Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The patient traveller

Travel merits dread. It is not as bad as one anticipates. It is worse.
As if the dramas of security delays are not bad enough, the economic woes of the airlines would seem to have them all in a state of staff shortage. The result is, of course, longer and longer queues.
Let's face it. The reason people have to go to airports hours and hours early is not for the security scrutiny queues, albeit that they are long. It is to queue for checkin.
I stood for an hour with my luggage at Logan in Boston, inching forward in a condensed snake queue of hapless fellow travellers.
At first it seemed as though there were four people operating the check-in desks, then three, then two, then one... And the queue stood frozen, passing time gazing, chatting, soothing children, waiting... Then there were three check-in desks working again - from a line-up of 12, mind you. Most of the desks were unattended. And, from time to time, the clerks would just vanish from the existing posts leaving us all wondering where they had gone and why, since it was clear that there were a lot of people waiting.
From time to time, someone would patrol the queue calling out for people who were at risk of missing their planes because they were still waiting in the queue. These people would be taken to the front and put in a special priority queue. The rest of us just had to wait a bit longer. After all, we acted upon the advice of the airport system and arrived with the hours to spend waiting in the queue. We could afford to be kept waiting. The people suddenly taken to the front and causing us to have to wait even longer were the people who had not given themselves the time to wait in the queues. They were, in other words, the late-comers. Late-comers are given priority over those who have been early or have responded to the requests of the airport authorities. In other words, if you want the special VIP treatment, be late.
You will be put at the front of the queue. You will be saved the back-aching stand in line.
What is wrong with this picture?

I am a punctual person, daughter of a punctual person, trained to punctuality. I like punctual people. If everyone was punctual, the world would tick along quite efficiently.
I understand that things can go wrong and even the most punctual people can be thrown out of whack by an unexpected - breakdowns, accidents... I am eminently sympathetic towards such crises because I can feel their stress. Punctual people get veery stressed if they cannot be punctual.

But there is another world of people who just don't get the punctual thing. They march to the beat of their own drum - and to hell with the rest of us. They arrive late at theatres and cinemas. Worst of all, they arrive late to dinners - leaving hosts in a spin and food losing its zest. Latecomers insult and inconvenience others. They are just rude.
So there we were, standing in the snake cordon at check-in, silently seething as we watched the latecomers, Latinos on a flight to Miami, being rushed to the front. I am sure I was not the only one thinking that perhaps they should be allowed to miss their planes to teach them a lesson about punctuality.

The airline staff are exquisitely trained. I have never had an unpleasant experience with a single one of them. If they are harried and overworked, they mask it well. They are charm and helpfulness - when, at last, one comes to interact with them. But, one learns later to one's cost and disappointment, they lie. They would seem to have been trained to lie as a customer-soothing strategy. For instance, they may tell one they are giving one a terrific seat allocation. I have even been told, when there has been some sort of cock-up, that I have been upgraded - only to discover, when boarding the plane, that it was not an upgrade at all. Just as the promise of a vacant seat beside on the Qantas flight home mine proved hollow. I asked the man sitting in the supposedly vacant seat how long ago he had booked said seat, thinking that perhaps he had been a last-minute booking or on standby. Oh no, he had booked a month ago, he said. The empty seat had been booked for a month! Why did the check-in woman choose to tell me it was empty? I had not asked. In fact, there were no empty seats at all on that plane. It was a crammed cattle crate of humanity.

Security queues also are long and tense - manned by officers who keep a stern facade. It's a bizarre sort of factory line - the steadily moving people and the loaded conveyers, the scrutineers watching their screens like fierce quality control operators. Officers are calling out instructions - "all shoes must be removed". The queues seem resigned to their ordeal as they shuffle slowly forwards. But when it comes to their turn, people seem to dissolve into a frantic dance of urgency, pushing impatiently to grab trays and squeeze in to make a place at the unpacking bench. And off comes the jacket, the belt, the shoes. Pockets are emptied. One unloads the laptop and sends it rolling along with case and handbag before stepping through the metal detectors under the eagle eye of ranks of uniformed security guards and then stands, waiting, at the other end, braced for quick response to gather one's possessions and be out of the way without holding up the production line..

Once reassembled, the waiting begins again since, inevitably, one is early for the boarding time. It is time for finding the quietest spot one can, for people watching, reading, killing time as engines roar outside and muzzled announcements crackle out of the tannoys. Every ten minutes or so at Boston, the warnings against taking fluids on the planes were reiterated - listings of lip gel, lipstick, hair gel, toothpaste, hairspray, skin lotion, bottled water, coffee... And there were more queues, people lining up at departure gates, all in some pointless hurry to get on their planes before the next person.

Mine was a fairly uneventful flight to LAX, unpleasant in being sardined between a Dylan-like musician who pulled down the window blind and went to sleep and, on the aisle, a stodgy businessman who drank four whiskeys in a row and went to sleep with his elbow intruding into my space. I was in enforced physical contact with that man throughout the six-hour flight, although not a single word was exchanged.

LAX is always hell. Asking directions to the Tom Bradley International terminal, I was directed out of Domestic and into the street. Not where I wanted to be, since there is an internal passage which saves one from further security screening. But, once out of doors, I took the chance for a cigarette before entering the queue hell of that vast. cavernous terminal. I headed straight for security - only to be turned away. My boarding pass was unacceptable, said the officer. Qantas now rejects boarding passes issued by its airline partners. I would have to join a Qantas queue and have my American Airlines Qantas boarding pass replaced by a Qantas Qantas boarding pass. So I join yet another queue and wait and wait - watching the mysterious comings and goings of the desk clerks. Twentyfive minutes later, I have new boarding passes and can join the security queue. It is huge. But I have time. And I am in the existential mindset - there-is-no-other-reality.

Funnily enough, there are few franchises after one has passed security - limited choices for refreshments. I bought a bad fruit salad, found a deserted departure lounge and sat down with my book as hyped-up kids shrieked and hurtled around the place. The time will pass, I told myself - and, of course, it did. Slowly. But the loaded plane departed late - and lost more time on the Pacific crossing. Packed in like sardines, it was an uncomfortable flight and I envied the sleepers. Despite a valium and a glass of red wine, I managed a scant 45 minutes. I was devastated. Cabin service was cheerful but slow. They handed out dinner menus but had run out of menu choices before they were a third the way down the economy section. The meal was just food - not tasty at all. And it featured a butter bean salad and further black beans in a hot vegetable medley. All those beans for all those people packed hip-to-hip in a metal tube? What sadist designed this fart city menu? My stomach was soon popping and seething with wind - which added very effectively to the general discomfort.

As did the lateness of the plane. Departing late and flying into headwinds, the 15 hours was going to be 16 - and it was clear that connections would not be made. I called the "cabin manager" and asked if he could radio through to re-jig the Adelaide connection for me. He made an inordinate fuss of me thereafter, popping back and forth to give me updates on "company response" - which was, of course, that I would be put on the first available flight. In fact, after hauling my luggage through the massive customs queue, then through the airport and joining yet another snake of a queue, I was put on the last available flight. Perversely, the 30 other Adelaide-bound passengers were given the two earlier flights. I guess I was being put in my place for asking. A Qantas gift of more time-killing at an airport - zombie-like exhausted and demoralised time-killing.

But at least the trip eventually ended, 30 hours after it had begun.
It is now a matter of recovering the strength and the spirit, overcoming the jetlag (I write this at 4am) and wondering why I have this feeling that Qantas hates me.

1 comment:

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