United by the experience
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.