The latest way the Internet has turned our lives into living nightmares irreversibly and forever is with Priceline.com. If you have not used Priceline to get airline tickets, then it’s a safe bet you have gotten to where you actually wanted to go.
The way it works is, you tell Priceline how much you’re willing to spend on a plane ticket, and Priceline will check with all the airlines until they find someone who will sell you a ticket for that price. If you put something reasonable — for example, your entire life savings — then Priceline will send you an e-mail within an hour notifying you that the amount you put was not enough and you’ll have to try again.
But there’s more to it than that. You can’t just raise your bid; you have to alter your flight plans, too, either by changing one of the days you’re traveling, allowing your ticket to involve several layovers, or increasing the number of screaming diarrhetic babies you’re willing to sit next to. Basically, Priceline is for people who have to go somewhere, sometime, but don’t care where they go or how long it takes to get there.
Priceline uses William Shatner as its TV spokesman. What else needs to be said?
My recent Priceline experience was in flying to California for Christmas. Priceline told me that rather than just go from Salt Lake City to Ontario, I would need to fly to LAX and then take a 12-minute shuttle flight to Ontario. Naturally, there would be an hour layover in LAX, too, and naturally my plane would leave Salt Lake at 6:40 a.m., approximately 12 hours before I actually wanted to leave. Priceline is a cruel mistress indeed! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! (Did I mention that once you’ve told Priceline how much you’re willing to pay and when you can travel, you are locked into buying whatever ticket they find for you, no matter how ridiculous the itinerary? Well, it’s true.)
While I was en route to LAX, the good people at United Airlines decided that they would go ahead and cancel that flight to Ontario. They must have figured that if it’s only a 12-minute flight, it couldn’t take us much longer than that to just walk there.
Actually, the excuse they gave us was: fog. It didn’t make any sense, because many planes could be seen taking off and landing, evidently unencumbered by this alleged fog, but it’s the excuse they stuck with. It’s every airline’s excuse for everything, actually, because it takes the blame off them and puts it on God, whom most people don’t dare criticize. “How come my plane ticket cost $150 when the person sitting next to me paid only $130?” Fog. “Why did you stop serving little packets of peanuts and start handing out that execrable ‘trail mix’ that is so nasty even airline passengers, who will eat anything, consider not eating it before they go ahead and eat it?” Fog. “Which is smaller, the tissue-box-sized airplane bathrooms, or the amount of legroom between the rows of seats?” Fog.
Anyway, you’ve never seen such weeping and wailing as when airline passengers are told their flight has been canceled. You might just as well announce that their mothers have caught fire. People were running around the terminal, shrieking and cursing and causing chaos. It was like New Year’s Eve in Evanston, Wyo., but without the public urination.
As is always the case when I’m in a crisis, my first thoughts were of my luggage. It had been checked to Ontario and would probably arrive there even if I didn’t. I called my family and told them I’d be spending the holidays at LAX, but that they should make sure my suitcase had a warm place to sleep and didn’t have to sit next to Uncle Stinky at Christmas dinner. “Treat my luggage like one of the family,” I said, meaning, “Make fun of it until it cries.”
The airline graciously decided to find a shuttle van to haul us over to Ontario, but first they figured we should stand around LAX for two hours, I guess to make us all the more grateful for that shuttle van when it did arrive.
Maybe you think two hours would be enough time for them to find our luggage and return it so we could take it on the van with us. If you think this, you have obviously never dealt with an airline. The shuttle showed up, but we couldn’t go because we were all huddled around a baggage carousel, waiting for our suitcases to appear. Finally, the woman in charge of the dozen of us — it was beginning to seem like a field trip now — told us we’d just have to go to Ontario and fill out a lost-luggage claim form, and the airline would deliver our bags to our homes later that day.
Now, I have a rather fertile imagination, but I cannot think of anything less likely to actually occur than what that woman told us. The airline would bring the bags to our homes? THAT SAME DAY? They couldn’t even get them from the airplane to the baggage carousel inside of two hours, but we’re supposed to believe they could get them to our houses before the day was over? Not even in a parallel universe, where apes evolved from men and horses ride on people, would that happen.
Fortunately, the bags showed up just as we were getting on the shuttle, and we didn’t have to trust the apparently soon-to-improve luggage-handling capabilities of United Airlines.
By the time I actually reached my parents’ house, it had been seven hours since I left my apartment in Provo — two hours less than it would have taken if I’d driven my car. A nine-hour drive is all it is, and there’s no Shatner involved. Next time, that’s how I’m going.
The Evanston crack seems to come out of nowhere, and it's true: I only included it because I wanted to continue the tradition of making fun of the town in the first column of every new year.
New word alert: "unencumbered" and "execrable."
The part about the parallel universe made me giggle a lot, I don't know why. "A planet where apes evolved from men" is a Charlton Heston line (more or less) from "Planet of the Apes." The second half of it, about horses riding on people, was my favorite out of several possibilities I thought of: where houses live in people, where computers type on people, where shoes wear people, where babies eat dingoes, where cows milk people, etc.
The paragraph beginning "Actually, the excuse they gave us was: fog" began life in this post-column commentary; originally, I never said in the column itself what excuse the airline had given. Once I began writing, though, I realized that fog is ALWAYS what they blame stuff on, so I put it in the column. You'll notice that if you take out the word "anyway" from the beginning of the next paragraph, you could remove the fog paragraph altogether and not disturb the flow of the column in the slightest. (In fact, for newspaper publication, that's exactly what we did: We removed the fog paragraph, because with it, the column was way too long, even by my standards.)
The only consolation I had in the whole miserable United Airlines experience was that I kept thinking, "Maybe this will make a good column." Maybe I was wrong about that, but at least it got me through the moment.