The Joy of Air Travel in the Post 9-11 World

Approximately once a year I report on post-9-11 air travel in America. Here is this year’s installment. I was in Phoenix last week trying to get to Bismarck. It was 104 degrees in the shade.

I’m type A on air travel. I show up two hours early even at Bismarck International. My Travel Fret Level (TFL) was about two on the ten-point scale. I would not be getting home until after midnight. And there was no backup plan. The Denver to Bismarck flight was the last of the day. In the post 9-11 universe, I regard it as a successful domestic trip if I actually reach my destination on the same day I started, no matter how much later than intended. That’s a pretty low standard, I admit, but anything more exacting is likely to send your frustration rate through the roof. There was merely a 45-minute layover in Denver. That always raises my fret level to orange. I’d rather have two hours in a leisurely layover, even three, than sweat my way through the inevitable flight delays.

Predictably, the Phoenix gate agent came announced that our flight would be half an hour late in taking off. Two things crashed immediately into my mind. First, I would almost certainly miss my second flight. Second, the agent was almost certainly lying about the length of the delay. That perhaps sounds cynical, but I received my Million Mile Flyer plaque from United earlier this year, and I know whereof I speak. I went up to her in the politest possible way to seek more information.

Here is some serious advice. When there is a delay you need to have answers to the following questions. One. What is the cause of the delay? If she or he says “equipment,” it is going to be a very long day. If she says “weather,” there is some hope, because your connecting flight may be delayed, too. Two. Is the incoming plane in the air? None of their predictions about take-off time, or their bland assurances that “your connections should be good,” have the slightest meaning unless the incoming plane is already in the air. They usually get annoyed when you ask them this question, but they will look it up if you persist. Three. Am I protected on the next flight?

The Phoenix gate agent lied to me about the nature of the delay. She knew I knew she was lying, but she brazened it out, because many agents figure they can buffalo you and it usually works. Generally speaking, their chief goal is to get you away from their counter and out of their hair as quickly as possible with as few keystrokes as possible. They count on the general passivity of the air traveler. But I never mouth off to a gate agent. Remember, before your ordeal ends, you are going to need them.

Eventually we boarded the flight. The captain came on to tell us that he was really sorry for the delay, that only God can create thunderstorms, that he would do his best to make up time, and that he knew we all were more interested in our safety than in whatever it was we had intended to do once we landed, etc. The usual patter.

I calculated that it was just theoretically possible that I could barely make my connection, if every ensuing transaction occurred flawlessly—no delay in takeoff, no additional flight vectors, no storm front over Denver, no parked plane blocking our path into the disembarkation gate, no delay in the jet way positioning, and a very short hop between gates. In other words, I was certainly going to miss my next flight. But it was just close enough that I began to fret and sweat and grind my teeth and check my watch every two minutes. For two interminable hours I sat in a stew of anxiety and unhappiness, entirely unable to concentrate on my book, or anything else.

When we landed in Denver, a man from five or six rows back tried to barge his way through the rest of us with his three pieces of carry-on luggage, because of course he believed that his tight connection must be more important than any of ours. When he tried to run me down, I turned politely and said, “Actually, my connection leaves seventeen minutes before yours.” He wanted to slit my throat. We got off flight one only fifteen minutes later than had been predicted, and I got myself into the OJ Simpson, “sprint the airport” crouch. But just then my phone bleeped, and United informed me that I had not missed my Bismarck flight after all.

Instead of leaving Denver at 9:40 and arriving in Bismarck at 12:32, I would now be leaving Denver at 12:50 and arriving at 3:41 a.m. Oh the joy!

By now my body was covered with that rare double sheen—the stew of sustained anxiety, coupled with the usual airplane germ veneer. The Denver airport was more or less deserted, though I am happy to report that a crew of three maintenance men changed out broken seat cushions in my gate area using power drills that sounded like the pneumatic tire shop wrenches. We boarded our flight “on time.” The flight attendant on the last leg was young and chipper, with a high-pitched nasal voice that sounded worse than those pneumatic drills. At 1:30 a.m. she found it useful to explain to us all of our drink options down to the finest distinction between diet and full sugar sodas, including every juice variety known to humankind, and then she regaled us with highlights from the latest edition of United’s Horizons magazine. As she worked her way up and down the aisle, she slammed into me repeatedly with her cart or her shoulder, even though I had squeezed myself into a near-fetal position.

I had called ahead from Denver to a Bismarck taxi service to make sure I would be able to get a cab at so ungodly an hour. The very nice dispatcher told me she would have a taxi waiting when I landed. There was, of course, no taxi. When I called to inquire, a different dispatcher, clearly sleep-deprived, rebuked me very gruffly for even thinking that a person could get a taxi in the middle of the night, denied that I had made a reservation, then said even if I did make a reservation, I should not have regarded that as a serious commitment. By now it was nearly four a.m. and I was considering whether to walk home (nine miles) dragging my bag behind me, or just sleep in the airport.

Finally, a taxi turned up as dawn’s early light appeared in the east. There were four or five of us waiting. As I approached the empty taxi, a well-dressed man of about 40 hurled himself in front of me, and hissed, “Hey, buster, I ordered a taxi at 11 o’clock. You can’t just walk off the plane and take my cab.”

Theodore Roosevelt would have beaten him to a pulp right there. I opened my mouth to unleash a long day’s frustration at a very deserving target, but no words came out. So I just backed away and started the process all over again. I got home in time to shower for a full work day.

That was my last Bismarck airport taxi ride.