Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stop the plane, I want to get off

They call you a "distressed traveler" when an airline cancels your flight and puts you up at an hotel. I was in deep distress when I woke up earlier this week at 7 a.m. in an Atlanta airport hotel, almost three hours after I had requested a 4:10 a.m. wake-up call that I didn't receive. The predawn wake up was necessary for me to make a 6 a.m. flight on which I had been rescheduled the midnight before, after my 9:15 p.m. flight out of Atlanta's large (and not particularly well-signed) Hartsfield Airport had been cancelled. The flight was cancelled because the airplane door wouldn't seal shut, which the crew didn't notice till we had taxied down a runway. I got home the next day after another reschedule and an hour's weather delay.

Think about air travel today: large groups of people are herded on and off airplanes that don't leave or arrive on time, afford precious little seat space, and can experience mechanical malfunctions. That's just the plane. Before you get into your cramped seat (where you will have time to sit and pray to the weather gods), you stand in a long line to check in at Generic Airport, or a short line to get rid of your bag (will you be using a credit card to pay for that?), or you shlep through the airport with a carry-on that you hope will fit in the overhead luggage bin and that contains -- properly packed -- the quart-size bag of creams and liquids (remember: 3-1-1!) that you need to remove from your bag for security scanning. Now comes the fun part: will you be having the body-scan or grope? You've got time in the security line to contemplate the prospect, while you take off your shoes. For this, we can thank the handful of wacky homicidal terrorists who changed the rules for us millions who are trying to peacefully get from point A to point B.

Even apart from weather delays, air travel is always a perfect storm of contingent things that have to go right in a coordinated way. Weather and machinery must behave; it is definitely preferable to fly on a plane on which all parts are in working order. People on the plane must behave, too, even if airlines can no longer afford to feed them, a quaint amenity that left the too-large terminal a while ago.

The ifs and inconveniences of air travel exact a price beyond the cost of the ticket. Minutes on the tarmac or in the terminal feel a lot longer than 60 seconds. We're all in this together; millions of people fly each week and routinely experience delay or cancellation by the planeload -- I was one of 50 people on my aborted flight. There's no point in complaining about the weather, nor any point in complaining about wacky homicidal terrorists. Complaining loudly seems to be working with TSA about its new grope-search. But there's no getting out of a security search; it's just a matter of degree.

For me, the air travel honeymoon is over, and I want a divorce. I do love having a bird's eye view of neat green fields, orange city lights at night, and astonishingly tall mountains. But I hate airports. I hate long lines, overpriced coffee and cocktails, tight seating, and waiting, waiting, waiting, inevitable lateness even if I get to the airport early. It's lost time and a lost cause. I give up.

I will be taking the train. I already have a few times this year. At least I know it will be late and I can plan accordingly. I won't get a bird's eye view, but I can see my country, up closer. I get space and time to work. No one will frisk me. Train food will never make the Michelin guide, but it ain't peanuts. I want the right scale of things, and I don't want to be subject to the whims of weather and terrorists with a box cutter to grind. I am bailing out of air travel and hopping on board the train.