Early morning. I took a 30-minute taxi ride from my hotel in Shannon to the Colbert train station in Limerick. I have a 7:40 train to Dublin, then, bus or taxi to the airport for a flight to Amsterdam. At Schiphol, I will put my big suitcase in their luggage locker for the weekend, then take the train to Amsterdam Central Station. There I will stash my day bag and computer in those lockers and then walk to The Red Boot to meet Sjoerd.
That is the plan. Right now I am at Colbert with a lot of logistics in front of me. I was nearly already de-railed yesterday when KLM cancelled my 1:30 flight to Amsterdam from Dublin. For weather they said. Weather. Almost a full day before the flight is due to leave, they cancel because of weather? So I called, was put on hold for 30 minutes and finally was re-booked on an Air Lingus flight. And get this. It also leaves at 1:30 and is a code share flight with KLM. So KLM, apparently did not have enough bookings so cancelled their flight—but to avoid penalties, called it weather related even though all other airlines are flying and even though it was 18 hours before the flight left. They then re-book the ones they can based on availability onto the Air Lingus flight and they win, but a bunch of other passengers lose. KLM was once one of the world’s great airlines, but they have sadly declined to the sort of short-term profit grab mentality as the other airlines.
I need to quit traveling. The insanity of the logistics and greed and indifference of the airline companies is too much. They have us by the balls and they know it.
On the train now; the Irish countryside is rushing past at 160kph. A blurry landscape of endless shades of green and brown. Farm and fields, woods, fields, a few small homes, more woods, fields divided by rock walls and it repeats endlessly. It’s very beautiful of course. I really love the train systems of Europe. It’s not clear to me why America never really developed a train culture. I’ve heard all the easy theories and explanations, but never anything that sounded like a true analysis or historical accounting of how and why train travel proliferated all around the world except here. It’s too bad—it would be nice to take a train from Columbus to Chicago in 2 hours or New York in 6.
We pass small farm after small farm. Pigs, cows, goats, sheep. In America, we have massive, factory farms which is mostly what we see from the highways. They need to be near the big trucking lanes. Nothing is too big for America. If having 100 pigs is good, having 3,000 must be so much better. But the industrial farms are environmentally problematic. And less hygienic. And generally more offensive. But that’s America. We will just do it bigger than everyone else by damn and don’t worry about the consequences.
To see the small farms in America, which I presume still exist, one must travel the backroads.
I shall never fly again. Ever. After this trip. And I am back home. I am beaten by this system. I will arrive in Amsterdam broken. A shell. It’s the rise of the machines and the idiocy of corporate mentality and greed.
Afternoon now. Dublin International.
These fucking machines. Air Lingus, check-in was the beginning of a series of fiasco’s. There was a very long line to get checked in by a human. There are perhaps 200 people in line and 2 humans checking them in. These are not your frequent flyers. These are the inexperienced flyers with complicated itineraries and the types of issues that require an experienced agent, a sophisticated computer system, patience, and a lot of time. That line will move slower than a herd of turtles stampeding through peanut butter.
Reluctantly and with a strong premonition about the outcome, I approach the first fully automated check-in machine. I put in my credentials in the form of booking reference code. Check. I put my bag on the scale. Check. I produce my passport and feed it into the slot with the dancing red light. Nothing.
I repeat the process at two other machines. A beautiful young Air Lingus lass approaches and I make eye contact and ask for help—she sticks her index finger in the air and mouths ‘I’ll be back in a minute’. That was a lie. I never saw her again. I wander around the check-in area with my best helpless and confused look and finally attraction the attention of a clone of the first green-clad female Irish drone. She informs me that the machines that are used for check in, this particular style and model of machine in particular, are very poor readers of passports. This is a known problem then, that is allowed to exist with no warning and no indication that these machines that are fully visible and presented as functioning, are in fact, nothing more than industrial art. She directs my gaze across the way to another set of machines. Older, clunkier, larger and uglier. They are inelegant, but I am told, still functional. I take the bait and off I go. This machine indeed does scan my passport and produces a boarding pass. I notice there is no mechanism for weighing my bag, but pretend not to. I make my way back to the main check-in area and once again assume my character role of lost and confused. Again, I am intercepted after a few minutes by yet another smiling female elf. She asks for my boarding pass, which I produce. She takes me back to one of the art displays that cannot read passports. But we now know I no longer need that functionality because the passport is merely a requirement to print the boarding pass.
I refuse to let the lovely elf leave as we go through the weighing procedure at the machine. The scale works and the screen says I owe 35 Euro because I do not get a free checked bag. I explain to her that I did have a free checked bag when I booked my ticket with KLM—who accepted my money for the ticket and then promptly cancelled my flight. For some reason I feel the need to tell her I suffered through a 45-minute phone call, while I was eating dinner, to get re-booked on the Leprechaun Airline when KLM chucked me over the fence. I suppose it was my desire for her to feel the weight of my level of displeasure with the entire experience.
The pleasant young professional agent took my attitude in stride and after cracking away on a separate computer terminal keyboard for 5 minutes came back to inform me that I was correct—my bag is indeed to fly for free. She dropped some leprechaun magic on the machine and a bag tag is produced. Now knowing I am incapable or unwilling to continue this journey alone, she escorts me to a bag drop that is 50 feet away in a different section—explaining along the way that the scanners on the bank of machines directly in front of us are not working. I chuck my bag on the conveyor—she scans it with the handheld RF device and my bag disappears, via conveyor, to the bowels of the airport where it will presumably make it’s way to my plane and eventually Amsterdam. Of course only if all the other machines we must rely on are functioning properly.
I quietly compliment myself on my good humor throughout that maze of incompetency.
Off I go to security. No TSA pre-check at Dublin airport, so I am in line with all the other suckers. It is a long line and I join right next to a large LCD screen informing us that the wait from this point is approximately 30 minutes. I am unamused but not overly pressed for time so it is a manageable inconvenience.
After only 15 minutes I arrive at a door and I think ‘wow, that was faster than expected’. I go through the door and discover I am in fact only half-way through the line. Yes, this in fact makes sense. The only technology here that seems to work is the sign telling us how much of our lives we have to give up waiting in line for the right to get molested by a TSA agent.
All that time in line gave me room to reflect back on the articles I have read over the years that point out how all this security nonsense is a waste of money and time. The process is magnificently ineffective and wrought through with gaps. Time after time, undercover security audit people manage to get through gums, ammunition, drugs. What have you. But we are kept scared through a constant barrage of reminders of airplane terrorism, which actually doesn’t make any list I’ve ever seen of the top 100 ways any of us is likely to meet our demise. if you don’t appear to take the whole shenanigan seriously, then you can be pulled out of line and pistol-whipped in front of colleagues and bystanders to be made an example of. Alas, here I am in. In this line.
It’s here that I take my vow to refuse to take another airplane trip. If my friends in Europe want to see me, they can visit. Or I will take a boat to Europe. Need to see Eric and Pierre in NYC? I’ll drive. Chicago for the weekend? Greyhound bus. Your kid’s getting married in Texas? I’ll send a gift card and look at photos online.
Do you have a belt on? Yes. Take it off. Okay, sure…..but just so just so you know, I’ve flown around 100 times with this belt and it never sets off the alarm. Take it off. Shoes? No, leave those on. Computers? Yes. iPads? No. Any liquids? No. Necklace? Yes. Let me see it. That’s okay. Watch? Yes. Let me see it. I pull up my sleeve and show him my watch. Better take if off—it might set off the alarm. No problem. You can just keep it if it will bring this nightmare to an end. Seriously, it’s a decent Rolex. Keep it. It’s just a bad reminder of my ex anyway.
I just want to go home.
I realize if I were a spy and were captured, I would crumble within 20 minutes. Mostly out of boredom and my natural impatience with being someplace I don’t want to be. But also out of sheer practicality of knowing that I would eventually cave when they got past the niceties and brought out the car batteries and ballpien hammer—so best to give it up right away. I’m no nationalist.
Not surprisingly, given how this day is going, my bag is pulled from the conveyor for further inspection.
I thought you said you had no liquids. I don’t. What is this? Hair gel. Sort of in that grey space between solid and liquid, I offered. Anyway, you can have it if you must. I can go native and be just fine. What’s this? Deodorant. I’m surprised you can’t tell by the label and packing, which actually says on it body deodorant. Stern look meant to convey security is no joke. But it is a joke, I think to myself. A laughable, hilarious, achingly bad hoax put over on millions of people every day. This? Ibuprofen. For back pain, although I expect I will eat that entire bottle before I get on the plane–just to see what happens. She expected to find 4 items, according to the guy manning the machine. But she can find only 3. She is nice and we find some good space as she pulls item after item out and not able to find the 4th offending piece of contraband from the terrorism bill of materials.
The deodorant, hair gel, and body lotion now need to be ‘re-scanned’ separately in their own little plastic bag. That’s the key I guess. When scanned inside a sandwich baggie, the offensive materials are rendered neutral and security is restored. My carry-on handbag must also be re-scanned alongside the baggie. The high-technology and uniforms and constant barrage of instructions are designed to make us believe that this army of security geniuses know what they are doing and is a critical step in keeping the world safe from terror.
I don’t mean that to sound mean-spirited. But I do mean to convey that if you are paying $11.50 an hour for a job that involves herding pissed off people already anxious from the travails of travel through long corrals and sorting through their luggage, you are unlikely to get many candidates with robust academic credentials. It seems more likely the candidates for this role might have been passed over for the 6-figure jobs that require focus, concentration, cognitive ability. Again, not a judgment or being mean-spirited, but we are meant to believe this is a serious process and therefore a serious and honest examination seems fair. I have a great sympathy for these people doing a job I would not want to do even for 4x the pay they receive.
Of course we also all know that anyone seriously intending to do harm, could join the security line at check-in and detonate themselves and kill several hundred people all densely packed together just before getting to the TSA checkpoint. Or a high school basketball game or the local water supply reservoir. But fear is the control mechanisms of choice and so here we are. Standing in line. Watching some poor woman suffer the indignity of having to comb through people’s personal things right in front of them and pretending as if it somehow makes sense.
The nice lady brings my things back to the table and resumes looking for the 4th item. She pulls everything out again, but there is no 4th item. She finds my two Kind dark chocolate and peanut bars and suggests I put those in a separate pocket so they are easy to find—she performs this task for me without my answering. She is earnest but finally gives up on the 4th item. She gives me a little smile that bonds us in our shared secret that we have exposed a flaw in this important process. She tells me to have a good flight and that I am released from further scrutiny.
Here’s the really funny thing. In my computer bag, which came through the X-ray machine unchallenged, has another deodorant and some hair gel which I forgot to put in my main suitcase because I thought about not taking the small carry-on and just using the computer bag for my weekend needs. Also tucked inside the computer bag; two small airline bottles of Monkey Shoulder. So, there is the security experience.
Later, at our boarding gate, I looked up from my iPad (still reading ‘Passage to Juneau’) and noticed everyone was getting up and leaving. I had not been paying attention to announcements so was uniformed of this new announcement, that of course, is never bringing good news (hey – everyone is getting upgraded today!). But then I heard someone say it appeared to be a gate change. There were two funny old men sitting across from me. I had noticed them before. Possibly brothers. Both were only around 5’2” or so and slight. Both had long and bushy salt and pepper beards, short slicked back hair and a small loop earring in their left ear. Interesting. But there’s more. They were wearing Harley biker type denim jackets, with Black Harley T-shirts. Their shirts said ‘God Squad” and one had another patch sewn on his jacket that said ‘Bikers for Jesus.’. Okay. Weird shit. Not by any stretch the weirdest I’ve ever seen, but a little odd. When people started moving to the other gate, a young woman sitting next to one of the two-wheeled disciples asked where everyone was going. His response; “it doesn’t matter. They are sheep. That’s what sheep do, just blindly follows others.” No smile. Just dead pan response and keep looking straight ahead. Huh? Seemed odd to me that a man devoted to following the teachings of someone dead for 2,000 years through multiple interpretations filtered through the lenses of plenty of people with agenda’s of their own would criticize someone for following others to a new gate. Later, I saw they joined the flock. Praise God.
The day got worse. These things seem to come in waves.
Our inbound flight was delayed, but we boarded only about 30 minutes late. After sitting fully loaded for 15 minutes, it was obvious something was amiss. Sure enough, it appeared to be the case that a bird strike had afflicted our plane on the inbound from Budapest. So, we reversed the boarding process and went and stood in line at our original gate. We boarded in about an hour—not bad for a plane change. Then sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes, working our way to the front of line of planes waiting for take off that went as far as the eye could see.
When we board, especially on international flights, the flight attendants first must see our ticket. They always want to know what seat we are sitting in. In fact, they insist on seeing our boarding pass to confirm we can interpret the complicated code of a number followed immediately by a letter and translate that information in to our proper place on the plane. They then point down the aisle, informing us with a serious look and a voice meant to convey profound wisdom, that the seats are numbered sequentially, starting at 1 and increasing linearly until you reach the back of the plane. Also, the seats laterally are assigned a letter from the alphabet. Not randomly mind you, but starting with the letter ‘A’ and then go through the alphabet across the plane until you bump into the window on the opposite side. The XXX alphabet mind you. Not Cyrillic, but standard English Alphabet.
In all my years of flying, I’ve never seen anyone confused by the seating system. It’s the same in Morocco as it is in New York, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Perth, Cairo, Sao Paulo. I wonder, if perhaps in the early years of air travel, seats were just randomly assigned names. Like maybe the very first seat was 44D and next to it was 9A. Or maybe it was the case that seats were named after state capitals in the order of most populated to least populated. So in that system, I would see the need for intervention. Detailed explanations.
But with the current system, which every 6-year old in the world can figure out, we are not allowed to pass that checkpoint until the plane guards see for themselves your seat assignment. They don’t walk you down and dust the dirt off the seat or help put luggage up, they just make the gesture. So even when we re-boarded after our plane change, they must repeat this process now for a 2nd time, slowing us down even further. This important step must not be skipped. They get especially annoyed with those of us who have already re-stowed our boarding pass and passport as we juggle all our gear. We are now the problem slowing everyone down. Not the 101 ways they have invented solutions to non-existent problems. We could fill an encyclopedia with the lunacy of International air travel, but this particular process irritates me. Obviously. All part of the grand plan to reinforce that we are the cows and they are the cowboys—wielding the cattle prod of TSA and the inevitable ‘it’s for your own safety’ bullshit.
There was a certain amount of bitching from some customers—always interesting to see who the vocal ones are. Sometimes it’s surprising. Today it was one of the God Squad and a strikingly beautiful young woman who was seriously pissed off and letting us all know. I was of course frustrated at the loss of time, at the whole circus fiasco, but I keep my thoughts to myself—instead choosing to express my dissatisfaction with withdrawn body language and ear plugs in listening to something that pleases me. Perspective is critical at these times, but it it not always easy. Occasionally flights and trains and buses synchronize and travel plans work out the way they are painstakingly stitched together, but just as often they don’t. The key is to know going in that there is an almost inevitability that there will be missed connection or some mishap that cuts into the precious hours of personal time that we are allowed in the modern work environment.
Anyway, after a massive multi-cultural 90-minute clusterfuck, we got back on a plane that we presume is tough enough to withstand an attack from a suicidal pigeon.
I’m pretty self-aware. I am plagued with an almost OCD like habit of introspection. So I am keenly aware that this bitchiness; these bitter observation may sound angry. But I honestly long ago accepted the craziness that is modern air travel. I am calm and pretty casual about the whole thing—as I have already noted, assuming there will be delays and crank fellow passengers and general mayhem. It is just interesting to note and write about.
Like all frequent travelers, I somehow feel as if these tactics for moving crowds of humanity through the rigors of senseless security measures to an embarking point and wedged into our designated transportation pod like sardines in a tin can, somehow should not apply to me. I am no fan of the long international flights, with the regular feedings and childishly simplistic routines even as I recognize the necessity of them—can you imagine 240 people milling about at will with alcohol and probably at least 1/4 on some kind of sleep aid.
I hate feeling like I am being managed. I don’t like to be told what to do. And airlines are all about controlling and managing; with the heavy weight of International terror for leverage, the simple-minded gate agent can disrupt a two-week holiday with a simple phone call.
We are mid-flight now. I have my two bottles of Monkey Shoulder that I will soon drink with a touch of water. And then, assuming we land at Schiphol, things will seem brighter and perhaps I can come back and wrap up this dark entry with some stories of fun and friendship with Sjoerd and Onah.
KLM and Air Lingus, and perhaps a suicidal bird, have conspired to steal approximately 3 hours of my time and for this I remain unamused. Unforgiving. At least for now. A few drinks in to the night, I may even resolve to board a plane again sometime—if properly incented to do so.
I find that incented does not appear to be a word. But it seems like it should be. I’ve pondered on this before. Motivated is a bit too common and incentivized is proper, apparently, but clunky. Incented seems like a reasonable contraction, but I cannot verify its authenticity.