United by the ex­pe­ri­ence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Jen­nifer Con­ley

TRAVEL in the US, I have dis­cov­ered, is a feat of en­durance, pa­tience and for­ti­tude. Our pain thresh­old has been raised so high, we barely ut­ter a whim­per. So com­mon­place are com­plaints of de­lays and can­cel­la­tions that peo­ple have stopped com­plain­ing. Like rheuma­tism in an old peo­ple’s home, the only sto­ries you hear are the re­mark­able pain-free ones, the rare ac­counts of how the plane ar­rived on time, im­mi­gra­tion lines were short and the bags were at the carousel as pas­sen­gers ar­rived to col­lect them.

We have just come into Los An­ge­les from St Martin in the Dutch West Indies via Wash­ing­ton’s Dulles air­port on a United Air­lines flight that was en­ter­tain­ing in all sorts of ways. The air crew was fab­u­lous: very forth­right, funny, en­gag­ing. But it’s a lit­tle like a train ride in In­dia. In cat­tle class, pas­sen­gers bring their own pil­lows and blan­kets, food and bev­er­ages, their own head­sets. Be­ing a rel­a­tive new­comer to do­mes­tic air travel in the US, I find it amus­ing and mirac­u­lous. There is a mag­nif­i­cent ca­ma­raderie among pas­sen­gers and crew: the be­gin­ning of ev­ery flight is a ver­i­ta­ble stock ex­change of ne­go­ti­a­tions, flight at­ten­dants wav­ing board­ing passes look­ing for po­ten­tial seat ex­changes, pas­sen­gers go­ing free­lance, do­ing their own swaps. Seat al­lo­ca­tions are so dis­or­gan­ised it is a given that pas­sen­gers will want to make changes.

It’s likely the cap­tain will an­nounce a de­lay be­cause we are, say, wait­ing for the fuel truck to come back: ‘‘ Ei­ther he ran out of fuel or he stopped short, we are not sure which, but in any case we need a few more tonnes of fuel be­fore we can leave.’’ Twenty min­utes later he tells us we are re­fu­elled but await­ing our re­lease: the com­puter here won’t print it and so we are wait­ing for the ground crew to print one and run it over. The Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­quires that he bring the re­lease with him.

I love this. Pas­sen­gers are told ex­actly why there is a de­lay. The eu­phemisms I re­mem­ber from de­layed travel in Asia al­ways sent a sharp pang of ter­ror straight to my heart de­spite the be­nign ex­pres­sions of the el­e­gant flight at­ten­dants. I just knew I was be­ing pa­tro­n­ised, which never hap­pens on a US air­line. The emer­gency video tells all pas­sen­gers ex­actly how to open the emer­gency doors. You are en­cour­aged to tune into Chan­nel 9, the air traf­fic con­trol sta­tion, to hear ex­actly what the pi­lots can hear. Some­how, it is em­pow­er­ing.

On our de­layed flight, I lis­tened for a while and heard very pro­fes­sional voices ‘‘ con­firm­ing United 1075 push­ing back’’ and the air traf­fic con­troller bring­ing in some light air­craft be­fore too many char­lie, tango, fox­trots made me sleepy. Nine­tenths of the way into the sec­ond fea­ture film, a sus­pense story with a twist, the cabin at­ten­dant an­nounced: ‘‘ Whoops, we have five min­utes to land­ing, ladies and gen­tle­men.’’ She promised to turn the movie back on once the plane was on the ground, which she duly did. Any­one who was still awake and watch­ing laughed.

It does count for some­thing, be­ing en­cour­aged to un­der­stand the full ex­tent of air travel, be­ing made to feel you are an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in the whole ven­ture, not just an ob­server.

But it does not make the ter­ri­ble de­lays at ei­ther end of the process any more en­durable. Be­fore em­bark­ing at St Martin, we stood in line at the ul­tra-mod­ern Princess Ju­liana air­port, run by the ever-ef­fi­cient Dutch, and moved not an inch for a full hour be­fore our flight be­cause of a com­puter mal­func­tion and a kind of ap­a­thetic is­land men­tal­ity that failed to pro­duce a tech­ni­cian.

When our bags were held up at the other end, I re­alised I must be grate­ful they ar­rived at all.

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