(A Rambling Deranged Travel Saga)
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds…” -High Flight
When John Gillespie Magee wrote the above famed lines describing the thrill and freedom of flying in September, 1941, it was still possible to enjoy the experience of powered flight. After all, Pilot Officer Magee had only the Nazi air force trying to ruin the experience for him; he had never encountered the soul-killing experience of traveling on a modern commercial airline.
One wonders if each of Magee’s forays into the skies above England had been preceded by a modern airport security checkpoint, 6 hours of flight delays (in 20 minute intervals only), two gate changes and a crowded cheek-by-jowl existence eating $3.00 candy bars under a monitor blaring out Wolf Blitzer’s take on General Ricardo Sanchez, whether Magee’s poem would have ended with his beautiful belief that he had “Put out my hand, and touched the face of God” or simply a wish that he could jump out the plane’s window and go to the place of God.
Now, those of you that read this column on a regular basis, know that I hate to complain or paint with a broad brush, so let me choose my words narrowly and carefully when I say that the entire air travel industry in the United States –from the white lane drop off to the check in, the baggage handling, the security search, the waiting area, the loading procedure, the flight, the service, the reliability and the baggage claim on the far side– is totally broken, incompetent, inefficient, overburdened, and demoralizing. It’s been ruined. Air travel used to be kind of fun and adventuresome. Now it just sucks… the life right out of you. It’s maddening. I now believe that Senator Larry Craig was probably normal when he first arrived at the Minneapolis airport; half a day into the travel system, however, he was a freaky madman crawling under the stalls like a muttering gay Golem (Gaylem?).
As a more definite case in point, let’s consider a typical air trip, picked totally at random: the trip from Hell I had to endure last week. Like many annoying things (the Kennedys, the Big Dig, John Kerry), it originated in Boston. In fairness, Logan airport is not the worst in the country, and for that incredible fact it really should send a thank you to Philadelphia and New York’s JFK. As is the case with all modern air marathons, my trip began with an internal debate over how early to arrive. My flight left at 6:00. In any normal business, arriving around 5:00 or 5:15 should be sufficient. But since I must account for the facts that 1) I needed to check a single bag at a ticket counter serving approximately 3 million passengers and manned by 3 employees, (1 of whom was supervising the other two), and 2) that passing through post 9/11 security is guaranteed to take anywhere between 30 minutes and October, I needed to arrive hours early or risk missing an important meeting. I chose to arrive two hours early to play it safe.
Now keep in mind that the alleged great advantage of air travel is speed and convenience. Thus, I quickly and conveniently began two hours into the hole. All I needed to do was fly to Chicago and then hop on a little plane and pop up to Minnesota. Given the speed of a jet aircraft and a one-hour layover, this trip should honestly take no more than six hours. (Let the counter begin after check in: elapsed time 0.6 hours).
At Logan’s security checkpoint, the fun really began. I waited zombie-like and compliant in a serpentine purgatory designed to keep America safe, and staffed entirely by foreigners. I removed my laptop from its bag, my shoes from my feet, my keys from my pockets, and my attitude from its usual command seat — and immediately set off the magnetometer. “Remove your belt.” I was told. I removed my belt, and clutching my pants (finally a chance to have someone notice that I’ve lost weight!), I… immediately set off the magnetometer.
“Remove anything metal you’ve forgotten and pass through again.” I looked down and saw my work ID hanging from my belt loop. “METAL!” I thought, and removing it, I confidently walked back through the magnetometer. Before it ever alarmed I stopped and said out loud and in slow motion, “WAIT! MY CELL PHONE” which I had forgotten in the wrong pocket. The alarm sounded, the guy laughed and said “That must be it.” I removed it and passing through the portal again in silence I breathed a sigh of relief. “Yeah, that was it.” I said. “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter, you set it off three times so we have to search you anyway. It’s a rule.”
I was then sent to a glassed in search cell where a man who reminded me very much of one of the prison guards in “Midnight Express” stood grinning (Finally someone has noticed that I’ve lost weight!)… “I’m going to use this probe on you and afterwards I’m going to pat you down, if it’s a sensitive area, I’ll touch you with the back of my hand,” he said. “If it’s a very sensitive area,” I thought, “I may touch you with the back of mine.” A few awkward minutes later I was thanked and, knowing finally how bitter old Maureen Dowd must feel, I embarked to step 3, the flight delay game. (Elapsed time 1.1 hours)
The flight was marked as being delayed 9 minutes on the board. This is the airlines way of throwing down ante. If it were really just 9 minutes late, would they bother to tell anyone? Still, boarding could begin in as little as 30 minutes. No time for an early dinner. 9 minutes became 14, 14 became 23, 23 became something equally dishonest and just 45 minutes late I was allowed to board, wishing I had gotten dinner when I could have, and was told to hurry to my (narrow) seat as this was a full flight. Not only was the flight full, but a good part of my window seat was full of the rightmost portion of the bodybuilder that had gotten the middle seat in my row. This man was approximately 5’ 6”, both in height and breadth, and was apparently profoundly narcoleptic, as he immediately fell asleep and began to lean towards my confined personal space. 30 minutes after that began, we were delayed at push back, then allowed to proceed. Then we were warned about unspecified weather delays, which disappeared 10 minutes later, when it was announced that we were almost first in line to taxi. Then we were third, then a whole line appeared in front of us due to some injustice from traffic control. Then we took off. (Elapsed time 2.5 hours or so)
Making up for lost time, we flew more quickly than planned and were reassured that our connections were probably all just as screwed up as this flight anyway, so we shouldn’t worry. The extra air speed helped us arrive just in time to be put into a holding pattern somewhere east of Michigan for 25 minutes. By now the quiet battle between me and the expansionist narcoleptic had ended much like the Korean War, with the original border restored and both of the combatants tired and sweaty from the pointless shoving contest we had both been pretending not to have. We landed (elapsed time: over 5.5 hours).
The 757 super, mega jumbo, wide body, ultraliner we were on has about a dozen doors on it. Exactly one of these was used to deplane, as is customary here in the bizarro-land of the travel industry (elapsed time 6 hours). I was told my connection was possibly still there, at a gate just 2.1 nautical miles north/northwest of the gate we landed at. I ran and about 1 nautical mile into the run noticed my connecting flight was NOT on any departure board. I walked.
“I guess I have missed the last flight to Rochester.” I told the gate agent. “You mean the last one today? That left like 8:30.” No, I mean the last one ever, just before Jesus comes back and takes me away from O’Hare, you nitwit. “Would you be interested in a discount hotel voucher?” “Why yes, I think I might be,” I said, defeated.
Well, at least there was finally time to eat dinner at the Chilis I had just run past. I walked back to find it had closed for the night five minutes earlier — as had much else. Well, at least I can get my luggage and eat and sleep at the hotel.
“I’m sorry Sir, but we don’t pull luggage out of the system for canceled and delayed flights,” I was informed by the monotone baggage counter attendant. The implication here was that they might return your luggage for that rare flight that actually arrived on time. How useful. I was offered a complimentary toiletry kit to replace my luggage. To the curb I was kicked to wait on the shuttle to my discounted hotel. The shuttle was late. The kitchen was closing when I checked into the hotel. But I was offered a complimentary banana from the bowl of fruit beside the clerk. Clutching my banana like an indigent monkey, I toted my tiny toiletries up to my room. I set a wake up call for 4:30 am to make the first flight of the next morning. (elapsed time: 8 hours).
The next morning, having showered after a full 4 hours of sleep, I returned my dirty clothes to my no longer clean body. Shivers went down my spine as I forced my clean feet into my clammy, dirty socks from the previous long, long day. I wore my t-shirt inside out on the theory that the outside was probably less gross and it wouldn’t show anyway.
I returned to O’Hare, where security confiscated my complimentary toiletries — my only possessions at the time, other than the laptop, which inspired by the airlines quit working soon thereafter. After a small delay, I arrived in Rochester late for my meeting, where the surged seam of my inside-out t-shirt peaked noticeably out from the neck of my dirty, crumpled casual shirt. Yeah, I was impressive (elapsed time: 18 hours, giving the airlines an average speed of approximately 63 miles per hour.)
In the hands of the air travel industry, a modern jet liner has approximately the same speed as a Toyota Prius.
On a related note, many of my fellow passengers had carry-on luggage approximately the size of a Toyota Prius, only with a handle and somewhat cooler wheels.
The flight back was delayed. The lady ahead of me, unable to find an overhead bin on the full flight, took too long in surrendering her Prius-sized luggage for planeside check-in and the small huffy steward left the plane and returned — with a large non-huffy manly man who threatened the lady with arrest by air marshals, 1 year in prison and a $1000 fine for not obeying without hesitation the small huffy man (who reminded me a different character from “Midnight Express”). If she did anything else to deserve this threat, it was so disruptive that I completely missed it. Scared and embarrassed, she cried quietly most of the way back to Boston.
But at least the world is safe from her and my complimentary toiletries.
Now, I’m male, which means there are basically two kinds of emotions I don’t really want to deal with: mine and yours. So I turned up my iPod to tune out the crying lady (and the pilot and the small huffy man and the rest of the world) and in the pseudo-silence of the blaring in my ears I watched the sad ballet of the flight back and I had an epiphany.
Obviously the airlines do not really exist to serve travelers. Otherwise they would be more worried about their poor service and industry-wide collapse into belligerent incompetence. But then why do the airlines really exist, if not to move people? What is the hideous truth behind the whole scam?
Yes, you read correctly — it’s all about collecting the urine of passengers. This was my blinding insight while observing the airline treat a full load of customers like livestock.
Consider these startling facts:
1) Within minutes of take off, airline stable hands, I mean stewardesses, begin dispensing free caffeinated fluids to everyone on the plane.
Now considering how much trouble it is to crawl out of a window stall and migrate down the narrow cowpath between the seats and get to the bathroom, one would think that the airline would want to minimize passenger urination by not serving drinks. But no, even on a 45-minute shuttle hop the stable hands are eager to offer fluids and diuretics like grandmothers dispensing lemonade to red-faced children on a hot July day in a work camp in the Arizona desert. Yeah, just like that.
“More Coke, Sir?” “Can I get you anything else to drink, ma’am?” And why spend all the fuel and effort on that heavy beverage cart and dense liquids? Obviously, they want you to pee.
SHOCKING FACT 2) Five minutes into the flight they actually tell you “You may now go to the restroom.” Where else are adults told this? Have you ever sat down at a restaurant and had the waitress come by your booth with a pitcher of water and say “You may now go to the restroom”? NO! Obviously this is a clever attempt at subliminal suggestion. I may now go to the restroom? Oh…wait…you know I really kind of need to go now that they mention it. I’ll just belly crawl across this pair of fat men between me and the aisle and wait in line 20 minutes to take a wobbly turbulence-tossed pee in a Lilliputian lavatory. Conclusion: they want you to pee.
FACTOID 3: Even just feet from a runway or gate they can find excuses to delay you an hour, keeping you captive while they wait for the diuretics to work. OH, THEY WANT YOU TO PEE!
But why? I’ll tell you why — to extract unmetabolized drugs and hormones from your valuable urine. That must be how the airlines really make their money. As a part of the drug industry, I can tell you this is possible. The original recipient of penicillin actually had it extracted from his urine and redosed to him. Sure, he died anyway, but the drug industry used to keep whole herds of mares to extract progesterone and other hormones from their urine. Mares, however, are expensive to keep. Passengers actually pay you. And modern passengers are full of expensive prescription medications. You can actually detect Prozac in the rivers downstream from major cities because of this.
And why is the water in the airplane toilet that industrial-looking blue stuff? It must be a buffer to aid the secret urine extraction procedure — or maybe a hydrophobic solvent to be used in a phase separation later on. I haven’t totally worked that out yet, but I’m sure it’s all a plot of some sort — just like 9/11 was an inside job. The guy that figured that out probably traveled a lot for work too. You see it all so clearly after a few dozen trips of delays and harassment.
Now that I know the hidden truth, I’m holding on to my valuable “yellow gold” to augment my retirement savings — I call it my 401p plan. And I bet my urine is more valuable than most, since my neurologist has just added a few new pills to the daily regimen. So many mayonnaise jars in my squalid apartment by the treatment center. The hardest part of my new life is the amount of mayonnaise I need to eat just to get all those jars!
Some say the airlines have driven me mad. But they’re just after my urine. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Crazy? Crazy like a fox… collecting his own urine. Thank you travel industry!
Anyway, the urine theory makes far more sense than the silly idea that the airlines are a service industry aimed at the efficient and courteous transport of valued passengers. You’d have to be nuts to believe that idea!
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