Monday, December 31, 2012

Air travel: The new normal is no fun

Periodically, an air travel horror story makes the news. It might be a plane full of passengers stuck on the runway for hours and hours, or flights suddenly cancelled and people stranded, or outrageous on-board misbehavior. 

But the real issue of modern air travel is not the dramatic, headline-making events. It's the small irritants that add up, in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts style, to weaken the knees of even the toughest traveler.

Consider my family's recent flight home after Christmas. It wasn't the worst trip, certainly. In fact, with it's many little annoyances and frustrations, it was sadly typical of traveling by air today.

Arriving at Seattle-Tacoma airport for our flight we had two options for check-in: stand in line for a human or use an automated Alaska Airline kiosk. We chose to seek out a human, because our seat assignments were scattered in the plane and we wanted to see if we could get them together.

After several minutes, we saw that our line was not moving, so we dragged our belongings to a different line. Soon, an Alaska Airlines representative came along and told us that we should check in at the kiosk, then ask the person checking our bags in about seats. So we dragged our stuff to a kiosk.

I had everything we needed to check in or, at least I thought I did. But because I had bought the tickets through American Airlines, with the first leg of the trip "operated by Alaska Airlines," the confirmation codes I had didn't work. This forced us into a longer process of entering a last name, a flight number and a destination.

We worked through that, and just as we were printing out the final boarding passes, the kiosk abruptly shut down. We flagged down an Alaska rep, who told us the machine had probably run out of paper and to try again with another kiosk. So back through the process we went again in fact, twice more, because I forgot we need boarding passes for both legs of our trip. Eventually we got all the passes printed. Whew. This was just Step One.

We waited in another line to check our bags. Since the fee for checking each bag was $25, we decided to carry on one of our smaller suitcases. That still left us with $75 in bag fees; ugh. At the counter, we asked about moving seats but were told that nothing could be done. Sigh.

After wading through the security line and fending off one rude man who tried to cut ahead that small suitcase we had decided to carry on was pulled aside after being X-rayed. In it, they found a gel-filled plastic toy my 10-year-old son had received for Christmas. Not allowed, the TSA folks said, taking away the $8 toy.

Then we hit a smooth patch. Our flight left on time, arrived early, and soon we were walking the placid concourses of San Jose airport on our way to our next flight.

With some extra time, we stopped at a sports bar called the Shark's Cage where we encountered a leading contender for Surliest Bartender of the Year. He referred to my son as a thing ("Is this yours?"), and responded to simple questions about prices and offerings as if we had asked him to pack our bags up Mt. Everest. In the end, we were gouged for $11 for two Sprites and a small orange juice. Sadly, of course, outrageous airport food prices are hardly news.

Our next plane on Skywest airline was running late, but we boarded and were ready to go about 10 minutes after expected departure time. Then they discovered that a wheel was "a little flat" and needed to be inspected. You can't criticize them for the safety precaution, but you do wonder if they're pushing their equipment too hard and skimping on maintenance.

We finally left about an hour late. We gained back a little time on the way to Los Angeles International. But the surprises weren't over.

We taxied for 20 minutes after landing, eventually ending up at a isolated outpost that I never knew existed even though I've flown through LAX countless times. Exiting the plane, we discovered we had to wait in another line to board a crowded bus to get to baggage claim. After a surreal stop-and-go route through plane traffic on the tarmac, the bus finally turned us loose to retrieve our luggage.

And that was it. As I said, it could have been worse. But, boy, it sure could have been better.


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