Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Disservice Industry

by James Howard Kunstler

Comment on current events by the author of
The Long Emergency
(2005) (September 27 2010)

Let's put aside for a few moments the moral insanity of anyone - myself for instance - flying in airplanes hither, thither, and yon in order to make a living. Don't worry, we'll return to this. But for now, let's just consider the exorbitant sadism of the airlines and the quality of experience in traveling with them.

I had to get from Detroit to New Orleans via Atlanta last week on Delta. We boarded the Atlanta flight on time, a small miracle in itself these days and a sign of smooth sailing ahead. Everyone adjusted his/her personal air blower, deployed reading material, drew the window shade against the low evening sun, and waited ... waited ... waited for something to happen - such as, for the jetway to retract, the aircraft to push back from the gate, the flight attendants to commence the vaudeville of flight safety. None of this occurred.

By and by, someone in the cockpit got on the PA system and said, "Uh, folks [note: the ominous salutation, folks, intended to convey a sense of solidarity, an aura of 'we're all in this together' camaraderie] folks, we've been instructed to put on a little extra fuel in case we have to fly around some weather en route. It'll take a couple of minutes and we have to fill out some paperwork, and then we'll be off. We apologize and thanks for your patience."

Nobody is grateful for this apology. It is very easy to sense what is going on in the seats all around me. Everybody's brain is whirring at warp speed doing calculations to arrive at some notion as to whether they will make their connection and the conclusions all around tend to the grim side of the equation. Time ticks by and, still, nothing happens. We sit. The flight attendants pass down and up the aisle pretending to be busy, stopping to issue claims of incomplete knowledge as to what's going on - intended to serve as reassurance (and which, you understand, only creates more anxiety).

More than "a couple of minutes" have gone by. Way more. More like seventeen couples of minutes. But the temporal range in airline travel, especially among denizens of the cockpit, differs apparently from the measure of time in other realms of modern life. It's highly impressionistic, squishy, imprecise. If you asked the co-pilot, for instance, how old he is, he might tell you he is thirteen - because to him it seems like only "a couple" of years has gone by since he sat in middle school gazing out the window at the clouds (and how, for some strange reason, they all looked like women's breasts to him).

The other possibility, of course, is that they lie. They lie incessantly, reflexively, remorselessly, pathologically. After all, what percentage is there in it for them to tell the truth - which is: you are all going to miss your connections and we don't really give a shit because we get paid whether you get there on time or not, and anyway it's not our problem. They lie also because there are always x-number of credulous schlemiels on every flight who are reassured by their lies, even if they are transparently at odds with what is actually happening.

About fifty minutes after our scheduled departure, a miracle! We push back. It is a pretty low-grade miracle as they go, because the majority of passengers with connections in Atlanta are all suffering in their personal globes of despair. I am fully aware that I have no hope mathematically of making my connection to New Orleans and I begin to plot out how I will find a room in some airport hotel ... and I picture a line about thirty persons long at the under-staffed service desk where I will have to go upon landing to arrange for a flight out the following morning, and I endure a little shudder of anguish imagining a supper of Chips Ahoy cookies and Diet Coke from the hotel vending machine, which will be my only "food service choice" at, say, 10:15 when I finally get to the hotel, which is guaranteed to be miles away from anything resembling a dispensary of actual meal-type food, even if one happens to be open somewhere in Atlanta at that late hour ...

An announcement from the cockpit: "Well, folks, the good news is we're taxiing out to the runway. However, we've got about eleven small regional jets ahead of us ..."

I am, of course, thinking, in a kind of mind-gnashing way: what the fuck does it matter if they are "small regional jets" or Airbus A380s - or Saturn rockets? They're all still ahead of us, and they all have to take off, one-by-one. And they do. And by the time we nose up into the climb-out I figure we are an hour and seven minutes late getting out of Detroit Metro and I am resigned to my lost night in an Atlanta mystery hotel and my supper of recreational snack cuisine, and my sojourn with bedbugs. This is not so for everybody else in the vicinity of my seat, 34C, which is so far back - like, an arm's length from the toilet - that even if we got into Atlanta on time it would take me half an hour to get off the plane. Other passengers are grumbling and grousing out loud and, once we level off, summoning the flight attendant in desperate attempts to bargain their way to connecting flight (Kubler-Ross style bargaining in the face of hopelessness). The flight attendants either pretend to know nothing or truly know nothing. A sour scent of aggression wafts around the cabin. More than one grousing passenger, I sense, wants to throttle the clueless bitch.

We reach cruising altitude. Another message from the cockpit: "Well, folks, we did get off a little late [oh? Thanks for letting us know that] but the good news is that our flight schedules are routinely padded so we often get in early. Plus, we can probably make up a good bit of time en route, and if all goes well, we'll get in maybe ten minutes late is all. Now sit back, relax, and ..."

Oh my Gawd. Thank you Elizabeth Kubler-Ross! Thank you baby Jesus, Allah, Quetzalcoatl, whomever dwells up here in the vapors of heaven overlooking our affairs! I pull out my flight itinerary and run the mental calculations. If, indeed, we pull into Atlanta a mere ten minutes late, I have approximately seventeen minutes to get the fuck off of this plane and sprint - very possibly to a different concourse - to get to my departing New Orleans flight (and this is even figuring in the close-out ten minutes prior to push-back). Seventeen beautiful minutes!

I spend the rest of the flight in an exquisite state of suspense, plotting every move from cabin to jetway to airport shuttle-train to connecting gate. I even plan the last-minute draining of the bladder and decline the offer of my in-flight beverage to expedite my plan. I try desperately to read Sean Willentz's stupendously tiresome new book, Bob Dylan in America (2010), and Sean is going on and on - for a score of pages - about the derivation of Dylan's version of "Delia" recorded in 1993, sourced apparently from an incident in Saint Louis a hundred-odd years ago involving a fourteen-year-old girl and her jealous fifteen year old boyfriend, and how the boy perhaps sassed the judge at the conclusion of his trail ... and the whole time I am reading the seven or eight re-fried versions of this story, some other part of my mind is going ka-chinga-ka-chinga-ka-chinga, desperately reviewing my plan to race to the connection gate, as though I was plotting an escape from Cellblock D in Alcatraz. It occurs to me that I should have bought a miniature bottle of vodka when the service cart rolled past, but I also realize it would have just over-excited my bladder, and well ... these are the kinds of desperate thoughts that race through your brain at a time like this.

The flight, to be fair, is otherwise uneventful. Yes, truly. Until the conclusion, of course. We land, bumpety-bump! Thanks again to the sundry gods! We taxi, and taxi, and taxi. I am sick of glancing at my watch. I would like to take it off my wrist and stomp it into a thousand fragments, but I am not supposed to get out of my seat while taxiing. We taxi halfway to whatever the fuck is next door to the state of Georgia, it seems like, Alabama or some fucking hell-hole where people live on Twinkies and fight over their step-children. We taxi some more, and then a little more, and then ... we ... finally ... come ... to ... a ... stop.

Announcement from the cockpit: "Well, folks [reflex nausea], the good news is we're here. [gulp.] However, there seems to be another aircraft at our gate. They say they'll be pushing back in just a couple of minutes ..."

Despair sweeps through the cabin. Everybody with a connection who has been going through the Kubler-Ross bargaining-in-the-face-of-hopelessness routine, everyone whose hope was miraculously restored by the padded-flight-schedule-make-up-time-in-the-air story is now plunged into the blackest depth of wretched despondency. A "couple of minutes" extends, naturally, to many many many minutes, and we just sit there on the tarmac. Is the reincarnation of the Marquis de Sade piloting this plane, I wonder? The old bugger couldn't have done a better job at more elaborately torturing a group of hapless travelers. We watch our chances of making connecting flights dribble away to ... nothing. Seventeen percent ... thirteen percent ... nine percent ... four percent ... gone ... baby ... gone ...

By now, I'm grousing and grumbling to myself, too, of course. An elderly lady in the seat beside me, who, I happen to know, is getting off here in Atlanta (because she said so two hours ago), chirpingly states, "... oh, the flights out of this airport are always delayed. Don't worry ..." Well, I'm thinking (but do not say): no offense, ma'am, but I've already gone through at least a year's worth of worry so far, and I really only have the despair of my evening in the mystery hotel to get through now, and why don't you shut the fuck up ... I just think this, you understand, I suppose that's bad enough ...

Another announcement from the cockpit: "Well, folks, it looks like another gate has opened up over at A-12 so we're going to taxi over ..."

A passenger shouts at the flight attendant: "Can you get us connecting flight gate information?" A reasonable request, notwithstanding that this person is probably delusional in thinking there is any chance he can make his flight.

"We don't do that anymore", the flight attendant explains.

"Huh? Whaddaya mean you don't do it anymore? In this age of computers and the internet you can't tell us what gate we should go to? Twenty years ago they used to tell us before they even had computers!"

"They change the gates so often here that we don't do that anymore".

"What!?! With high-speed computers you can't keep up up with the latest gate changes?"

The flight attendant just shrugs and makes a Sarah Palinesque cute face.

Where's Mohammad Atta and his box-cutter when you really need him?

To make a long story short - though it's too late for that - I debouched from the jetway, eventually, to find, on the departure board, a succinct note linked to my New Orleans flight stating, simply, "closed". But, yet another miracle, I discovered by corralling an idle gate-agent who had just finished boarding a flight going elsewhere, and was merely shuffling a few papers and, by-the-grace-of-Gawd, gave me a moment of her attention, that there was a very late additional flight to New Orleans, and I managed to get a seat on it.

I had forty-five minutes to get to it. I was able to find a plate of hideously over-salted tofu/vegetable and lo-mein a moment before they scraped out the steam-table at Wok-and-Roll, or whatever the establishment calls itself in that food court.

Final note: that later plane I got on was delayed forty-five minutes taking off, too. But then I didn't give a fuck, because N.O.L.A. [New Orleans, Louisiana] was my last stop.

Oh yes, in regarding the moral insanity of flying all over the place to make a buck. Think of it this way: I'm suffering for everybody's sins. All y'all's, as they say in Atlanta. It's, perhaps, a little grandiose, but that's how I'm going to figure it. And anyway, insanity, by definition, is not subject to rational mediation. If you paid for this blog - like that fucking dipshit Paul Krugman gets paid for his vapid, specious ruminations at The New York Times - or bought my books, I wouldn't have to do it.

Have a nice week, however long it lasts, or however many days it may contain.


A sequel to my 2008 novel of post-oil America, World Made By Hand, will be published in September 2010 by The Atlantic Monthly Press. The title is The Witch of Hebron.

Mr Kunstler's biography is at see

Bill Totten


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