Have you had this experience yet? You have a trip planned to some distant locale (maybe, like me recently, from one coast to the other) for which the best you can do is two flights, one to a midpoint airport where you will change planes to get your second flight, which will take you to your destination city. The airline has provided for an hour layover at the first city, which sounds good; it should provide enough time to have a meal before you queue up for the second flight. Grabbing a bite is desirable, since you know you aren’t going to be offered much beyond peanuts or pretzels on either flight, and you are looking at ten hours, all told, of travel, which is a long time to go between meals.
As you think about the layover, you start to contemplate what could go wrong. The first flight could be delayed, a not at all uncommon occurrence. The gate at the major airport where your second flight boards might end up being in a different terminal (one only connected to the one where your flight lands by a metro system that is not unlike traveling a few miles in a major city). And maybe your seat on the first flight is in row 42, meaning just getting off the plane will take a good fifteen minutes from the time the pilot gets the plane to the gate.
These very real possibilities are all stress inducing, especially if you really need to catch that connecting flight (more often the case than not) for any number of entirely reasonable reasons. But another delay has started to create problems for the stressful travel scenario I have just described, and it is occurring with ever greater frequency. Your first flight actually lands on time (or maybe even a little early, as your pilot proudly announces). Great, you think; now, even if I do have to find my way to a different terminal for my connecting flight, I’ll still have time to grab a snack. But then, as you are taxiing, the plane stops short of the gate. The pilot then informs you that because you arrived early (or for some other reason), your gate is currently occupied by another plane, and so you’ll have to wait for the gate to be cleared.
That wait can be agonizingly long. The longest I’ve experienced so far has been 30 minutes, but even the shortest has been around 10. What is causing these unanticipated gate delays? The airlines aren’t saying, but the answer seems obvious. We have demands on our airport infrastructure (specifically, the number of gates servicing the number of airlines and the number of daily flights) that are becoming increasingly difficult to meet. Simply stated, we have too many flights going to airports that have too few gates to accommodate the traffic. As a result, air controllers have no choice but to order planes that have landed to wait until an empty gate can be provided.
Some people are better equipped to deal with these circumstances than others. I will readily admit that I worry about missing connecting flights more than I should. My wife is far better at dealing with these vagaries of air travel. But I don’t like air travel to start with. I don’t like having to pay to check my luggage, and I don’t like carrying it on the plane and having to hoist in up to an overhead bin to save the $25 per bag. I don’t like having to take off my shoes and my belt and then being subjected to a pat down anyway because I forget to take my house keys out of my pocket at the security check.
I also don’t like being squeezed into a seat that is too small for comfortable travel with too little leg space and too many crying children whose parents don’t seem to consider how irritating their adorable little ones are to grumpy guys like me. I don’t like being handed a bag of pretzels or peanuts along with a plastic cup of juice as the sole sustenance the airline is willing to give me for a four-hour flight.
I also don’t like being advised to keep my seatbelt fastened even when the seatbelt sign is turned off “in case we experience sudden unexpected turbulence.” Really? I mean if any such unexpected turbulence would be so severe as to make wearing one’s seatbelt advisable, then why am I allowed to ever leave my seat to use the restroom or otherwise stretch my legs? Am I not then at risk of serious injury should such an episode of “sudden unexpected turbulence” occur while I’m up and about?
I have a friend who is a former pilot. He assures me that flying is the safest way to get anywhere. I’m sure he’s right, or at least I assume he’s right. But then something like what happened on my latest trip gives me pause.
We were waiting at our gate to board our flight when the gate attendant announced that the flight would be delayed for a last-minute maintenance check. “Just a minor issue,” she said. “Shouldn’t delay us by more than a few minutes.” More than a few minutes later, the captain came in from his plane. “Folks,” he said. “I just want to explain the delay. My co-pilot found a small piece of plastic that was loose on one of the wings when he was doing his walk-around, and we alerted maintenance. The plastic is of no consequence, and they will just remove it and then we’ll be good to go.”
Another 30 minutes had passed when the gate attendant made this announcement: “Folks,” she said, “after removing the plastic strip, the maintenance crew found a defect in the wing that could pose a safety risk in flight, so we are going to move to another gate and fly in a different plane.” That news caused me to think of three unsettling questions. First, why didn’t the maintenance crew find the piece of plastic and the underlying safety risk before the co-pilot did his walk-around? Second, if the co-pilot had not seen the piece of plastic would we have actually flown in an unsafe plane? And, third, with so many flights now scheduled in so many airports in so many planes that might have been pushed through not-quite adequate safety checks, just how safe are we in the friendly skies?
I’m going to fly again in spite of the crowded conditions, the crying babies, and the meager sustenance I’ll be provided. I’m going to accept a booking from an airline that will require me to change planes at an airport where my departing gate will be in another terminal and I’ll only have an hour between flights. I’m going to stress about getting to that gate in time. I’m probably going to make it, but I might not have time to grab a snack along the way because my first flight will either have been delayed or landed on time and then had to wait for an open gate. And I’m going to hope that co-pilots do diligent walk-arounds, knowing that overworked maintenance crews just can’t catch everything.
I’m going to fly again—many times—because I have places to go and people to visit and things to do and sights to see. I’m going to fly again, but I’m not going to like it, and I won’t really feel safe until I get where I’m going.