Tag Archives: United Airlines

Ode to Hubris

One-hundred-five years ago today, one of modernity’s great achievements sank alone in the icy waters of the chilled North Atlantic. While the ultimate cause of Titanic’s demise may have been an iceberg, the proximate cause was surely much more common. Human arrogance, we’re reminded daily, never learns its lesson. Despite what elected officials tell us, arrogance at the top will always lead according to its surfeit of self-confidence. After all, there are no icebergs this far south so late in the year. It seems that we’ll never forget Titanic and the hundreds of needless deaths, but somehow we’re not very good at transferring the lesson to other media. Let me give just a small example.

Yesterday I was in New York City. My family came during the day to celebrate my wife’s birthday. One of the benefits of New Jersey Transit is that after 7 p.m. on a Friday, a monthly bus pass also works on the train. I can meet up with my family after work and we can ride home in comfort instead of taking the bus, such as I usually do. We didn’t know that at 3:30 that afternoon a train had broken down in one of the limited number of tunnels under the Hudson. (Governor Chris Christie had famously stopped work on another set of tunnels to ease the commute.) About twelve-hundred passengers sat for an amazing three hours with no lights, air conditioning, or announcements. No trains could make it into New York’s Penn Station. When we arrived, oblivious, just before 7 p.m. there were people pouring out of the station. Coats and clothing were strewn all over the steps, as if the homeless had been raptured. The police told my wife and daughter not to go down. A few minutes later they said, “Definitely no shots were fired.” When we got to the platform all the monitors read about half-past five. Discarded clothing was everywhere. It was only when we finally got on a train that we learned that in the anxious terminal where crowds were restless, Amtrak police had tazed a man. People thought shots had been fired, and panicked. The video taken by those in the station shows people running, dropping clothes, luggage, and shoes in their haste to flee. Just after this, we’d arrived.

Titanic, it seems to me, is about building something so massive that it can’t be controlled. Human arrogance is like that. This week we heard about United Airlines security beating up a passenger to make room for company employees who needed to be on an oversold flight. Just a couple weeks back another New Jersey Transit train derailed in Penn Station, disrupting for days the insane commute some of us undertake daily. Who’s the captain of this ship? Oh. But we don’t have to worry. There are no icebergs this far south this late in the year.

United We Fly

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I’m on a flight from New York to London. This wasn’t a trip I particularly wanted to take (what business trip ever is?). I don’t like flying, and changing time zones takes days off my life. Bowing to the inevitable, I dutifully checked in yesterday. However, that didn’t go quite as planned. I’m flying United. I generally take United since they offer many destinations out of Newark, and who wants to cross Manhattan to get to JFK or Laguardia? I’ve actually become rather fond of United’s snack boxes. Since I’m so 1990s, I decided to check in on their website. Two or three pages in, they stopped me and suggested I should use my cell phone. This is much preferred, I’m told. Well, I do have a cell phone, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to access it in the UK. Still, this is the way things are done these days. I had United’s app on my phone from a previous flight, so I happily typed in my confirmation number, to fly the friendly skies. Since this is an international flight, I have to scan in my passport. That’s a bit worrisome, but the app says to do it and who can argue with an app? Click. My passport is being encrypted and verified. I’m free to go. Then the message pops up. I can’t check in.

I’m old enough to know how to use a landline. I called United. The agent was very friendly, just like the skies, but clearly couldn’t comprehend the complexity of my issue. One, I couldn’t check in. Two, my passport had been sent to somebody, but who was it? United? Some foreign government? James Bond? I didn’t mean to make the guy nervous, but this is my passport we’re talking about! He said he would transfer me to tech support. The call was transferred. The cheery female robot asked me if I wanted a $100 Wal-Mart card. I should press one. I don’t support Wal-Mart so I didn’t press one. She cheerfully insisted. I resisted. She came back on and said that I could press any button for a Wal-Mart card. When I didn’t comply, she hung up on me. I called United again.

This time the agent assured me I would have a human response at tech support. I heard the two tones connecting me with a guy who sounded surprised to hear a voice from the outside world. It was like he was speaking from a dank basement somewhere. He had no idea where my passport scan went either. He suggested deleting the app and then downloading it again. Start the process over. Reboot, as it were. I know the reboot drill, but I was worried about my passport scan. Where had it gone? If his solution worked, at least one problem would be solved. I could check in and reserve my place on the flight (ironically, buying a ticket isn’t enough to do that). I confirmed the instructions with my light-deprived docent. I asked, in parting, what I should do about my missing passport scan. His advice was the very image of an ouroboros. “You might try calling customer service,” he said. I don’t like flying.

Flight of Fancy

I’m about fully recovered from my recent visit to Texas. Travel is perhaps the greatest form of education. After having my regular government pat-down, and hearing the airport loudspeakers warning me not even to joke with a TSA official, I was in a subdued mood as I awaited my flight. Airlines have learned to fine-tune human vanity. I know they are hurting for money, as many deregulated industries are, and there must be a marketing trick to get people to pay different prices for the arriving at the same destination at the same time. One of the most ridiculous is that of United Airlines’ Priority Access. Don’t get me wrong, I like United Airlines well enough. Their service has generally been on time, and they make being a human sardine as comfortable as possible. Some of the in-flight snacks, if you can afford them, are actually pretty tasty. But first you have to get onto the plane.

Of course, active duty military are free to board at any time. Tree-hugging pacifists, wait your turn. The part that really gets to me is that those held in special esteem by the Airline (i.e., those who can afford to pay more) are invited to board via the “Priority Access Lane.” This “lane” is created by laying a ratty carpet on the left side (or right side, for some gates) of an imaginary line composed of a couple of those retractable belt stanchions. To the left, sheep. To the right, goats. (Or vice-versa. We’re pretty hard to tell apart.) I’ve written about this before, but what caught my attention this time around was that a seeing-eye dog was boarded along with his human, via the “Priority Access Lane.” As I watched my canine brother sauntering towards the jetway, I was lost in thought. Not one sparrow falls to the ground. The privileged are boarding with a dog.

On my return trip home, at the ironically named George Bush International Airport, every few minutes a public announcement was broadcast about the interfaith chapel. Passengers were told that it was available 24 hours a day, and were given its precise location. Over the past couple of years I’ve had to fly a lot. I always notice the airport chapels, and I feel for those who are anxious about flying. I’ve never heard such a p-a announcement encouraging use of these chapels before. Perhaps I’m too fixated on how I never get to walk down the “Priority Access Lane.” I know my place; I was born among the working class, and when the plane goes down, I’ll be among my own kind. But I do feel sorry for the dog. He has no choice but to be classed with those who are, in the airline’s opinion, of higher priority than the common citizen. Next time I think I’ll just wait in the chapel, contemplating how god spelled backward is dog.

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