Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kafka and the twilight of twentieth century aviation

Kafka would have understood.

I laughed when the "puffer" went off. I was in the "puffer" because of an "SSSS" on my boarding pass. I got the SSSS because I was on a one way flight over two airlines. I was one way because my 6:30 am Northwest Airline flight was canceled (probably for lack of a pilot [jf: actually, the engine couldn't be repaired]). The 6:30 am was a rescheduled flight from the 3:45 pm of the day before, which had a "slight mechanical". We sat for an hour or so waiting to learn about the delay, but we were never told anything -- except that the hotels were full. We knew, by word of mouth, that the mechanical was a bird that had shut down an engine on approach. Nobody expected the flight to leave.

I extorted a $15 breakfast voucher from NWA. That'll show 'em.

Another day, another airline anecdote. They're piling up. NWA can't stop birds from knocking out engines, but the problem is their system is so over-stressed it has no capacity to absorb shocks and surprises. Instead, everything piles up. There are no seats on outgoing planes anywhere. What was once a delay of a few hours becomes a day's delay.

After 9/11 I thought videoconferencing would catch on. I was wrong. 9/11 did not disrupt airline travel for me nearly as much as this constant drip-drip systemic dysfunction. It's costing the US economy a fortune's fortune.

Maybe this is the year Cringely will be right. More than that, maybe we'll look back and say that 2003 was the apex of 20th century air travel, that we're moving into something new and unpredictable ...

Update 9/20/07: I did get home, only out 24 hours, $200 in additional expenses, and 4 hours sleep and 6 hours of work (I worked on the plane, so it wasn't at total loss). A few other events along the way emphasized the key point of a system strained past the breaking point:
  1. When we arrived to get a NWA flight in Sacramento NWA's computers had crashed -- so there were no seat assignments. I thought we'd have a "Lord of the Flies" free-for-all scramble for the seats but the plane was half-empty (alas, it would have made a better story if we'd fought to the death for the seats ...).
  2. My employers costly travel service is supposed to cut costs when these things mess up, but I listened to their hold music for a total of 40 minutes when the first flight was delayed. I presume they were swamped by my colleagues suffering similar screw-ups across the nation.
  3. As a final jest, my seat on the last flight was broken and would not recline. I used to report broken seats, but they're very common on NWA and I've noticed the attendants never take notes when I report these things. I have a hunch their memories aren't any better than mine ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

At least you'll get about 1000 frequent flyer miles and a nice letter from NWA about your nightmare. That should make things right.