Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Delta Is Like A Soviet Airline

I first realized maybe things would not go so smoothly when I went to the Delta website and poked around until I found out the extra baggage fee to bring my snowboard on the plane: $150. Each way. Almost as much as another ticket.

So I began my flight experience with Delta Airlines on the wrong foot. It’s not like my snowboard is amazing or irreplaceable or anything -- but as this was a ski trip, it would have been nice to have it, and having to rent gear, although far cheaper than the baggage fee, adds an unwelcome layer of hassle to the proceedings.

I pack my boots and helmet and other gear into a regular suitcase, put my computer, iPod, and a book in a backpack and grumble about this bullshit baggage fee. I check the website again to make sure everything’s on time, and see that it’s recommended I arrive 75 minutes before my flight.

My arrival at the check-in beats that target by 15 or 20 minutes, but I’m disheartened to see that both the check-in line and the line for security are really long and show no sign of moving.

I get into the check-in line but it is soon shouted at me that I can’t get in the line without a boarding pass, and I (and several of the people in line in front of me) are directed to a bank of self-serve kiosks.

I swipe my credit card a few times but it doesn’t work, and then I notice the barcode reader on the machine, and remember the confirmation email I printed is in my backpack. I hold the barcode under the reader every way I can think of, but it won’t scan. There is a blank and an onscreen keyboard so I can enter my confirmation number, but I can’t find it on the document.

Just then a lady in a Delta jacket steps up and asks me where I’m going. Denver, I say, and she glances at my sheet, types in the confirmation number, and I get in the check-in line, which has not moved at all in the eight minutes I’ve been wrestling with this machine.

A few minutes go by and just when I start to think about the possibility of not making it to my plane in the next 75 minutes, a new desk worker appears and asks if there are any 6pm departures in line. My plane’s leaving at 6:05 so I raise my hand, and I and seven or eight other people are waved forward to the front of the line.

“Things are going my way,” I allow myself to think, somehow forgetting the awful psychic scars of all my air travel of the past ten years or so, the way abused children block out their abuse and mothers forget the pain of childbirth. I go to the front of the line and yet another new clerk appears, and she checks my bag.

I feel a small sense of victory at having completely jumped the line, but it evaporates when I turn my attention to the line for security. Whereas the line for check-in was long, it was single-file and somewhat orderly; this one looks more like a mob, like the line for U2 tickets or the new iPad or whatever other kind of long long line that’s not moving you can think of. I let out a deep sigh and feel an odd sense of deja vu as I take in the scene, but can't quite put my finger on it.

There appears to be only one table to search people up at the front of this security line, but I’m so far away it’s hard to tell. In any case, it's clear I'll be waiting quite a while. Just as I start to adjust to this new reality and once again consider the possibility that I won’t make my flight, the line parts like some kind of huge body of water in a sci-fi novel or something, and before I even see anyone doing it, the stanchion ropes are up, and the first 50 people or so in the security line are on that side of a velvet rope (actually retractable nylon strap), there is a gulf, and I and the next 50 people in line are behind another retractable nylon strap.

Everyone is disoriented by this sudden stanchion change, as those of us in back no longer seem to be in a line at all, but it’s immediately shouted at us to follow the Delta jacketed agents outside: “It’ll be quicker, trust me,” we are assured.

Forty people are then led out the front door and into the roadway leading out of the terminal, toward the parking garage. Everyone looks confused and apprehensive. We go down a hill and double back under the building. As we go into the parking garage underground, the sound of loud creaking metal can be heard, and it suddenly hits me where I’ve seen all this before.

When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, the Cold War was still going strong and there was a lot of talk about the quality of life in the Soviet Union, and how Communism had turned every day into an interminable slog of long lines and decomposing infratructure. Footage of this aspect of Russian life always seemed to be in black and white even when it wasn’t. Walking out of that terminal, with its filthy carpets and cheap folding tables and blinking fluorescent lights, full of miserable faces and people in bad blazers shouting at them, out into the groaning, creaking parking garage felt like we lost the Cold War.

The walk through the parking garage was long, and the walk after that even longer, through empty hallways and past unused baggage carousels. We went around a corner and suddenly we were indoors again, in a busy part of the terminal. I had a short moment of panic when the road forked and I realized I wasn’t paying very close attention to the rest of the exodus, and couldn’t be sure which way they’d gone. I swallowed, made a mental coin flip, and went left, and soon recognized the back of someone’s ugly jacket and followed the crowd through yet another door and another unused carousel. Is Delta sneaking us all past security? How much of this airport is not in use? What is that smell? Do I really want to get on this plane?

After wandering the bowels of the airport for at least ten minutes like Spinal Tap looking for the stage, we come into yet another dimly lit room and another bunch of stanchions with retractable nylon straps and a line almost as long as the one we got out of to embark on this safari.

Like all the previous lines I’d encountered so far, this one did not appear to be moving, and unlike the previous lines, I was not given a miracle reprieve from waiting in it. Of all the shouting that was shouted at our weary band of travelers, the shoutiest was shouted in the manner of a drill sergeant by the lady at the folding tables, loud enough for the whole line of 80 people:

“Your footwear! Will come off! Your jacket! Will come off! If you are wearing a belt! That will also come off! Empty everything from your pockets! Keys! Change! Phones! Any electronic devices! Must be removed from their bags! And put in their own white bin! Your ID! And boarding pass! Should be visible in your hand!” A guy at the front of the line kind of bumbles his way through the process and I worry that she’s about to assign him 50 push-ups.

My turn comes 15 minutes later or so, and as I’m she barks something at me that I don’t quite make out, and she repeats, “Where are you flying in from?” I say, “I’m not flying in, I’m flying out,” and she shrugs and waves me through. As I put my shoes back on, I wonder: is it that security lady’s first day? Nobody goes through security when they’re flying in! Is this a setup? Are the real security guards bound and gagged in a nearby closet?

There is another 10 minutes of walking to my gate after I get to the terminal, but I can follow the signs rather than my fellow travelers. As I reach the gate, the plane is just beginning to board, so I’m right on time -- advising me to be there 75 minutes before the flight turned out to be right on the money.

I guess there’s two ways to look at it: that I got sent on a wild goose chase by the worst-run airline in the world, and missed out on an hour of valuable sitting-at-the-gate time, time I could have used to buy something I didn’t really want to drink at Starbucks and something I didn’t really want to read at Hudson News; or, I got to go through a wormhole to 1988 Moscow and experience the very thing we bankrupted ourselves to prevent. Yay capitalism!

Oh, and I saw this on the way onto the plane:

A company that gouges its customers with outrageous baggage fees, has downsized its workforce and replaced it with self-serve technology that doesn't actually work, passes the extra hassle on to its customers, and treats its customers almost literally like cattle is one of Fortune Magazine's "World's Most Admired Companies" for 2011. Yay free market!

PS: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit this flight experience wasn't all bad. Once I boarded, I got my first glimpse of an endangered species I’d long thought extinct. There was a genuinely hot flight attendant on the plane. I’d never seen one before! Have you ever seen one before? Back in the day, "stewardess" was like shorthand for "gorgeous and willing" -- at least it was when Jack Tripper's neighbor Larry said it. But in my 30+ years of air travel I've never seen a flight attendant more attractive than a defensive line coach, and this gal could have been an underwear model. It was like a unicorn was handing out peanuts! Well played, Delta.

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