Saturday, February 4, 2023

Are Air Travel Nightmares Getting Worse?

Last fall, I went on a business trip to the Midwest, and my departing flight was at 6:05 am on a Monday. This meant I had to arrive at the airport by 4:30 am to go through security, which meant I had to leave my house by 4 am, which meant I had to wake up by 3:30 am. Now, waking up at 3:30 is a fairly routine thing for me these days. But scrambling to shower, get dressed, and double-check to make sure I packed everything is a little different than shuffling from the bathroom back to the bedroom and trying to fall asleep again.

When I arrived at the airport at 4:30 am, I was stunned to see that the place was packed. There were hundreds of people lined up to go through security and there were dozens of TSA agents at work. Many of the coffee shops and kiosks were open and doing brisk business. A lot of bleary-eyed people were there — including me — but the place was really bustling. 
I looked around at everyone and thought to myself, “This is just wrong. It’s 4:30 in the morning, for heaven’s sake. All these folks, especially me, should be in bed right now!”

That particular morning, my flight departed on time, and I didn’t hear that any of the other flights had problems. But still, I had this sad feeling that somehow it was not right that so many people had to leave their homes so early just to catch a flight somewhere.

Then a couple of months later, in the wake of a powerful winter storm, thousands of people were stranded in airports for days over the Christmas holiday. Most of the airlines got back to normal quickly, but one particular airline had a complete meltdown and had to cancel over 16,000 flights during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. 
Apparently, many years ago the upper management of that airline felt computers were a passing fad, and decided to continue doing all their scheduling with a yellow pad, a #2 pencil, and an old abacus. The Christmas meltdown occurred, I suspect, when the pencil broke and no one could find a sharpener.

Suddenly, being in the airport at 4:30 am and departing on time seemed like a wonderful thing, at least compared to spending an entire Christmas vacation sleeping on a dirty carpet next to hundreds of other angry people. I wrote some song lyrics, to the tune of “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”

I got stuck for Christmas
Southwest lied to me
Took my dough, and then said, “No,
the planes aren’t here, you see.”

Christmas Evening found me
Weeping all night long
I got stuck for Christmas
Southwest, you done me wrong

A couple of weeks after Christmas, on a Wednesday morning, every domestic flight in the United States was grounded for hours because a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) computer system crashed. The system sends out safety messages to pilots before and after take-off. The government decided to halt all flights until the system was up and running again. I’m sure that caused some major heartburn for one or two or a million travelers.

I understand Southwest Airlines called the FAA and said, “Do you want to borrow our pencil?”
It’s not that I dislike air travel. I’ve visited some wonderful places because of modern aviation. However, things are just so crazy nowadays, I’m wondering if it’s worth the aggravation and stress. The next time I have to go on a business trip to the Midwest, I think I’ll stand on the shoulder of Interstate 84 and hitch-hike. What could go wrong?

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