Waitin’ at the train station, singin’ the ‘Airport Blues’

Editorial Page Editor
“NEWS IS whatever happens to, or interests, an editor,” a wise colleague named Jerry Ratts once said. Actually, he said it more than “once,” which is why I remember.
    I would insert a corollary: “… or to the editor’s wife….”
    For the past year, my wife has traveled a lot back and forth between here and Pennsylvania. So have I, for that matter. She and our youngest have been up there so that our daughter can study ballet with extreme intensity. My wife has worked up there as a pre-school teacher to help pay for keeping two households, not to mention all the travel.
    She’s spent a lot of time in airports — enough that when she comes home this week, it will be by train.
    A trip back up there in May was the last straw. She recounted her ordeal in an exclusive interview with this correspondent:
    She had to fly out of there early Mother’s Day afternoon, and given the airlines’ rule about early arrival, there was no chance to celebrate the day over lunch. She intended to have a nice dinner with my youngest up in the Keystone State, but that was not to be, either. She wouldn’t get home until after 1 a.m. Monday.
    Miraculously, she left Charleston on time. But she had to make two connections to get to Harrisburg. Things seemed fine when she arrived at the gate for the first connection. They still seemed fine — the sign at the gate still brightly proclaimed that her flight would be on time — when she and other passengers noticed that the flight after theirs was boarding, and they weren’t.
    Somebody had the temerity to ask, and was told, “Oh, we canceled yours.” No apology, and apparently no intention of making an announcement.
    It was either on that leg of the trip or the next (“Can’t remember… so exhausting…”) that she found herself wandering about a terminal after having received no helpful advice at the gate. She learned by chance that another passenger was going to Allentown, with a promised 75-mile bus ride to Harrisburg. She went back to the apathetic agent at the gate to ask about that, and was told yeah, we could get you there that way if that’s what you want.
    The alternative was a flight to Harrisburg at noon the next day, so yeah, she’d like a bus ride. She reached her bed about four hours before time to get up and go herd 4-year-olds all day.
    “So I’m not flying any more,” she said with that dangerous emphasis that I know not to contradict. “They don’t care how much they inconvenience you, or how much they lie to you. I’m just not doing it any more.”
    Of course not, dear. Especially since, between her experiences and my own, this was the third trip in a row that could have been completed more quickly by driving. That haul up interstates 77 and 81, passing through six states, is a stroll in the park compared to these aeronautic nightmares.
    I’ve been on the verge of writing this column a number of times in recent months, but have held back, remembering what Jerry Ratts (the Sage of Wichita, quoted above) said about editors and their sense of perspective.
    Besides, I wasn’t sure it was right for the opinion pages. It had happened to us several times, and the Sage was also known to say: “That’s twice. Once more and it’s a trend, and we can send it to Lifestyles.”
    Then I saw Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, which had a bona fide news story about how many passengers had become fed up with air travel and were taking Amtrak: “Airplanes are getting stuck in lots of traffic jams this summer, but Amtrak is on a roll.”
    Then I realized USA Today — the paper whose only “home town” is the nation’s airports — had been all over it: “By virtually every measure, this is shaping up as the worst year ever for air travel. (That is, if you’re a passenger. Some of the airlines are actually making profits for a change.)”
    Good thing my wife swore off air travel in May, because things have only gotten worse since:
“There’s really something different this summer,” said a frustrated traveler who blogs on the subject (at TakingtheKids.com), which is almost as authoritative as being an editor. “Not only can’t you count on the airlines giving you anything to eat, but you can’t count on a three-hour flight actually being a three-hour flight. It’s a whole new paradigm.” (Journalists find it soothing to describe their personal frustrations with words like “paradigm.”)
    And if you’re the old-fashioned sort who wants facts rather than anecdotes, USA Today supplies this: “In June, 462 aircraft sat for at least three hours awaiting takeoff after leaving the gate, more than tripling the 137 such delays during May. DOT says it’s the highest monthly number since at least 2000.”
    Why has all this happened? Disgruntled scribes differ on that. There’s an air traffic control system that isn’t using the latest technology. There’s the increased number of short-hop flights, taking up more gate time and creating more chances to get tangled up. There’s the cutbacks in airline personnel, who are getting cranky and increasingly unlikely to give you the time of day, much less fluff your pillow.
    But who cares about the why when the answer to when is, “Not any time soon, so sit down and shut up or we’ll call security”?
    In any case, it’s clear that my better half swore off air travel just in time. So I won’t mind a bit hauling myself out of bed at midnight to drive my pickup down to the railway station and wait for my woman to come home. I’ll take along a notepad and a harmonica, ’cause if that don’t get me halfway to a country song, I ain’t got one in me:

Well, I went down to the station;
I was feelin’ kinda sore…
Yeah, I went down to the station, mama;
I was feelin’ mighty sore…
Mah woman, she done tol’ me,
She ain’t gonna fly no more… (Honka wonka waw-waw-wahn)…

    For guitar chords and more, go to http://blogs.thestate.com/bradwarthensblog/.

13 thoughts on “Waitin’ at the train station, singin’ the ‘Airport Blues’

  1. sciencegeek

    Do you take any joy in the fact that Amtrak’s reservation system has been down since 1pm yesterday and you have to buy your ticket at the ticket window or on the train?
    I’m puzzled why no major news network or newspaper has picked up this story yet when it happens to an airline, it is all over the news.

  2. Brad Warthen

    First I’ve heard of it. But I suppose the reason for that is that we still have too few people traveling by train.
    If the majority of travelers were going that way rather than by plane or car, it would have been a bigger deal. Big enough for someone who was NOT making reservations that day — such as me — to have heard about it.

  3. Herb Brasher

    Welcome to the club, Brad. I spent three days recently getting home from Oregon, and would have spent a fourth, if I hadn’t rented a car and driven home from Atlanta. I could almost have driven home from Oregon in three full days.
    And have you tried to rent a car to drive one way from Atlanta to Columbia? Nobody wants to rent one way to South Carolina.
    What’s frustrating is that he airlines keep stringing you out–“new departure time for this flight is . . . blah, blah, blah–when you know that they know that it is going to be canceled.
    And getting reimbursed for cancellations because of mechanical reasons is almost impossible, too.

  4. Doug Ross

    I’ve flown 70 times so far this year. I consider myself lucky in that I have “only” had three flights cancelled in that time.
    My pet peeves are:
    1) The airlines have cut back on the number of flights in order to recover financially. That means every flight is either full or within a seat or two of capacity. That means you never can get an aisle seat with the middle open (9 times out of 10, the middle seat is occupied by someone larger than my 6’2″ frame).
    2) Checking bags is out of the question. I fit a week’s worth of clothes in one carry on bag. The few times I have had to check bags, the wait to get them has averaged 30 minutes.
    3) Since few people check bags, the number of carryons has increased significantly. Combine that with the full flights, and you end up with five to ten minutes of every boarding experience spent watching people try to cram bags into too full overhead bins. Somebody always gets mad when they lose the carryon roulette game and have to end up checking their bag.
    4) The food. Or the lack thereof. I paid $5 for a fruit and cheese plate last week based on the description in the US Air magazine. It looked scrumptious! What I got for $5 was half an apple, one strawberry, six grapes, and ten 1/2 inch cubes of cheese food.
    5) The TSA. It’s the Federal Government’s version of the DMV. Overstaffed, under utilized, terrible attitudes, bizarre rules.
    The 3 ounce limit may be the dumbest idea ever implemented. I can bring eight three ounce bottles of one liquid but cannot bring a half full 4 ounce tube of shaving cream.

  5. Steve Gordy

    I frequently use Amtrak going to and from the Northeast, versus flying. It’s not the best of alternatives, but it is an alternative. Most folks are unaware that South Carolina is crossed by four trains a day going north and the same number going south. Arrival and departure times are very inconvenient, but then arrival and departure times with most airlines nowadays are fictional.
    Worthy of note is that a new high-speed ferry service between Oahu and Maui just started yesterday. One reason is, that in the event of another event such as 9/11 that grounds the airlines, there needs to be another way to get around.

  6. bud

    I guess we can add transportation woes to the growing list of problem areas that have gotten worse during the Bush administration. With everything falling apart in this country (coal mines, bridges, increased crime rate, increased deaths on the highways and now apparently worsening transportation woes) why are we squandering $50/year in Iraq?

  7. Brad Warthen

    Oh, I ‘spect we can spare fifty bucks a year for a war we have no choice but to win.
    Also, I just had an idea — we could save bud no end of typing (and the attendant danger of carpal tunnel, what with the repetitiveness of it all) if we all just agree to STIPULATE, right now, the following: “Yes, we know bud blames Bush.”
    This, of course, would apply to every possibly issue that we might talk about, from the failure of Columbia street lights to synchronize to our rate of travel to the ubiquity of “reality” television. And bud could sit back and relax, occasionally throwing in a “you got THAT right!” when he feels like it…
    What do y’all say? I’m willing to do my part.

  8. Herb Brasher

    Just what I need. Ferry service between Oahu and Maui. How about getting to Atlanta, Memphis, or Chicago?

  9. Karen McLeod

    Brad, you finally understand! And to think, I didn’t realize he’d messed up the streetlights too! But it’s Dick Cheney who’s responsible for reality TV (its so diabolic, that it’s got to be Cheney who masterminded it)!

  10. Steve Gordy

    Herb,obviously I was being facetious when I mentioned the Oahu-Maui ferry service. HOWEVER, there was a time when coastal steamers linked Charleston to the Northeast. Maybe we ought to look at whether some old ideas are becoming new.

  11. weldon VII

    Gosh, Karen, I wish you could know how glad I am to find out reality TV puts you in mind of Dick Cheney.
    The next step could be bipartisan dialogue.

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