EBSTEIN: Travel Trauma Up Close and Personal
This is not the piece I thought I’d be writing now. I intended to write about the blending of cultures at a wedding in Italy that had been rescheduled for its third time because of COVID. As the song goes, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” except there was.
My trip to Italy never happened. Airlines’ staffing shortages conspired against my joining the family celebration. There may have been other reasons, but “short staffing” is what the airlines offered. It sounded reasonable while we waited on the tarmac for nearly four hours before deplaning.
It was a rough four hours too. The plane was packed with excited passengers who had nowhere to go. As the pilot first explained, “We’ve landed, but we can’t get to the gate. It shouldn’t be too long.”
One hour later, we heard, “We are looking for some help to get us off. We’ve located some people at the other end of the airport. They’ll just need a little time to make their way here. We ask for your patience.”
OK, we can wait. There’s no real alternative anyway. All was good enough until we got this: “As you can see, there are a lot of planes parked on the tarmac. We are not the priority. Other planes will come first. I’m sorry, but there is nothing we can do.”
That announcement broke me. I was sure to miss my connection. Maybe the pilot got points for transparency, but I felt taken for granted. Also, how hard is it to find someone to open the doors and let us off?
Soon after, the toilets no longer flushed because there was no water. The plane felt warm, too. Passengers neared their own boiling point — but fortunately, they kept their rage in check.
We all ended up missing our connecting flights. Once off, it was hard to miss the graveyard of suitcases as we passed the baggage area. To count them would be like answering the question, “How many jellybeans are in the jar?” There were so many — of every color, shape and size. I was glad I hadn’t checked my bag.
The worst was not over, though. “Stranded on the tarmac” was scene one. Next came the walk to the reservation line, where families were parked everywhere, using their coats, bags and any available surface to try to get comfortable.
The reservation line was a six-hour experience of frustration and fatigue. We got to know our neighboring travelers as we shared stories. The briefest summary of our collective mood goes like this:
We were all missing major events. We were all tired. We all felt duped by the airlines.
I come from rosy, optimistic stock, so I decided to do the “glass half-full” exercise. I was traveling with family, so at least we could spell each other as we stood in line. I even found an unclaimed baggage carousel to rest on when it was my turn to take a break. And for a while, the airlines gave us bottles of water and salty chips. Technically, I wasn’t hungry.
My mood dipped further when I noticed that while only two stations were open for rebooking, two supervisors were in the corner, watching. Actually, they were laughing about who knows what. The optics weren’t good.
Brave one that I am, I approached the supervisors and asked if they could operate two additional windows to process the rebookings faster.
Their response: “We are supervisors. We don’t manage a station. Just be patient.”
For no additional charge, they volunteered that we weren’t their priority as, “Passengers checking into the morning flights will go first.”
Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. In this case, the airlines trained their personnel to remind aggrieved customers that they weren’t a priority.
I then asked, “What are you doing that is more important than tending to your stranded customers?” I heard back their standard request to be patient.
I understand factors beyond our control can sometimes foil our plans. According to FlightAware, 1,400 flights were canceled that weekend, and 14,000 flights were delayed. It was a bad day to travel. Maybe a bad month.
But optics matter too. Detached supervisors do not help. Being told (twice) that you’re not a priority does not help.
I expected better, even in trying times.
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