First World Problems: The Travails of Travel

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August 24, 2017

It is easy to become impatient about inconvenience.

This tendency readily shows in a culture obsessed with travel and instantaneity. Our interesting saga New Year’s Day 2014 at SeaTac International Airport illustrates this. After spending wonderful seven days with our son and his wife and our grandkids on Bainbridge Island, and with our daughter in Bellevue, it was time to retreat into our Alaska cocoon.

After checking in electronically the night before, our boarding passes were all spiffed up and ready to go on our iPhones. Several people had told us that New Year’s Day “is a great time to travel. The lines are so short and the planes are half empty.”

Our practice the prior 10 or 12 years had been to arrive at the airport 60 to 90 minutes early. The airlines always say to show up two hours early. That announcement materialized after the 911 tragedy in 2001.

After numerous times zipping through check-in and security in 15 to 20 minutes, then waiting for 60 – 90 minutes for something to happen, we reduced the advance time. It worked fine. Whether in Anchorage, Dallas-Fort Worth, Seattle, or Tulsa (our usual points of arrival and departure) it’s about the same.

Especially Tulsa.


Tulsa Airport Authority: TSA pretty much always looks like this

Normally there are not even enough people there to be identified as a line. In fact, I’ve been tempted to asked the friendly local TSA agent if they’d like a little excitement to enliven their day.

My more mature self has prevailed in such instances.

Having lived in this semi-denial for 10 or more years, it was a shock to see the crowd at the Alaska Airlines ticket counter January 1, 2014. Due to our early check-in, we sauntered past toward the baggage check service desks. The mass of crowds was bewildering. “What! On New Years Day?”

What about what all those people said? Don’t these travelers realize this is a holiday? What happened to my grand idea?

We went to the end of one of what must have been 35 or 40 lines and started our waiting period. This process began at about 7 a.m. Our flight was scheduled for 8 AM. By previous experience, we were in good shape.

After about 10 minutes in this line, an Alaska Airlines official came and told a gaggle of us at the ends of these lines that we needed to move to another cluster of baggage acceptance desks. Obediently, we took up our luggage and walked.

We chose another unpromising queue at a collection of kiosks three sections away. What to our wondering eyes should appear, but a young man at the head of the line, on the floor, unpacking and re-organizing two suitcases.

Each agent at the baggage kiosk had two lines to serve. While this young man fussed with his luggage, both queues were at a standstill. The agent finally got him squared away and off to the concourse.

The next man encountered a reservation problem. Evidently he came too late to board. So, at the baggage desk, the agent patiently dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s necessary to give him another reservation on another plane. This process involved a phone call or two by the agent while everybody waited.

The clock ticked. (No, wait, there’s no sound from our clocks these days, is there?) Why was he doing this here and not at the ticket counter? The inconvenience of it all started tweaking our brains. He was quietly apologetic to us waiters-in-line when he finally left.

The agent served one more person, then called out to her exasperated would-be travelers that we’d have to find other lines, since she had to “fix a reservation”.

Shop Closed

Scanning the scene, we moved over to a shorter queue. At the head, a beleaguered traveler was facing some issue, requiring phone calls and delay. Since the departure time of our plane was advancing relentlessly, we scanned the chaos.

To our rear, at another cluster of baggage acceptance desks, I spied a desk agent with only two people waiting. The 8 to 10 people in the twin line served by the same agent were evidentially blissfully unaware of the opportunity. Annette and I grabbed it. (Perhaps we could have a philosophical discussion about my lack of Christian generosity at that point.)

Finally, we made it to an agent. This was our fourth attempt. The ironic result of the first floor agent moving us and several others to another cluster of baggage check service desks was that instead of gaining time, we lost it. As the agent was helping us, I told him of my surprise at the crowd early on New Year’s morning, and of the numerous people who had affirmed to me that making arrangements to fly on that morning was a good decision.

He said, “They lied. They lied.”

When our bag was checked, and we were ready to go, I asked him where we should head to access the “N” gates. He said, “Checkpoint 5.” Arriving there, our difficulty deepened. The assemblage of humanity was as large as I had seen it at a checkpoint for years. After some 20 minutes in a molasses queue, a TSA agent announced, “Checkpoint 3 is larger, and there are no lines and no waiting!” But now we were four people removed from seeing the agent to check our boarding passes, so stay put we did.

Finally, it was done. We took the underground train to gate N8. Meanwhile the gate had been changed to N9, since we first obtained our boarding passes. A quick backtrack brought us there. It was 8:02 as we passed onto the jetway to board the plane, 2 minutes after scheduled departure.

Were we late? No. The plane left 20 minutes after it was supposed to, so we could actually have arrived at the airport 10 minutes later than we did.

So, why did we even consider being disgruntled? I guess it’s the American way. Instantaneous results are what we demand.

Since we don’t have to scrounge for food on a daily basis, we need something else to keep us disconcerted. And disconcerted we often are.

But at what price? We were safe. We arrived home. Life continued.

Our culture is infused with impatience, and too often I let it infect me.

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