By Stewart Mandel
One afternoon last fall, I was sitting at an airport gate waiting for yet-another delayed flight to somewhere when a portly, out-of-breath woman came running up to the Continental counter and handed her boarding pass to a surprised-looking female agent.
“I’m sorry,” the agent said in her most comforting voice possible. “That flight just left. Let me see if I can get you on the next one.”
The woman looked at the agent like she’d just had her purse stolen.
“No!” she shouted. “It’s not my fault our flight in was delayed. You’re going to put me on this one!”
“Ma’am, there’s nothing I can do,” said the agent. “The flight’s already left the gate.”
“But I can see the plane right there!” the woman retorted, pointing out the window at a 747 heading in the opposite direction of the terminal. By now her loud, shrill voice was eliciting turned heads from three gates away. I sunk further into my chair and gnashed my teeth.
As a frequent traveler myself, I know too well the frustration and agony of cancellations, missed flights and re-bookings. Air travel is becoming more insufferable by the year.
But still … this woman seriously believed that the plane was going to turn back around and pick her up? Sadly, our nation’s airports are teeming with dimwits like this every day.
On the surface, they may be perfectly nice people — a worried mother on her way to visit her daughter in college; a retired couple headed to Ft. Lauderdale to catch a Carnival Cruise; a set of parents taking their two hyperactive kinds to Disneyland. Set loose in an airport, however, these otherwise innocent persons can become ticking time bombs. Wracked with nerves and presumably exhausted from having arrived at the airport five hours early, every little step of the process is an adventure for them — and any little kink in the plans is liable to set them off.
These clueless customers cause nearly as much stress for the rest of us as the airlines themselves.
Regrettably, we, the exasperated travelers of America, hold no power over the weather patterns, fuel costs and whatever other issues contribute to the airline industry’s continual ineptitude. These companies can keep taking away our free meals, charging $25 to check a bag and making it borderline impossible to redeem frequent-flyer miles all they want, because when push comes to shove, they offer the only means available to climb 35,000 feet into the air, soar over an ocean and land safely in another continent.
That being said, I believe there is a way to make our air system run more smoothly — by holding the passengers themselves accountable. I’ve even devised a concept that will accomplish this very goal.
My proposal mirrors the “points” system used by many states to keep potentially harmful drivers off the road. For instance, in Ohio, a driver accrues two points on his license for an excessive speeding violation, four points for “willful or wanton disregard of the safety of persons or property,” etc. Anyone who accumulates 12 or more points over a two-year period has his or her license revoked.
I hereby decree that the FAA should track passengers in much the same way, assessing penalties for the following instances of “willful and wanton air-travel stupidity:”
⋅ Two points for failing to grasp the “zone” concept by which most airlines board their passengers. As you’re presumably well aware, most gate agents make the following announcement at least five times prior to boarding: “To ensure an on-time departure, we ask that you wait until your zone number is called before boarding the plane.” Yet inevitably, at least five people holding tickets for Zone 7 surge to the front of the line the second they see someone boarding. There’s a reason they start with the back of the plane, people. It’s not rocket science.
⋅ Two points for attempting to take a water bottle through security, or leaving your toothpaste in your carry-on luggage, or neglecting to take off your belt with the metal buckle, or botching any number of other beaten-into-our-brains-by-now security measures that cause the TSA screeners to hold up the line for everyone behind you. I know it’s awkward having to walk around in your socks in public, Ms. Seven-Different-Bottles-of-Lipstick-in-My-Travel-Bag, but try not to let that affect your brain cells.
⋅ Three points for trying to stuff a bag into the overhead compartment that clearly has no chance of fitting. I can’t count how many times I’ve stood and waited in the aisle while some weekend jet-setter who boarded before me tries helplessly to stow an oversized, overstuffed suitcase he had no business carrying on in the first place. Inevitably, the flight attendant will wind up having to check it, but not before the offending bozo (who apparently doesn’t believe in re-wearing shirts) holds up the line for 10 minutes. News flash: They have storage space beneath the plane, too.
⋅ Three points for continuing a cell-phone conversation until the last possible moment before takeoff. Obviously, most people don’t shut off their Blackberries upon the very first announcement — the unwritten rule is you’re fine until they close the boarding door — but I’ve been on numerous flights where the guy across the aisle keeps right on yapping even as the plane is taxiing down the runway. I don’t know whether this is the product of arrogance or ignorance, but either way, it makes me nervous. The whole “certain electronic devices may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation” line may well be a myth … but I’d prefer not to find out.
⋅ Four points for getting sloppy drunk on the plane (flights to Vegas or Cancun excluded). If I had to guess, ninety-five percent of passengers on any given flight are trying to sleep, trying to read or trying to get some work done – except for the three oblivious frat boys in 14A, B and C having their own little cocktail party (at $9 a mini-bottle). Outside of screaming babies, these budding Rhodes Scholars are the most annoying disruption to an otherwise peaceful flight — but the babies aren’t the ones making asses of themselves.
⋅ Four points for screaming at an airline employee over a situation that’s clearly beyond their control. We all get angry when flights get delayed or canceled, but guess what? The person behind that counter did not cancel your flight; someone in a control tower somewhere did. Furthermore, everyone in front of and behind you in line is in the same exact predicament. Dropping f-bombs at the United counter won’t unlock some magic key on their computer that will get you to Phoenix sooner. And calling Tara the ticket lady a “useless hussy” is unlikely to get her to do something special for you.
(Note that the latter penalty may be waived or repealed should it be proven that the employee in question was intentionally withholding incriminating flight information from you. For example, when your Mom sitting at home logged into delta.com knows your updated departure time before you do.)
Just in case you think I’m being too harsh with these measures, rest assured that offenders who do exceed the 12-point threshold will not be banned altogether from flying. No one should be denied the right to get to his or her nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.
They will, however, be temporarily restricted to certain airlines — those being Airtran, Frontier and Spirit. (If by chance none of these service their intended destination … there’s always Greyhound.) Theoretically, this should make things run much more smoothly for the major carriers, which will now be occupied almost entirely by knowledgeable travelers.
So you’re welcome, American, United and Delta. I look forward to flying your more friendly, idiot-free skies.