Air travel in the 21st century has become something of a bad joke. After all, how many of us can tell stories of eternal layovers in America’s finest airports? In The Terminal, Tom Hanks plays a character that was stranded in an airport for several months. How many of us have felt the same way from time to time? I sure have.

My job requires a fair amount of travel, which I usually enjoy. But when it comes to air travel, I often have a sharp pain behind my eyes from the anticipation brought on by the organized chaos that is otherwise known as our nation’s airline system. Since the horrific events of September 1, 2001, we’ve been met with every security shortfall one could imagine.

Last year, I was in Michigan when the new “liquid” ban went into place. I was traveling with a colleague who had quite a few bottles of makeup that she had to surrender. Of course, we were supposed to cheer the fact that the FBI was able to work with their British counterparts in stopping an imminent threat from bombing by a Coke bottle. Of course, I was supposed to feel safer.

Sure, I felt safer when I was asked to remove my belt, shoes, and glasses. I felt very safe when my bags were searched at every opportunity even though I travel on a regular basis. I feel safe and secure every time I get onto a tiny turboprop plane that gets tossed about in turbulence. Thank God for those liquid bans… without which, I might have actually been able to quench my thirst.

The 2006 film Superman Returns repeated the classic line of the 1976 classic superhero film about flying: “It’s still the safest way to travel.” Apparently, Supes forgot that it’s also the most frustrating way to travel. Not everyone can just leap into the air at the speed of light and turn time backwards. Oh, how we wish we could sometimes!

This past week was yet another foray into the debacle of modern airline travel, which was a comedy of errors from start to finish. My colleagues and I had just spent a few days on the east coast for business. After several long days, we were glad to be on our way to the next destination. Our itinerary was to fly from Savannah to Atlanta, and then drive to our next assignment.

It was a nice idea.

While in Savannah, we were waiting for our flight to take off. There was already a storm delay of about a half hour, which was pretty typical. I was glad it wasn’t any longer. Alas, it was just the beginning. “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you waiting for the flight to Atlanta, there will be a longer delay as the aircraft has a flat tire.”

The attendant said it would be at least another half hour, but that we would be on our way shortly. Nearly everyone in the waiting area craned their necks to see which tire was flat. Again, since this was the 21st century, we knew this kind of thing could happen.

After another hour, the airplane’s captain picked up the microphone. “Um… Ladies and gentlemen, this flight will have to be delayed another two hours at least.” After a few not-so-polite groans, he continued, “The reason that the tire was flat is because the brake on that wheel overheated, and will need to be replaced. We’re having a part flown in, but it won’t be here for at least two hours.”

There was already a line of people at the counter for those who wanted to rebook any tight layovers. The line immediately grew from a dozen people into nearly a hundred. After a lengthy discussion, my colleagues and I decided to go out into the lobby for dinner and then discuss what we should do from there.

Once outside the sterile area, we then decided to check out the ticket counter to see if we could get another flight. The line was just as long there since several flights had already been cancelled, so we decided to get in line before it got any longer.

I offered to call our travel agent so we could get it worked out. When I finally got a hold of them, their office was closed. “For travel emergencies, please call 1-866…” Since this was definitely an emergency, I called the number. During that conversation, I was able to have all three of our flights rebooked, and even got the hotels reserved for the night.

Alas, we weren’t able to get our bags, so we had to make do with what we had on. To be sure, a hotel bed is far better than an airport couch. I’ve slept on those before, and it’s no fun. We picked up another rental car, and began the short drive to the hotel… which was still under construction. I called the agent again to make sure we had the right one.

“Yes, it’s the Country Inn & Suites.”

“But it’s under construction… can I get directions?”

“Sure, you can call the property at…” so I did. I then realized that she had made the reservation at a hotel in Atlanta. We called her back to clarify, and she obviously misunderstood our present location. We were still in Savannah. Fortunately, we were able to find a hotel nearby that had rooms available.

After a sleepless night (due to my sleep disorder), we made the trek back to the airport the next morning for an 8:30AM flight. Since we had already checked in the night before, we didn’t have to stop at the ticket counter again. When we arrived at the gate, we got there only to see that the flight had been delayed again. Apparently, the crew needed an additional hour of rest.

Our travel day lasted another five hours and included a lengthy wait for our luggage in Atlanta. But in the end, we have gotten so used to endless delays that they’ve become standard. Our only saving grace was the fact that we had allowed for plenty of time for possible delays. I’m glad we did.

Is it possible that we’ve become so used to substandard service from our country’s airlines that we’re no longer outraged? Why wouldn’t an airline (in this case, Delta) have commonly-replaced parts of all their equipment at all locations? Why should passengers constantly be given the boot for their own maladies and scheduling conflicts?

A lot of these frustrations begin with the idea of “security.” I think it’s clear that we’ve sacrificed a great deal of personal liberty whenever we fly. Most airport restaurants will have metal forks and plastic knives. Cameras are everywhere. What have we gained? We certainly haven’t gained common sense.

Franklin once said that if we sacrificed liberty for security, we’d have neither. He must have been talking about airline travel.

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