Flying: A Lament

Bill Walsh’s question – just how far does my trip have to be for me to prefer flying to driving? – caught me at just the right time. A week ago Sunday, I flew from Detroit to JFK and on to Prague. This past Sunday, I returned to JFK, and, on Monday evening, I flew from Newark back to Detroit.

I am old enough to remember when flying was a joy – when airports were places of excitement, when the airlines did everything possible to assure one’s comfort. Those days are gone, I fear, forever.

Part of this is due, of course, to the friendly folks at TSA. The sheer number of things that one must do to get through security – take off shoes and belts, empty pockets, take out laptops, put medicines in sandwich bags, and so forth – makes that process a misery.

But there is something else involved as well. Airports today remind me of the bus stations of the 1950s. They are crowded, loud, and dirty (especially the rest rooms). Worst of all, one cannot escape the talking heads at CNN. This last irritant is especially egregious if one’s flight is delayed. Their patter does not improve with repetition.

Some airports are, of course, worse than others, and some airlines I try to avoid. The worst of the domestic carriers, in my view, is US Air. In part because their main hub is Philadelphia, which the worst of our unions controls, they are very apt to lose one’s luggage. Do not go through Philadelphia at Christmas. All of the baggage handlers call in sick.

The other airports I hate are Chicago, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and the three airports situated around New York City. They have this in common. Getting from one flight to another – especially if one of the two is an international flight – is difficult. Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Denver, Salt Lake City – these airports are better. They have made provisions that enable one to be whisked around.

Ordinarily, I take Delta – which, since absorbing Northwest, has Detroit (90 miles from Hillsdale) as a hub. Within the Delta system, my idea of hell is to fly through JFK (which I did twice in the last ten days). I did so a year or two ago shortly after the merger of Northwest and Delta. I flew into JFK from Detroit on what had been a Northwest flight. I flew, then, to Europe on Delta.

The first thing that went wrong was that the arriving flight sat on the tarmac for ninety minutes waiting for the alley leading to our gate to clear. JFK handles many more flights than it was designed to handle, and New York is such a mess that nothing of substance has been done about it. Terminals that were state of the art in the early 1960s are now slums.

When we finally entered the terminal, we learned that the bus drivers who ordinarily transported fliers from the old Northwest terminal to the Delta terminal were on strike. There was also bad blood of some sort between the staff of the two airlines – for no one intervened to provide help to passengers needing to shift terminals. In the end, we made the journey on foot, and when we got to the Delta terminal, we discovered that the nearby doors were all locked (it was evening, you see). So eventually we circumnavigated the terminal and came in the front door and had to go through a second screening from the employees of TSA. To describe those who made it through this obstacle course as anxious would be a considerable understatement. We all made our flights, but there was no reason for any of us to expect that we would.

When I passed through JFK a week ago Sunday, things had improved marginally. We sat in the alley this time for only forty-five minutes, and there was a bridge linking the two terminals. The number of people in the two terminals, the crowding, the din, the filth in the men’s rooms – all of this was shocking. And the place was a labyrinth. It all reminded me a bit of the airport in Cairo (and I do not mean Illinois). JFK – indeed, New York City itself – has a third-world feel about it.

My trip back to the US was, if anything, worse. Delta is a member of what is called Sky-Team. Its sister airlines include well-run operations like those of KLM and ill-run operations such as Air France. I had a talk to give at Princeton this last Monday, and so I had arranged to take Delta (meaning Air France) from Prague to Charles de Gaulle in Paris and then on to Newark, where a friend was to pick me up. I knew that this was risky – getting quickly from one flight to another at Charles de Gaulle is always a trial – but I had no idea how risky. Air France is not nicknamed Air Chance for nothing.

On the evening of 30 July, at my pension in Prague, I received the standard e-mail from Delta. “It is time to check in,” it told me. I had no printer with which to run off a boarding pass, but I thought that it might be a good idea to check in any way to guarantee that I got a seat. So I tried. I was redirected from to Air France – where I was told that they had no record of my e-ticket. Needless to say, I dug out the ticket to make sure that the number I had and the number Delta was passing to Air France were the same (which they were), and I tried to check-in two or three times – all to no avail.

The next morning I got up early and got to the airport three hours before my flight only to learn that it had been cancelled. Did Delta inform me of this? No. Was Delta willing to put me up in Prague? No. They sent me to Air Chance, which told me that I had been put on a Delta flight to Atlanta and gave me a meal voucher. No one at the airport would take the meal voucher, and, no, I was not on the Atlanta flight. I was wait-listed. I only later learned that my flight had been cancelled because of a strike. Mental note: never, ever – if you have a choice – take Air Chance. To make matters worse, there was no way in which to call or e-mail the friend who was slated to pick me up in Newark. My cell phone did not work in the Czech Republic. I had a mini-computer, and the airport offered free WiFi. But it blocked e-mail. I tried to use another WiFi operation that one had to pay for, but it would not take American Express or accept the Visa card I had.

In the end, I bought my own breakfast, and I pressed the folks at Delta to put me on the flight to JFK. Needless to say, on 31 July, that flight was full. But I will say this for the Delta staff. They were competent and helpful, and the lady in charge managed at the last second, after everyone else had checked in, to get me on the flight. For the first time in my life, I flew from Europe to the US in the first-class section. It is not, in my opinion, worth the money to do so (in my world the stuff does not grow on trees), but I was not paying that money. The food was good; I had plenty of leg-room. Had I been inclined to sleep, I could easily have done so. There was only one thing wrong. There was no way to call my friend and warn him that I would not be arriving in Newark. Nor is there WiFi on international flights (not even when one is flying over the US).

Eventually, of course, we arrived in JFK. Fortunately, we were on time, and I was able to catch my friend before he left for Newark. My luggage made it (mirabile dictu!) and came off first. I managed to get a ticket on the minibus to Newark, and I arrived there before the flight I would have been on actually came in. But JFK was, once again, a nightmare. The lines at the ground-transportation desk were long; the folks who worked there were slow. Everything was done by phone. It was as if no one had heard of computers and of ticket machines. Have the unions in New York blocked every form of progress?

My trip out of Newark on Monday night was no less instructive. I got there in plenty of time, thanks to my friend at Princeton. I checked in and discovered that I had been bumped up to what they called first class (on Atlantic Southeast, which flies puddle-jumpers from JFK to Detroit, this means nothing. The seats are the same as those in economy. One gets free drinks. That is about it). When I checked in, I neglected to ask whether those in first class would get a meal. In the terminal, because a previous flight to Detroit had been cancelled, there was a long line in front of the gate agent for my flight. Nearby sat two gate agents for a Cincinnati flight chatting with one another. They were at the time serving no one, and no one was in line. So I approached them and asked one of the two whether she could check whether there was food for those flying first class on my flight. She refused to help me. “I am not handling that flight,” she said. “Go over there,” she added, pointing to the long line in front of the gate agent for my flight, and turning back to her friend.

I regret one thing. I should have taken down her name. I have been flying for something like forty-five years. Never once in my experience have I been refused help in such a matter. The gate agent I approached simply could not be bothered, and she made it clear that she did not consider it a part of her job to help a passenger not on the particular flight that she was handling and that she resented being asked. In the New York area, Delta clearly has a personnel problem.

To be fair to Delta, most employers in the northeast have the same problem. Fourteen years ago, I was a visiting professor at Yale. When I arrived and moved into my apartment, I found that I could not get a telephone. I called Southern New England Telephone, and I plugged in my phone. They promised to send someone to turn on the line, and I waited in the apartment the entire day. No one came. When I called SNETCO again in the late afternoon, I was told that their people had come, that they had rung my doorbell (which worked very well, thank you very much), and that I had not been there. This went on for three weeks. The folks responsible for visiting the building and doing what was required simply lied and lied and lied again. I had a similar experience with the mail. In my building, no one ever got mail on Friday. The postmen picked up the mail downtown and took the day off. When I complained, nothing was done. On my last day in New Haven, I drove to Office Depot with a young lady not then but now my wife. We picked up some boxes and went to check out. The young woman doing the checking-out was on the phone with a friend. We stood there for nearly ten minutes while she conducted her private business (about which I learned more than I wanted to know). She simply could not be bothered to do her job. I could tell similar stories about the unionized staff at Yale University. “You owe us a salary” – that was their attitude. “We will work when we feel like it. So sit down and shut up.”

It is not, I think, an accident that states like New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut are in decline. In matters like these, attitude is everything, and the attitude of the functionaries one encounters – in the private sector as well as in the public sector – is one of entitlement. It would take a revolution of sorts to change attitudes. I do not doubt that such a revolution is coming. But it will reach places like New Haven, New York, Chicago, Boston, and California long after it transforms and enriches Indiana, Wisconsin, and the like. Texas and Oklahoma – that is to my mind the gold standard.