To Ensure an On-Time Departure …

1 06 2009


By Stewart Mandel
Copyright 2009

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 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.



11 responses

2 06 2009

Great idea, Stewart! How many points do ya give this lady?

It’s like Wilt’s 100 point game. We’ll never see this again. Right?

13 06 2009

You sound a little angry, Stew… I fly maybe once every three or four years, so the ‘toothpaste as a fluid’ thing, etc. sometimes catches me… it’s not being stupid, just I don’t have time to read reams of ever-changing information on what is/isn’t okay in order to board an airplane. Obviously, there’s no excuse for being obnoxious as was the lady in your opening example. Anyway, looking forward to your return to SI… found your page trying to figure out where the hell you went.

15 06 2009


No offense but its not difficult. I give some leeway to people who hop on planes maybe once a year but everyone else? You know the rules, and they aren’t ever-changing.

No fluids, thats been in effect for a couple years now. Only pack travel size toothpaste, shaving cream etc. and pack them in a kitchen baggie. If you’re carrying them on, have the baggie ready as you put your stuff in the plastic trays.

Don’t have anything in your pockets other than your wallet and boarding pass. Right before security I toss my phone in a baggie with other electronics and suspicious items (see below). I can get it back the moment it gets through the x-ray and I don’t flag the walk-through machine in the meantime slowing everyone down behind me.

anything metal or that might get looked at (read: anything that doesn’t look like clothing) pack together in one place in your bag for easy inspection, be it carry-on or checked baggage. I take the extra step of putting all my chargers, phones, loose metal items like change etc. in a large baggie then putting it on the tray so they don’t have to second guess, its right there in one place in front of them and my regular luggage goes through unscathed every time. Afterwards I can immediately put all that back into my luggage with no real loss of time.

Shoes and laptops go in the trays at security. Ladies don’t wear heels/men and women don’t wear sandals, your feet are going to be walking on gross airport carpet, travel in gym shoes and socks and be ready to take your shoes off for security. You’ll get them right back after they’ve gone through the x-ray machine and you’ve quickly passed through the walk-through machine.

If I don’t have to I don’t wear a belt when traveling, but if I do I pack it with my carry-on stuff and can put it on in an airport bathroom afterwards.

90% of the time I don’t check any baggage. Security is almost always a breeze by realizing what security will flag (basically assume anything that isn’t clothing), and have that ready to put on a tray separately. I carry a backback as well for my papers, laptop and the baggies of electronics and toiletries/liquids so I can take them immediately out of the bag and put onto the security trays. After those go on, I add my shoes, backpack and main luggage bag.

Simple. Only unprepared travelers make it complicated.

2 07 2009

Brian, you don’t think what you just layed out for us in a 6 paragraph, 385 word dictation on security is complicated? Wow, I wish I lived in your world…especially one where you avoid checking bags to make the process a “breeze”. Unless you fly out of, or into Kansas City, Raleigh or some other micro sized airport – this is far from a “breeze”. In my experience, that “breeze” you talk about in the “checked bag process” involves a 25 minute hike half way across a small-city sized airport. 2 wrong turns, 18 shops with over priced bottled water, almost getting run over by an idiot on a golf cart only to realize you’re about half way there, just to track down a bag that is always the last to come out of the little bag sized hole traveling on a belt, slamming into whatever gets in it’s way. After that you treck back another 20 minutes…usually in the direction you just came, to exit the airport.

I personally will check whatever bag I think has even the slightest chance of fitting in the overhead compartment because when it doesn’t, the attendent just stowes it in the front/back of the plane and you get it later…better chancing that than the above scenario which is inevitable.

2 07 2009

You forgot one Stewart: One point for anyone who stands on the left-hand side of the moving walkway, incrementing one point for each iteration of the omnipresent recording of “please stand to the right so that others may walk past you on the left.”

4 07 2009

How many points can you slap on the parents who allow their litle angels to run up and down the aisle for two hours, kick the back of my seat in an hyperactive beat reminiscent of a jackhammer and who do nothing to try to quiet them when they cry?

One lady looked at me in amazement, as if I was Dr. Spock, when I began to read a business story to her cantankerous son. He nodded off after a couple of minutes. He might have needed a nap and some gentle coaxing or the piece on a U. S. steel company’s efforts to compete with Indian competitors was that boring.

6 07 2009


Love the essay. As a frequent flyer myself, there is nothing more annoying then what you mentioned. However, I do have a fault with your second 2-Point violation. Airports have different security levels that drive me crazy. My belt is fine for 9 of 10 airports but there is one where it will go off. Is that my fault when the previous 9 times it was fine?

7 07 2009

Hey Stewart,

Great site, but I just wanted to say something out of the ordinary. I had the chance to meet you one day but I didn’t say Hi. I read all your work and I’m a fan. I forget which day in April it was, but last year in 2008 you visited the UCLA campus to watch spring ball, and you even did a piece on Neuheisal.

Well I happened to be sitting by the bleachers and I see you and I think, “No that couldn’t be Stewart, could it?” You end up sitting and talking next to someone who looks like a fellow reporter for about 30 minutes. I believe it was Bruce Feldman of ESPN. Well long story short, I went to the nearby UCLA Store to buy a copy of your book to maybe have you sign, but when I come back with it, you are gone!

Either way, I read the book cover to cover and I’m glad I got the chance to buy it.

14 07 2009

How about minus five points for standing right at the circumference of the baggage carousel with your entire Brady Bunch family, while your bags have not yet come down the chute? Why can’t people learn that they can see their bags on the carousel from ten feet away just as well as they can at point blank? Stand back, and approach only when your bags are circling, and approach only if you are the one removing the bags. Otherwise, don’t get mad at me when I hit your four year old kid on the head with my luggage as I try (unsuccessfully) to negotiate my 30 lb bag off of a carousel that is swarming with people, only 10% of which are trying to remove baggage at any given time.

13 08 2009

The point value for yelling at the employees should be increased. I have a few acquaintances who work for airlines. They admit that when the yelling starts, their desire to assist drops. Being nice is a lot better for everyone.

Yes, I have gotten irritated at a gate agent. The most irritated was when I was flying standby and never heard my name called. The fellow butchered my last name so badly I did not recognize it; I have heard it pronounced a lot of different ways and by foreigners (in German it sounds pretty cool). Nothing came close. Ended up not getting on that flight because of it. Not a huge deal, but still.

Here is one that gets me about the airlines (sorry, but I have to go off on a tangent).

What is it with the stupid rule that you must always fly with your bag? I hear this a lot, yet I have checked my bag, been given a card for standby and not gotten on that flight only to arrive to find my bag waiting for me. It obviously made the earlier flight! Same with taking a “bump”.

26 08 2009

Great essay Stewart, but I can’t believe you left out the most obvious one: brining on and trying to stuff a clearly-too-large-bag into the overhead space. Usually the result is someone who swings it up over their head, knocking me or some other unsuspecting compact traveler in the process. After no success, they are forced to check it and get indignant. Really it’s two issues – why don’t they read and see that ridiculous small box that is a guideline and also, why doesn’t someone stop them?

Unrelated but also a gripe – people who get up and grab the back of the seat in front of them. It never fails it happens to me right when I fall asleep.

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