Futures and Options

Just another town along the road.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What to expect

Being a consultant, I fly a great deal.  About 6,000 miles each week actually.  But most people don’t fly nearly as often as I do, so, for anyone who is unfamiliar with flying, I am posting the following list of what to expect as a public service.

Arriving at the airport: An airport is like its own little country. As when traveling to any country, be prepared for unfamiliar signage and non-standard intersections. If you happen to enter the access roads from any direction other than the main feeder, be prepared to make rapid swerves as you are given approximately 50 feet to merge across 4 lanes and onto the exit for the parking garage. If you miss this exit, no worries. You can simply follow the signs back around the airport loop. This will be approximately 20 miles and is guaranteed to be under construction, further conflating the signage.

In the parking garage: Despite the appearance of the first 7 floors, there actually is parking available. Once you find it, however, you will realise that you are about 5 miles from the main terminal. Shuttle service runs hourly.

At the ticket counter: If you have no checked baggage, you can use the convenient self-service terminals. These will invariably either be out of paper or unable to find your reservation, at which point they will direct you to the single ticket agent working the counter, whom you would have had to see at the beginning if you had to check bags. When you get in line, at least one person in front of you will be attempting to re-route their trip to include a stopover in Transylvania, though they will have forgotten their passport. They will regard this as the airline’s fault and refuse to allow anyone else to talk with the ticketing agent until their issues are resolved.

When it is your turn, you will find out that since your checked back weighs more than 5 ounces, there will be a surcharge that is roughly equal to the gross national product of New Guinea.

At the security checkpoint: This is where things begin to get a tiny bit frustrating. No matter which line you choose, there will be one of the following people in front of you:
– The person who hasn’t flown since 1953 and is completely unaware of the new security procedures, despite the conspicuous and ostensibly idiot-proof signs posted on every available surface at the airport. This person will have a carry-on bag with two laptops, a gross of novelty Swiss Army knives, and at least 4 bottles of water. When he has finished arguing with the baggage screening people and insisting that he be allowed to take these items onto the plane (or, in the case of the laptops, that he not be required to remove them from his suitcase), he will leave his boarding pass in his bag as it goes through the X-ray machine and have to wait for one of the TSA screeners to retrieve it for him. After the TSA person searches unsuccessfully for 5 minutes, he will discover that he actually did have the pass on him, it was just in his pocket. When he walks through the metal detector, it will go off because he has neglected to take his keys out of his pocket and his watch off of his wrist.
– The exact opposite of the guy above. This person will completely unpack his or her luggage, placing each item in its own, individual, bin. They will not only remove their shoes, but also their socks, eyeglasses, earrings, necklaces, rings, non-metallic wallets and plastic hair ties (if female). The train of bins that they will create going through the screening unit is reminiscent of Hannibal crossing the Alps. This person will subsequently re-pack his or her belongings while blocking the exit of the screening area and the time scale for measuring the length of this process is best described as “glacial”.

None of this really matters for you though, since you will be singled out for “special” screening. This is especially true of you do not fit any known terrorist profile as it is very important for the TSA to choose people who are obviously not threats in order to avoid giving the impression that they are actually targeting groups that cause problems. On the positive side, a prostate exam would normally require both an insurance copay and time out of your busy schedule to go to a doctor’s office.

In the main terminal: After your ordeal, it is only natural that you are both hungry and thirsty. Due to safety regulations preventing people from bringing more than 3 ounces of liquids through TSA screening, various vendors have set up shop inside the terminal to provide sustenance for a nominal fee. For example, a 20 ounce bottle of soda will likely cost no more than $15.00, though, of course, prices will fluctuate slightly with the standard airport to rest-of-world exchange rate.

At the boarding gate: It is natural at this point to feel as though you have achieved your goal, however it is not wise to celebrate prematurely as the boarding gate has several surprises of its own. For example, your flight may experience what is known as a “gate change”. These can occur for a variety of reasons, such as mechanical issues with the gate, delays of previous flights using that gate, or obscure pagan religious rites that require the torture of numerous innocent victims. Whatever the reason the one constant in the gate change is that it will be to a gate on the other end of the airport and it will be announced no more than 5 minutes before the plane begins boarding.

There is also the possibility that your flight will be “overbooked”. This is a particularly interesting form of sociological study in which an airline strives to determine just how little their customers actually value their time. Having sold more tickets than there are seats, the airline will ask for “volunteers”. In exchange for severely disrupting their travel plans, these volunteers will be given a free ticket to use on another flight, allowing them to enjoy the entire process a second time. If there are not enough suckers, er, volunteers, the airline will force certain people to volunteer. This will create some very interesting exchanges between passengers and gate agents which will reinforce the logic behind banning weapons in airports.

Boarding the plane: Planes today typically board by zones. If your seat is even remotely desirable, you will be in one of the last zones to board. This was not a problem in the early days of flight, but now, thanks to surcharges on checked bags, this almost ensures that there will be no space remaining in the overhead bins for your rolling suitcase. This will leave you with two options:
– If your suitcase is small enough, you can place it under the seat in front of you, which will only slightly compromise the generous 6 inches of total legroom that you have available.
– If your suitcase will not fit underneath the seat in front of you, you will be required to “gate check” your bag. This will result in the hurried and haphazard tagging of your bag, ostensibly for pickup in the jetway when you exit the aircraft. If the bag actually is made available on the jetway, you will invariably end up waiting for it until after the entire plane has disembarked. This is particularly troublesome if you have a connection that you must rush to make. Often, however, your bag will simply be placed in with normal baggage, which means it will be sent to baggage claim, thereby negating the careful effort on your part to avoid a long wait at baggage claim.

Taking your seat: It is very likely that you will be assigned to a seat which appears to have no-one sitting next to you. This is an illusion. Just when you think you have achieved the airline equivalent of nirvana and are sure the door will be closing, a 400+ pound person will lumber onto the plane. As you slowly survey the plane, it will dawn on you that the only remaining open seat is next to you, likely requiring you to get up and allow the person to take the window seat. As they settle into the seat, the armrest, your only scant protection from unwanted seat intrusion, will be absorbed into your new companion’s “love handles” in a scene that is disturbingly reminiscent of “The Blob”. This person will have a strong interest in engaging you in conversation, often about their cats, and will also need to get up to use the restroom at least 3 times during the flight.

Taxi before takeoff: After the door has been closed, the captain will inform you that the aircraft requires a small amount of maintenance and there will be a slight delay of “about 5 or 10 minutes”. This claim will be repeated for nearly an hour. On the positive side, you are probably still being regaled with stories about “Mr. Fluffykins” by your seatmate, so at least it’s not boring. Once the unspecified mechanical issue has been resolved (was it just a loose bolt in the captain’s armrest or did they have to replace an engine…) the captain will inform you that because of the delay you have lost your place in the takeoff order and are now number 387 in line and can expect to take off sometime within the next week. However, even with this delay, the pilot has good news; he expects to be able to make up about 30 seconds during the flight, so the delay won’t be as bad as it really sounds.

posted by Zenmervolt at 14:36  

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