she/they had been trying to get us checked in for just over half an hour, the supervisor said “You have to phone the help desk.”
There’s a scene in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four where the protagonist is sent to a torture chamber called Room 101. Room 101 appears to be tailored to the individual; it contains the thing each person is most afraid of. The look on the airline clerk’s face at that moment suggested that the supervisor had just ordered her to report to Room 101. Apparently the <carrier> help desk is the worst thing in the world.
And that’s another bad thing about airports.