I fly a lot.
Fact: aside from April and July, I’ve flown every month so far in 2009.
Fact 2: in the four short semesters after enrolling at MIT, my frequent flier account has already broken six figures in terms of lifetime miles.
Fact 3: I’ve been in an awful lot of airports.
From Fact 3, I can tell you that SFO has pretty great food, IAD has a super cool “Mobile Lounge” vehicle-thingy that transports you from one terminal to another, NRT has the cleanest toilets you can possibly imagine, AMS has 10 euro sandwiches (that are quite bland but are rather cute, from the impeccable European way that the lettuce, tomatoes, and ham are arranged between the triangular whole-wheat bread), and LAX has relatively uncomfortable couches on which to spend the night (ps. MAD doesn’t fare much better – although their Starbucks has really soft sofas – you just may have to move when the cleaning staff comes over).
Naturally, I’ve also been on many airlines and seen how air travel functions in several countries.
It strikes me, then, how remarkably inefficient US domestic travel can be (of course, I’m not generalizing across airlines – some carriers are far better than others).
I want to relate my particular adventure just two days prior, when I flew back from San Francisco to Boston for just a day (on a free ticket though – redeemed through my miles). I had to go back to Boston to take a qualifying examination (unrelated to MIT) – the alternative was to come back early from Taiwan to do it next weekend, but of course I didn’t want to sacrifice a single hour in Taiwan, so I decided to do it last weekend. Thus began the journey in which I was on the air longer than I actually was physically in Boston.
I have omitted the name of the carrier, but you should be able to figure it out easily enough.
My flight was the red-eye out of SFO on Friday night at 10:20 PM, and accordingly I scheduled myself to arrive at 9:00 at the airport – an hour and 20 minutes for a domestic flight – not bad, right?
Well, it turns out that there is a line. A LONG line. Just to get to the Self Check-In counters. Sighing, I resigned myself to waiting in line to use one of those machines, helping lost Taiwanese tourists navigating through to Paper Ticket Check-In. Finally, I was at the head of the line.
Time check. 9:20 PM. I had an hour left.
I proceeded to one of those “Self Check-In Counters” that my particular carrier is extremely fond of, hoping against all odds that perhaps it will actually work this time (I am able to count on one hand the number of times the self check-in has actually worked for me with this particular airline. I don’t think the problem is the self check-in machine or my passport, as I have never had problems with other airlines). Expectedly, the dreaded “blue screen of death” came on – “Please see a customer representative for assistance.” To be honest, I’m never sure what the point of having these counters are if one is never able to obtain one’s boarding pass through these machines correctly.
Well, customer representative – not so bad, right? Wrong. The thing with this carrier is that it is nearly always understaffed in domestic terminals. This particular night, there’s two harried customer representatives overseeing 15 self check-in machines, and one representative looks like he’s ready to murder a group of Korean grandparents that he happens to be helping with checking in.
If there’s anything I learned from working in Oakland Chinatown this year, it’s that at certain times, you’ll have to make yourself heard (and seen) or you’ll never get service at all. I managed to get closer to one of the customer representatives (the less murderous one), only to have the rep call out to the entire lobby in an exasperated voice that all passengers having trouble with the self check-in should proceed to the Paper Ticket Check-In line. As if on cue, the mass of travelers and baggage carts began moving towards the other line.
Time check. 9:35 PM.
Fortunately, I was able to get into the other line before the mass of tourists reached it, falling a few heads behind the Taiwanese tourists, who were winking at me. I counted that there were probably 20 people ahead of me in this line, and if I had any luck at all I might be able to clear this line by 9:50 PM, hopefully leaving half an hour to go through security and board.
Quickly, however, I discovered that this second line was not really a “line” at all, but more precisely, a “waiting area.” Various other customer representatives, plagued by customer complaints, were pulling many passengers to the front of the line to the customer representatives at the counter, asking the representative at the counter to check them in ASAP, as they didn’t speak English/they have a lot of baggage/they have a lot of people…etc. At this point, I had precisely 5 people ahead of me to the front of the line, but the line didn’t move for 10 minutes due to these random people popping out of nowhere.
Finally, the lady who was at the front of the line cleared her throat loudly. ”Excuse me.” she gestured at a customer rep, ”we’ve all been waiting here for awhile now. We have flights that are leaving in less than an hour too!!”. Everyone looked up, and the reps who were previously pulling people out of the line started converging at the front of the line and beginning to organize a way of systematically getting people to the counter. I was okay, since I’ve started chatting with a lady in front of me who’s also been through this before and is pretty annoyed at the airline too. (“The only reason why I still fly with them is that I have far too many mileage points and it’s too bothersome to switch carriers now,” she told me, “I already stopped bothering with the self check-in and I come directly to the counter now. Better just wait in line than use those damned machines and realizing that you have to wait in line anyway.”)
After what seemed to be like ages, a kind gentleman at the desk finally motioned to me over. It felt akin to a deserted lifeboat floating in the ocean, finally seeing the bright rockets sent up by the rescue ship.
Time check. 10:00 PM.
It turns out that it is already too late to check bags (45 minute cut-off, absolute latest 30 minutes prior), but it’s okay since I anticipated this kind of delay happening and so I just had a small carry-on (I didn’t need clothes anyway, since I wasn’t going to spend the night in Boston). He had to make a phone call over to the gate, since they’ve started boarding already notifying them to wait for me. He handed over the boarding pass and told me to get through Security quickly so I don’t miss my flight.
Time check. 10:03 PM. The actual check-in procedure took 3 minutes. Waiting for a rep took an hour.
I made it past security, hoping all the while that I don’t get “selected” by the TSA for a spot check, because that means I will really miss the flight and end up spending the night at the airport (remember LAX? This airline has already done it to me in the past when they overbooked the red-eye and actually blatantly gave my confirmed seat away to someone else on the waiting list due to an “administrative oversight.” They gave me $100 in compensation (redeemable gift certificate), but I ended up spending another 8 hours in the airport).
I clutched the laptop that I took out for the Security Check and ran all the way to the gate, arriving out of breath, but relieved that the gate hasn’t closed yet. The kind guy at the gate told me that they were about to page me over the intercom, and that I had arrived right on time for the gate to close. “Welcome aboard,” he winked at me, “arrive at the airport earlier next time.”
I arrived at Boston at 7:30 AM, went back to MIT to drop off all the MCAT books that I accumulated this summer (that I was going to ship back originally), went and took the test, returned to MIT to say goodbye to a friend, and then headed back to Logan at 2:30 PM for my 4:30 PM flight. Learning from my mistakes, I remember not to use those “damned machines” anymore and headed straight to the counter. I was checked in by 2:35 PM.
I was also informed that they couldn’t give me the boarding pass for the IAD to SFO leg (I had a layover at Washington Dulles on the way back) – they didn’t tell me why – but I should go see customer service there for my boarding pass. I already had a vision of the frantic customer service desk what will be awaiting me at Dulles. I was not wrong. I ended up waiting for 35 minutes in the terminal help desk to collect my boarding pass back to SFO.
What I don’t understand is why an airline that flies hundreds of flights each day can be so remarkably inefficient when it comes to ticketing and checking-in. I had confirmed seats on all three legs of this trip, complete with seat number and all – I didn’t have to check any bags either – and still always had to go to customer service to get help. I was clearly not alone, as there is always an army of passengers near the counter as well. Am I some sketchy person that the airline had told those automated machines not to recognize? And it’s not just the machines either – the efficiency with these customer service counters is abysmally-crazy. I’m young, understand English, capable of carrying my own bags and standing in line for extended amounts of time, but what about your other customers who can’t afford to stand and wait so long?
Learn from Singapore Airline, guys. (or maybe you just have to fly Business to get decent service)
-written during the layover at Tokyo Narita, about to board my 17th flight so far this year.
tidbits about flying
1. I don’t mind airplane food at all (my high school cafeteria food tastes worse). In fact, I’ve sometimes had more than one portion when traveling with friends who didn’t want to eat. On a very rare occasion, the aforementioned airline bumped me at no charge to Business class, where I had steak. STEAK!! It’s amazing how Economy food gets worse and worse and Business/First food gets ridiculously awesome.
2. I like window seats (especially on the right side) for flights under 6 hours, since I can usually nap the whole way against the window. I like aisle seats for trans-Pacific flights, since I won’t feel bad about disturbing other people to get to the bathroom.
3. At first I never understood why people prefer to board early. For me, getting on the airplane early just means having to sit on the airplane longer on an already long flight. Recently, I finally realized the reason why – if you don’t get it early, there will be no more overhead compartment space left.
4. People who have humongous roller carry-on trunks in order to save money should dieeee X(
5. Many Asian airlines have instant noodles that are manufactured by the airline, which you can’t buy outside of the airplane. Ask for it on long flights! The JAL one, for example, tastes awesome.
6. I rarely watch movies on long flights. Instead, I just don’t sleep much the night before (well, I don’t try to, but I usually sleep <4 hours before the flight because of natural procrastination =p). Thus, I usually just pass out and wake up only for meals. It makes the long flight go by faster, anyway.
7. I once had 8 cans of apple juice flying from San Francisco to Taipei. (I just had 5 flying from SFO to Narita). Haha, hey, I <3 apple juice and they’re free on the airplane!
8. The absolute best memory of airplane food is flying from Taipei to Manila during my junior year in high school on a mission trip. We were flying China Airlines and we actually had lu rou fan!. Lu rou fan is a traditional Taiwanese snack/light meal that consists of pork stewed with soy sauce, rice wine, and spices over rice. The kicker is that the airplane food actually came with a braised egg as well (lu dan – you usually put it in along with the pork during the cooking process as it makes the cooked egg afterwards a delightful treat, having absorbed all the flavor of the condiments and the meat).
9. I’ve met many people on flights or just in airports, waiting during a layover. One of the most interesting individuals I’ve met was a manager at a big telecommunications company, whose job is to fly from city to city (mainly domestic, but also international) to assess the productivity and efficiency of the company branch in that particular city and to also troubleshoot problems on behalf of the main office. He told me that last year, he spent over 300 days away from home, and visited over 100 cities in 35 states. Through his work, he has been able to visit all 50 states and 37 countries, with nights spent in too many hotel rooms to remember. He showed me a travel map that he kept in his planner, which folds out to be a map of the United States, peppered with a red dot for each city that he visited. At the same time, regrettably, he also told me that he never married precisely because of his job – he’s moving too fast to have a stable family. “I felt that I had found the perfect job for me, since it was my dream to see the world when I was growing up, but at what cost to my personal life?” he mused.
10. Finally, an incredible romance story came from a professor that I met on a flight from Tokyo to Chicago last year. I took the liberty of summarizing his story by a lot.
“Believe it or not, I met my wife [who was sitting next to him] in an airport. We were delayed in Frankfurt after the airport was forced to close due to low visibility and snow, and it seemed like our flight back to the US seemed unlikely that morning. We were both pretty bored and was looking for someone to chat with, so we started talking and it pretty much clicked from the get-go, or as the expression goes. I was coming back from an academic conference and she was coming back from a business trip – but soon we realized that we had a lot in common. Well, to make a long story short, we ended up spending seven hours or so waiting for the weather to clear up – we went and got lunch, and some coffee afterwards. After returning to the States, we exchanged phone numbers, and soon began seeing each other on a regular basis. About a year later, we got married. Sometimes I ask myself what would have happened on that day if the flight never got delayed or if I haven’t just happened to be sitting next to this particular lady. You know, at times, I still look back on all these years and everything seems too good to be true, just like what happens in movies – but wouldn’t you agree that the best movies are those that mirror human life?”
I told my mom this story, and she plainly said,
“You know, in real life, it’s near impossible to have a situation where you can’t do anything for seven hours except talk to a girl.
He must have been really lucky.”