Last night on The O'Reilly Factor, one of the segments addressed winter
airline delays. The producers booked Kate Hanni, a consumer activist leading the
charge to get Congress to pass a "Passenger Bill of
Rights." I noted my skepticism about gimmicky legislation with the
words "Bill of Rights" tacked onto the end of it...
...which caused the usual Malkin Derangement Syndrome sufferers to
accuse me of opposing the real Bill of Rights. Think
Progress and its dumb-as-rocks commenters led the
I agree that Michelle is very wise to be skeptical of any legislation with a “Bill of Rights” tacked on, but when it comes to airline travel today, passengers DO need some protection. The Jet Blue incident on the 14th was just unbelievable and unconscionable. Yet it happened.
A few years ago, shortly after 9-11, I wrote a story about my experience on the American Buzzard. I’m republishing it here.
Belly of The Beast
Soaring above the clouds at 30,000 feet it’s easy to imagine that you might be on your way to heaven. Yesterday I discovered that my mental flights of fancy became a necessary diversion from very pressing concerns. As a matter of fact, much of my three-hour flight was spent in quiet desperation wondering about the illusions we still carry on like sentimental baggage from a kinder and gentler era of domestic flight. The illusion that heaven is above us and that hell is somewhere below was soon to be dispelled.
Flight 3528 from Columbus, Ohio to Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas was supposed to leave yesterday at 2:48PM. As instructed, I arrived promptly at the Columbus airport two hours in advance. I checked my baggage and made it through security without a hitch. The lines weren’t long and it seemed that very little had changed since September 11th. I easily found my gate, 14-A, and discovered that my flight departure gate had been changed to gate 15-A. No problem – it was right next to the other gate. I had enough time to grab a quick lunch at the snack shop conveniently located across from the gate.
When I came back to the gate there was a message flashing on the monitor: “Flight 3528 now leaving at 3:40 PM.” A simple one-hour delay isn’t too bad I thought without much concern for the other passengers who would surely miss their connecting flights. I wanted to know if I had time to wander around their airport so I asked the gate attendant about when I should return to the gate.
The attendant told me that I shouldn’t leave the gate because “Your flight might be changed to another gate and it could leave earlier than currently expected.” I should have recognized that this cryptic statement was an alert. It should have prompted me to ask further questions.
It was now 1:45PM. Fortunately I had a nice large cup of cola to sip and I had brought along a couple of good magazines for such events. I settled into one of those hard molded plastic seats designed to keep weary would-be passengers awake and uncomfortable. I read a short article and looked up again. The monitor was now flashing another message indicating that a different flight to Chicago’s O’Hare International was due to leave from this same gate. “What happened to my flight?”
I got up and walked to another monitor that listed all American Buzzard departures. The monitor showed that my flight was still leaving from the same gate but now with yet another departure time. “Flight 3528 now leaving at 3:15 PM.”
It was already 2:30 PM and I figured that we would soon be boarding our plane. I quickly returned to my gate only to discover that passengers on their way to Chicago had taken every seat. A new message was flashing. “Flight 3528 now leaving at 3:50 PM.”
I stood around for about ten minutes shifting my weight from one foot to another until someone vacated a seat. The monitor was now flashing more information for the Chicago flight. Eventually the gate attendant announced that the Chicago flight was “Now Boarding.”
Another new message was flashing. “Flight 3528 now leaving at 3:30 PM.” It was already 3:15 PM and I was wondering why they hadn’t started to board our flight. I was also wondering just how two different flights could leave from the same gate? Within five minutes the gate attendant announced that we were now boarding. So everyone who was headed for Dallas got up and stood in a line at gate 15-A. Luckily I was right in front of the line.
I struck up a conversation with a woman who was also on her way to Dallas as her final destination. We commiserated about the craziness of flight in today’s world. We watched the selection of two Chicago passengers who were being “patted down” and their belongings searched. I bragged that I had never been selected for such an honor. I commented that I had spoken to that couple earlier. They were an elderly couple from Ireland on their way home. They had come to visit their children in Ohio.
The ticket agent announced a gate change for Flight 3528. Fortunately, it was right across the walkway. Unfortunately, I was now at the end of the line. One by one the gate attendant checked each passenger’s ticket and photo identification. As I presented my ticket and ID, I was selected for the honor of a gentle “pat down.”
A lady with an electronic wand came over and motioned for me to follow her away from the gate back across the walkway. She was pleasant enough and she asked me “Is it all right for me to search your purse?”
I can only imagine what might have happened if I had said “No!” I wasn’t upset and I certainly couldn’t have claimed, “racial profiling.” The ticket agent, the lady with the wand, and I were all Anglo Americans. I was curious, however, as to how they made their decisions. I acted jovial and asked. Her standard response was “It’s just random.” Still I wondered. Perhaps it was the cross I was wearing around my neck? Maybe it was just their day for checking middle-aged Anglo women who happen to be traveling alone? Perhaps the gate attendants noticed that I had talked to that Irish couple on their way to Chicago? Maybe they heard me bragging that I had never been patted down? I finally decided that because I was the final person in line, the gate attendant must have suddenly realized that he had failed to select anyone for the “pat down” and I was his last chance.
The lady with the wand searched my purse and then she asked me to take a seat and to remove my shoes. I did but she didn’t pick them up or inspect them. Then she had me stand up and spread my arms out. She ran the wand in front of me and behind me and down my arms. Then she told me that she would be running one finger down my back and across the back of my waist and that she would feel my legs from my knees down. Everything was very appropriate. I mused over just how easily we humans become conditioned to accepting new standards of appropriate behavior, yet this what we have come to expect in the post 9/11 era.
I was getting worried. I asked the wand lady if I was going to miss my flight but she assured me that the plane wouldn’t leave until she gave the word. She sent me back to the gate door and told me to wait for the attendant but the gate attendant was busy processing a ticket at the counter. I was anxious and he seemed to be working in slow motion. Eventually he returned to the door but kept me there until the wand lady could come over to assure him that I had passed her test. Then he told me that I could go.
I ran through the door and down a flight of stairs. All the other passengers had long since boarded the flight. I looked for more signs along the way but there were none. As I exited the doors I discovered that I was standing outside and that there were several American Buzzard planes on the ground a good 50 feet away, but I had no idea which flight was mine. Frantically I asked one of the flight line men (a guy holding a light wand) to point out which plane was going to Dallas. He gave me one of those “It’s not my job to know” shrugs. I decided to take my best pick and headed for a plane to my left. I quickly dashed up the rollaway stairs and asked the flight attendant. “Yes!” I picked the right plane! I was feeling lucky again.
I found my assigned place in row 7; seat C. The plane was one of those new European shrunken jets – everything scaled down to accommodate people the size of Barbie dolls.This was a packed flight – not a vacant seat. The only flight attendant, a middle-aged woman, was rather jovial. Initially, I was delighted with her attempts at humor. On most of my recent flights the attendants have reminded me of funeral directors. But her unusually light behavior should have sent up red flags in my mind. Obviously, she was just too happy. I should have wondered why.
As the plane pulled away from the stairs, she began to give the safety demonstration as the recorded message instructed passengers to pull out the safety instruction card from the seat pocket in front of each seat. Everything was proceeding normally until she started to mention that this was a “beverage” flight. After 9/11 many domestic flights eliminated food service. Some would think this a blessing. Flights of less than four hours usually offer one drink – about 4-8 oz. of free beverage and a tiny sack of pretzels.
Our flight attendant continued . . . “As was announced before you boarded, our restroom is out of order. Please consider this before choosing a beverage.” “What announcement?” A chorus of groans rose up in the cabin. “This is a three hour flight!”
And then there was this little matter of a large cup of cola that I had consumed not more than two hours earlier . . . Her announcement changed everything. Suddenly I was a captive and we all were in the same situation. I looked around. People were beginning to squirm and shift positions. What could we do? I couldn’t concentrate. Somehow I had to stop thinking about my bladder. Luckily I had a window seat.
We were still climbing through the clouds as I began to ponder the exact location of heaven and hell. On the flight up to Ohio I had mused that the post 9/11 domestic flight experience is fairly comparable to taking a city bus. The glamour factor is about the same. Only on most busses the seats are bigger and there is more leg room. And on busses there is no one legitimately there who really wants to frisk you. Now this flight caused me to reevaluate my comparisons.
We had finally leveled off way above the clouds when I began to ponder the advantages of being a cow on a cattle car. Here we were squeezed in together with instructions to keep our seat belts on at all times “unless you want to get up to briefly stretch your legs.”
Getting up from a window seat is no simple matter. If you are over 4 feet tall, when you stand up, you will bump your head on the much lowered baggage compartment above. This means that you will have to bend deeply as you grab each seat in front of you for leverage. As you grab each seat in front of you, lean over as far as possible and say, “Excuse me” to the two people you will undoubtedly disturb. Say, “Excuse me” again and keep your head bent down as far as possible while you use the isle seat in front of you to hoist yourself over the person next to you. So far you’ve only disturbed three people. Once you’ve placed your feet on the isle, and your body is still twisted into a 30-degree bend, remain bending as you turn the top half of your body in the direction of your knees. Now you can stand up in the isle as you discover that there is nothing else to do because there is nowhere else to go. After evaluating this futile exercise, I decided that I really didn’t need to attempt those gymnastics.
The flight attendant came down the isle with the beverage cart and I pondered the efficacy of taking something to drink. On the positive side, it would give me something to do. If I sipped slowly, I could make it last for 30 minutes. On the negative side, my bladder could explode – especially when we start to descend! On the positive side, if I took a drink they would give me some pretzels. “Maybe pretzels will cause some kind of reverse osmosis and my bladder will feel better?” On the negative side, pretzels cause high blood pressure. On the positive side, “So what?” So I took the drink just for the pretzels. The flight attendant, ever vigilant, had decided to only give out 4 ounces per person. As she leaned over to ask my choice, I asked about the bathroom situation again.
“No. There is only one bathroom on this airplane and it’s out of order.”
I informed her that no one had made any such announcement at the gate before boarding. She said, “Well they were supposed to.”
I said, “Well, they didn’t!”
She then said, “Well in their defense, they were very short-handed.”
Ok. My natural response would have been. “There is no defense for the abuse of paying passengers.” But I’m not that stupid. I kept my mouth shut as I pondered just how much further discussion any flight attendant would tolerate in this era? If I had made another comment perhaps it would have been viewed as a threat. I could imagine the scene . . . The flight is diverted to the nearest airport. I’m pulled off the aircraft and put in handcuffs. I make the national news “Passenger Carrying Loaded Bladder Threatens to Charge Into Restroom.”
My thoughts returned to cattle in cattle cars. At least they can relieve themselves. Who could stop them? And they have no shame. “Shame, what an interesting thought?” Here we humans dutifully sat packed like cattle yet unable to allow ourselves any release – forbidden. And we felt ashamed for even thinking about the natural possibility of release.
About an hour and a half into the flight I began to ponder the efficacy of wearing adult diapers. Now this is something that I haven’t previously pondered because I figured it would be a good twenty years before it might be necessary. “Oh for a diaper!” How much liquid do they hold? Would they leak? What would happen if they did leak? Should everyone be cautioned to wear them before boarding planes? “I wonder if I can sell this story to the Depends Company?” Should I buy stock in adult diapers?
Two hours into the flight I had given up thinking about what I didn’t have. I looked around. People were leaning forward and resting their heads on the seats in front of them. The young man sitting next to me had his legs crossed so tightly that it probably cut off all circulation. Now I began to seriously examine the construction of the seats – leather in front and cloth on the backside. “I wonder how much padding is in these seats?” What would happen if the person sitting in front of me had an accident? What would happen to my cloth bag stowed beneath that seat?
About two and one half hours into the flight the woman sitting on the lone isle seat across from me suddenly jumped up and headed to the back of the plane. I twisted in my seat so I could watch. She opened the door to the restroom and went inside. I immediately turned to look at the flight attendant in the front of the cabin. She was looking at me. She walked over to me and leaned in to whisper. “You know if you don’t ask I don’t have to tell.”
I’ll leave the rest of this true story up to your imagination. Consider this a gift to help you prepare for the joys of flight today. If you think that you will be flying with eagles remember the American Buzzard. Or perhaps you will reconsider the necessity of taking any flight. If you haven’t been made to feel like road kill before you get on a plane, I assure you that if you fly enough, you will discover what it’s like to be captive in the belly of the beast. By the way, where’s the closest bus station?
Link to the petition for an Airline Bill of Rights
See Coalition for Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights
Trackposted to The Virtuous Republic, Dumb Ox Daily News, Big Dog's Weblog, Cao's Blog, Sujet- Celebrities, Is It Just Me?, and stikNstein... has no mercy, thanks to Linkfest Haven Deluxe.