The historical perspective
I’ll begin by confessing that, even under the best of circumstances, I am not a good flyer.
I’ve lost count of the flights I’ve made over the years, many of them troubled. I was in one airplane (Northwest Airlines) that slid off a runway-overheads flying open, passengers and crew not remaining too calm. In Honduras, I waited hours in the airport for a mechanic to come deal with an unspecified problem, only to watch a grizzled man in dirty khakis walk around the plane (TACA Airlines) a few times before striking something with a hammer and leaving the tarmac (probably headed back to the bar). In Nashville, I waited while an unexplained dog (drug? bomb?) was led around the outside of my plane, then into the cabin to sniff the boarding passengers. These were all isolated, harrowing events in otherwise routine flights, and occurred about 30 years ago. I think it was still possible to have a good flying experience back then, it just never seemed to happen to me.
Additionally, several friends and relatives who have flown in the past year or so have had terrible experiences with delays, cancellations, difficult re-bookings, etc., so I know that things have not improved a great deal. Never-the-less, circumstances often have a way of dictating that we must do what we would prefer not to do.
Several weeks ago, my husband and I decided to make a quick trip to Greece. Though we knew it to be a demanding trip, our commitments here in New Albany left us only about a week for the journey. That is really not enough time for such a trip, but it was what we had. There was a lot to arrange in a short time span; airline reservations (expensive) and Athens apartment lease (very reasonable) were quickly arranged, and a house sitter/cat sitter was engaged for New Albany.
Why does air travel have to be so disagreeable?
Problems arose when we were unable to check in on-line for our flight from Memphis to New York; two Delta supervisors, unable to determine the problem, merely advised us to arrive “extra early” at the Memphis airport to sort out the issue. However, a Memphis baggage agent was quickly able to tell us that the problem was that we were flying from Memphis into La Guardia, but were leaving from JFK for the overseas part of the trip, which we already knew. Because of the airport change, Delta was unable to check us in on-line or handle our luggage between airports, though the itinerary was booked through Delta, and was entirely Delta flights. They could only check us and our baggage from Memphis to La Guardia. OK, seemed fairly reasonable, and we much preferred claiming our own luggage at La Guardia and re-checking it at JFK to arriving in Athens without it. But wouldn’t you think the two on-line “supervisors” should have known what the baggage handler knew?
I will skip the details of security, luggage retrieval, the long, expensive trip between La Guardia and JFK, highway construction and NY traffic in general. I will, however, mention the $58.00 lunch at JFK: mediocre Reuben sandwiches, fries and instant iced tea for two.
Because we booked on such short notice, we were not seated together on the 10 hour flight to Athens. I was seated between a young high school grad en route to a graduation-gift trip to Greece, and a young-looking black man, ex-military, going to visit Athens friends for the first time. The packed, stuffy plane sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes before take-off, per usual.
About 15 minutes after lift off, a hostess came by offering drinks. Since I’d just realized that my “over the ocean” Ativan had been left behind in New Albany, I almost ordered wine, but opted for water instead. Someone ordered red wine, though, and when the hostess grabbed the flimsy plastic wine bottle (they only serve the very best), the red wine spewed out the bottle top and all over her serving cart, military-man’s tray table, and my linen pants. She wiped down her cart and all her serving bottles, then began to push the cart forward, away from our seats, leaving my neighbor’s tray and my pants blotched with red wine.
Military-man seemed a little stunned by the event, so I reached across him and tugged on the hostess’ skirt to keep her from walking away. She whirled around with a ferocious look on her face and snarled loudly, “You can’t touch me!” Military man, startled, jerked backward in his seat with his hands raised in a defensive position. I leaned across him and hissed to Miss Personality, “You can’t splatter us with red wine and walk away!” People were watching from several directions. She had an instant demeanor change, apologizing, wiping the tray, producing club soda and a cloth for treating my pants, etc. before moving on.
Military man said, “She needs a major attitude adjustment.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure she would have had me arrested for daring to touch her, if I hadn’t been covered in wine.”
“And me along with you,” he said.
He and I exchanged observations about this particular hostess for the whole trip. While she managed to eke out an ‘almost smile’ a time or two for me, she continued to be pretty nasty to him, and to pretty much everyone else, including her co-workers. We noted that she wore her badge in a manner that made it impossible to read her name. I’m sure I could have gotten her name, but sometimes there is just no point in drawing out a bad experience.
In addition to the hostess’ sour attitude, the flight was quite “bumpy” because of weather, which can’t be helped. Additional liquids were spilled. Before the trip was over, all three of us in the row were decorated with selections of red wine, white wine, water, cola and coffee spots. Also, the restroom ran out of water at the tap, making it necessary to wipe soap from one’s hands with paper towels, which left our hands reeking of some sort of poison flower/antiseptic odor. And the tiny receptacle overflowed with used paper towels; that could have been helped.
Too little time on the “good part” of the trip
We arrived at the Athens airport on time, whisked through passport control and customs, then found a place to rest while we awaited the arrival of a colleague. Five days later, with our business concluded, we took leave of one of the most agreeable and hospitable places in the world. There will be a future post about this portion of our trip. It was not without problems, but it was without uncaring jackasses. Several people went out of their way to help out when problems arose, and I plan to end my writings about this trip on a positive note…later.
The grueling trip home
Because I’d injured my hip and foot, a wheel chair was needed for the JFK leg of the return trip. I could walk with a cane, but not fast enough to jump through all the hoops and still make our La Guardia connection to Memphis. Though we heard a Delta agent in Athens made the arrangements, we were not on the list for accommodations at JFK. However, two very efficient young women rose to the occasion and took charge of the situation, whizzing us through passport control, baggage claim and customs and into a cab in record time. We tipped them well, hoping to encourage their helpful attitudes.
The cabbie asked which La Guardia terminal we needed. Since we could not check in on-line, we had no boarding pass, and our itinerary listed only the flight number and departure times, no terminal information. We called Delta’s customer information number; it promised an 18 minute wait before anyone would consider helping us. We tried the on-line flight information site where one can supposedly verify flight times, delays etc. It instructed us to download the Delta Travel Ap the first three times we accessed the site. Just as the cabbie (bless him, tip him) was about to pull over and call his dispatcher to help us, the “D” terminal assignment finally popped up on the phone. Cabbies, wheelchair pushers and baggage handlers–a cut above the rest.
Once through security, we checked the flight boards to verify the flight’s time, terminal and gate. Our flight was not yet in the listings, so we ordered a bite to eat. We had really bad, really expensive “custom” cheeseburgers, which we ate in a dirty food services area. The tables were overseen by a surly woman whose supreme effort at cleaning consisted of brushing most of the crumbs to the floor, using a soiled napkin from the table. She never touched her bottle of spray cleaner while clearing the 24 tables I observed.
We admit it; we’ve lost our senses of humor
After eating, we found our flight on the board, listed at gate 24 in Terminal D, with the departure time now delayed 45 minutes. We noticed that several flights had been cancelled. We eventually located gate 24, tucked neatly between gates 21 and 23 (go figure) and wandered to and fro among hundreds of delayed or cancelled passengers, seeking seating in which to pass the hours before departure. Finally seated, we were treated to a never-ending monologue from one of the dumbest women ever to open her mouth in public. After about 30 minutes, the lady seated next to me, who said she had been enduring the monologue for two hours, whispered that she was ready to kill the woman if she did not shut up. After enduring her for 30 minutes myself, I was ready to help do the deed.
My would-be killer friend, herself an airline employee whose flight had been delayed, wandered off in search of coffee, while I guarded her seat. She returned shortly with the news that her flight had been assigned to a different terminal, which she had luckily spotted on a board, there having been no broadcast announcement of the change. She hurried off to catch her flight, wishing me well with the murder plan.
After nearly another hour dragged by, my husband sought information from the Delta gate agent about our flight, only to receive the news that it, too, had been moved to another terminal. Upon asking the agent when he planned to announce that fact, the agent replied,”We are not babysitters. It is your responsibility to keep up with where your flight leaves from.” It is a miracle there was not another murder plan put into action at that moment.
Arriving at the new terminal, we heard the gate agent announce that we were awaiting arrival of a substitute hostess, who would replace a missing crew member. Apparently some things are worth broadcasting to all the babies. We eventually hobbled onto the plane with the “early boarding” call for those who need extra time or assistance, and found our seats. The substitute hostess was standing near our seats, smiling and cheerfully offering to help us get settled. My husband thanked her for being willing to come in to work.
As we waited for everyone else to board, I rehashed the details of this trip in my mind. It’s enough to worry about bad weather, crashing airplanes, terrorists and that the guy in front of you will want his seat back in your lap for the whole trip (this did not happen). Passengers paying literally thousands of dollars to get from point A to point B should, at the very least, be able to count upon airline industry employees doing their jobs correctly and maintaining a decent attitude when unexpected problems arise. To be fair, many of them do manage to remain positive, but the chances of having to deal with disinterested and rude employees are far too great.
The plane took off with several empty seats, despite having been sold out for several weeks. No doubt, some of those people were sitting in the wrong terminal, blindly trusting that the ‘baby sitters’ would do their jobs and keep them informed of any important changes.
Many parts of the world are more beautiful and more exotic than New Albany, but I live in small town Mississippi by choice. I no longer have any desire to live or travel or spend my money with those who won’t rise to the occasion with a little courtesy, humor and service. Around here, even the most inept employee generally tries to help. I’ve never even had the urge to murder a Wal-Mart employee.