Delta Bad Hand

I’ve always maintained that the airline industry is the most incompetent organization in the world, coming out ahead of even the U.S. Postal Service and communism in terms of ineffectiveness and disorganization.

Granted, the airlines have been under extraordinary duress in recent months. However, the effect of this has merely been that now, in addition to being incompetent, the airlines are also paranoid and delirious. It’s like going up to a man who’s already insane and telling him his rear end is on fire.

My experience last week while trying to return to Utah after Christmas was the topper. I don’t think I’d fly again now if I sprouted wings and a beverage cart.

I don’t want to say which airline I was dealing with, so we’ll call it Shmelta. When I checked in, the Shmelta representative said the flight would be delayed slightly. This was not a terrible inconvenience, because due to increased security requirements, I had arrived at the airport 17 hours early anyway. What’s another 30 minutes on top of that?

So I had lunch at the airport Shmapplebee’s, read a book, loitered, frittered, puttered and dilly-dallied. Fifty minutes after the scheduled departure, we were allowed to board the plane. Thirty minutes after that, the plane headed down the runway. Then, instead of going faster, we started to slow down.

Now, I don’t know a lot about airplanes, but I do know that in order to get off the ground, you have to be going fast. We were told there were “mechanical problems,” and we deplaned so they could fix them. We waited in the terminal for another two hours, and then were allowed to board the plane again. (I found it amusing that as we boarded, they checked our IDs again at the door — as if a terrorist would have waited that long. Can you picture him, chilling out in the terminal, reading a John Grisham novel, making conversation with other passengers about how he’ll never fly on Shmelta again?)

After another half-hour of sitting on the plane, we were hustled off again, and the flight was canceled. Apparently, all the boarding and un-boarding was just for practice. There were no more flights to Salt Lake City that night, so Shmelta booked us on the first flight the next morning and put us up in a nearby hotel for the night.

If you think the nightmare was essentially over now, you have overlooked the possibility that the hotel might not give me the wake-up call I requested, and I might wake up with only 40 minutes to spare before the plane took off. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Fortunately, I was sleeping on the world’s most uncomfortable bed — a document verifying this hangs on the hotel room wall — and I was waking up frequently anyway. At one point, I turned on the TV to see what time it was and discovered it was 90 minutes past the time I had asked to be woken up. I was going to miss my flight! This may not have occurred literally, but figuratively, I immediately and completely voided my bladder all over the bedsheets.

Frantic at the thought of missing my flight, I sprang from the world’s most uncomfortable bed and tried to remember how to do anything. I could not remember how clothes go on a person’s body, or what shoes look like, or whether it’s hands or feet that you’re supposed to walk on. I stagger-lurched blindly down to the lobby, gurgled something about a shuttle to the airport and issued a few choice words regarding to the person from whom I had requested the wake-up call. A shuttle-van driver who clearly had been in this situation before tried to calm me, but if you have ever tried to soothe the nerves of a person who is about to miss his flight and who is unshowered and untoothbrushed and who is pretty sure he has forgotten his underclothing in the hotel room, you will know that it is impossible. I felt like an insane man whose rear end was on fire.

I made it through the security checkpoint in record time, and learned that if you’re an unkempt, wild-eyed individual in a tremendous hurry to get through the metal detectors, the national guardsmen will look at you and your shoes very suspiciously.

Fortunately, I got on the plane with seconds to spare, and I was in Utah a couple hours later. I’ve never been so happy to be in the Beehive State. The people at Shmelta will surely be getting an angry letter from me, too, though there’s every chance the post office will lose it.

Believe me, I'm as tired of writing about air travel as you are of reading about it. But it seems like every time I fly, something column-worthy happens. My first column of 2001 was also about flying, so perhaps it's a New Year's tradition.

This is some people's favorite type of column, where I talk about stuff that happened to me. It's probably my favorite, too, except that not enough stuff happens to me to write about it very often.