The Mongrel Dogs in Transit Hell: Airline Insanity

I am currently in LAX International Airport. I’ve been here since 10:30 AM and it is currently 9:00 PM. If you knew my itinerary, you’d see that this is the time listed for boarding Continental Flight 1803, nonstop LAX to Newark/EWR. You can probably guess that I am not actually getting on that plane at this moment. You see, it’s raining in Houston.

Now, I am not in Houston. I am not going to Houston. As mentioned, my flight is nonstop and so is not stopping in Houston. Nonetheless, rain in Houston has added about half an hour to my departure time each hour since 4 PM.

(Aside: I’ve received no fewer than six email alerts warning me that the flight will be delayed — although I was also warned that I had to show up at the airport at the printed time, since the airline reserved the right to leave then after all. I’m not exactly what the point of the alerts are, to tell you the truth. I mean, if I can’t leave for the airport any later, than why do I need to know that the plane is going to be held? It’s some sort of weird Calvinist thing: I’m delayed if I do and delayed if I don’t. I can know my fate but I cannot do anything about it. [And if that’s not a true metaphor for a citizen in the hands of corporations, I don’t know what is.] )

Back to my delayed flight. Despite the frenzied pace of email alerts, actually very little information has been shared about why. Apparently, even though — as I said — my flight neither originates in, terminates in, or passes through Houston, I have been bolluxed by the remnants of the tropical storm Erin, which has delayed the plane I’ll be taking, which is for reasons unknown to anyone but God, flying out of Houston.

Now… The people of Houston have known, of course, that there’d be rain in Houston. The people at CNN and Weather Channel and every podunk news outlet in all the land knew that there’d be rain in Houston. Heck, I’ve just spent the past fifteen days at sea and even I knew that there would be rain in Houston. But somehow the airliines, with state of the art equipment and a literally million-dollar information infrastructure, somehow did not know that it would be raining in Houston.

More below the fold.

Of course, they did know that it would be raining in Houston. They knew probably a day or two earlier than today. The issue of course is that they did not care. Their business model depends on cramming every last person into every last seat. They don’t allocate any resources for “unexpected” contingencies — like, say, rain. There should be enough give in the system that when something like this develops, equipment can be routed from other places to cover. But in fact, all the eggs are allowed to drop. Somehow, this does not constitute breach of service.

It’s almost amusing, because I am writing this standing at the counter (which is just about the only horizontal surface available for my laptop). So I get to hear everyone come and kvetch at the harried counter attendant. I’m continually amazed that each and every person is shocked that this has happened — even though studies show that one out of every four flights suffer noticeable delays. Instead everyone asks to be scheduled to the now-earlier flight to Newark. (I’ll leave aside my burning rage that a later-scheduled flight will depart an hour or more before my flight — I am so glad I paid premium price for a first-class seat.)

It’s almost heartening, the unending stream of slightly-forlorn travelers ever-hopeful that the attendant will magically conjure a new flight for them. At the moment, the stand-by list is at 18 people, but newcomers keep adding themselves to the list. God bless American optimism, I suppose. (I cannot imagine the scale of the disaster now necessary to get some of these people on the plane. I mean, eighteen independent reasons for eighteen separate people to miss a flight? What are the odds?)

On the other hand, I am undergoing a slow burn every time I hear the attendant explain that the plane is not here because “sometimes there’s a thunderstorm in Houston”. Again, as if the tropical storm that’s been tracked across CNN for over a week could not have been foreseen. It’s that fundamental disingenuousness that ticks me off the most — the unwillingness of the airlines to come clean and admit that such delays are not unpredictable, unforeseeable acts-of-God. Their business model is predicated on frustrating and misleading thousands of people each day. They hide the true cost of the ticket from the purchaser and so can claim “low fares” — as if my time had no value.

But there are two things that really piss me off. First, the attendant just got on the mic and told us that the plane “looks good for the 12:10 departure”. I know it’s all weasel-words and I know she’s under pressure. But the fact of the matter is, that’s an hour and a half after the printed departure time. It is now no longer possible for this to “look good”. The best they can hope for is, “This has stopped looking like crap.”

Second, the sign to my right now shows the updated information: “Flight 1803. Departs 12:10 New York / Newark. Ticketed passengers must be onboard 20 mins before departure“. Take a moment to grasp that. The airline can arbitrarily delay my flight by 90 minutes and all I can do is suck it up. But if I should be 21 minutes late, oh my God, no force on Earth is going to get them to hold that plane for me.

It is that fundamental asymmetry — that inability of the airlines to even pretend to play fair — that sours me on air travel, to the extent that I just might not ever do it again.

Last note: As I send this, it is 9:45 — exactly the originally-scheduled departure time for Continental Flight 1803.