What I Do For Ethics, Or Misadventures In Travel Hell

Am I imagining this, or was air travel once efficient, comfortable, and enjoyable? I can’t be sure now; it seems impossible. Of course, as bad as it is, things would be a lot better if basic standards of competence and professionalism were observed, or even attempted.

I just arrived at my hotel in Providence approximately 2 and a half hours after I was supposed to. The delay isn’t the issue; I’m used to that, and if there’s weather, there’s weather. (There was weather.) This trip, however was special.

  • My flight took off from infamous Gate 35X, which is portal gate from which passengers board buses that take them to smallish jets scattered around the tarmac. It is always crowded, and you are tasked with listening for the announcement telling you to go down the stairs to the sub-gates and line up for your bus. That is more tricky than it sounds, because the area is pure cacophony: people talking,  announcements from nearby gates, a recorded announcement on a loop telling you not to go down the stairs until you’re told, and as a special bonus, not one but three American gate employees making announcements in various heavily accented forms of pseudo-English, spoken at auctioneer  speed. All three were intermittently incomprehensible; people were constantly turning to companions and asking, “What did she say?”

Look, many of my relatives spoke in Greek accents. I know learning English is difficult, and I don’t begrudge any (legal) immigrant the time to learn and master the language spoken here.  However, if you can’t speak sufficiently clear English, it is unethical to take a job in which doing so is key part of the job. It is also incompetent for a company like American to hire people with impenetrable accents to communicate with their customers.

Why would they do that? Are there really not enough English-speakers to fill these jobs? Are the companies being woke? Are they afraid of lawsuits? Do they pay the barely-English speakers less?  I’m willing to tolerate this foolishness at Taco Bell or McDonalds, when it’s one-on-one and I can say—and I do—“I can’t understand you. Please speak slowly and distinctly, and remember that your speaker sounds like it was made from a Remco kit by a 12-year-old in 1958.”

  • As it happened, I didn’t hear the announcement for my flight, and ended up near the end of the line. We were loaded on a far too small bus; I haven’t been that crushed by standing bodies since my days riding the Red Line in Boston. What was supposed to be a 7 minute horrible ride turned into an ordeal when the bus inexplicably stopped just short of our plane, and didn’t move for about a half an hour. It got so hot inside the bus that they opened the doors. No one told us a thing. Had the bus broken down? Was there a problem with the plane? In a situation like that, the employees have an obligation to communicate. How long will this last? What’s going on? Hello? Somebody? Nothing.

Maybe neither the driver nor any of the men we saw running around in yellow vests outside could speak English either.

I said to a woman sitting under my arm, “I imagine Hell might be like this: waiting for eternity in an over-heated bus to get on a plane that never takes off.” I think there was a “Twilight Zone” episode like that.

  • They suddenly let us off the bus to board the plane. We never learned why we had to wait. This was a small plane with only 13 rows, and I was in the last row, window side, in a non-reclining seat, adjacent to the bathroom. (At one point, the pilot used is, then left without closing the door. Charming.) We left the gate, stopped, and then sat for two hours on the tarmac, while the pilot repeatedly apologized, said there was a back-up, and said we would be on our way “in just a bit.”

Is the theory that saying it’s going to be a short wait when you know it isn’t is more comforting to the passengers than saying, “Folks, we’re going to be stuck here for quite a while…I have no idea when we’ll get into the air”?  It’s an unethical theory, if so.

Truth, please. Facts.

  • After about an hour, I noticed that my head and the back of my shirt were damp. Water was dripping on my head. I called the flight attendant and pointed out the dripping. “Oh, that’s condensation,” she said. Wait–I didn’t ask for an explanation of why I was getting wet. I don’t care why—I want to not be wet. Do something.

She didn’t do anything.

  • Eventually we took off, and landed in Providence more than two hours late. I arrived at the Hotel, via an uneventful cab ride. I gave the driver a 50% tip out of gratitude, telling her that the trip was the first thing that had gone right since I left my home, more than four hours before. I got to the hotel, checked in to my supposedly upgraded  sumptuous room, threw down my bags, lay down on the bed, pointed the remote at the large flat screen TV , and…nothing. The TV was broken.

The maintenance guy who reported to my room confirmed  that, sure enough, a key piece of the mechanism was damaged. He worked on the TV for 45 minutes. Call me a stickler, but aren’t upper tier hotels like, say, just to pick one at random, an Omni, (actually any competently run hotel) supposed to thoroughly check out rooms before guests arrive?

Well, I’m here.
And tomorrow is another day.

19 thoughts on “What I Do For Ethics, Or Misadventures In Travel Hell

  1. Wow. I haven’t been on an airplane in over 20 years. Stories like this make me realize that this is actually a blessing, totally aside from the fact that I really don’t care much for travelling. Isn’t it wonderful that we have such a sophisticated, modern air traffic system?

    • My last plane flight was further back than that, and I was more bewildered than frustrated, I do feel for the perpetual frustration, discomfort, and incompetence when supposedly dealing with professionals nearly daily. One of the worst societal changes in my lifetime is that ‘good enough’ is an aspirational goal and failure to basic competence is no big deal.

      I was always embarrassed when there were snafus or I was the newb/temp.

      If you want to look at it philosophically, perhaps the time spent like this counts against your time in purgatory??

      • ” One of the worst societal changes in my lifetime is that ‘good enough’ is an aspirational goal ”

        The AT&T Wireless commercials about the Just Okay Mechanic or Surgeon are cute for that reason.

        • Those AT&T commercials are infuriating if you know anything about telephony….

          They say “just ok is not ok” to advertise their new high-speed “5g” cell network. The problem: AT&T is building an enhanced 4g network, which will be much slower than real 5g.

          Their supposed “5g” network is quitissentally “just ok”.

          • 5G will allow trucks to be driven like remote drones are piloted. When we get there.

            Wanna make a killing? Find out who is building the towers and invest. The distance between 5G towers is going to be… short. Meaning there will be towers lined up along the roadside like power lines, or telephone poles. Oh, not THAT short, but maybe within sight of each other (as in, line-of-sight required)

    • My last plane flight was the Christmas after 9/11. At Detroit, all the terminals but 1 are for Northwest. I avoided Northwest (you can see their greatest hits on the ‘Stranded on the Tarmac for 11 Hours the Day before Thanksgiving’ on Netflix). The shoe bomber had just been caught and new security procedures were in place. Northwestern made sure there was only ONE single line security line at the gate for all the other carriers. The County Sheriff’s office came to help, but was told they couldn’t help scan people, they could only keep order in the 400 yard-long, 3 hour security line. When I finally got to the metal detector, the woman in front of me had a metal baby stroller, her purse, and 2 huge baby bags (well over carry on size). She then proceeded to argue about everything. I suggested she be sent to the back of the line to consider her life choices.

      I discovered that the new reality of airline travel is that I can drive faster and cheaper for any flight less than 800 miles. The time savings for longer flights is minimal. Of course, I don’t live in the Northeast where travel is restricted.

  2. It’s a sad commentary on how seldom airlines give you all the details:

    I once had a 4- hour delay in Chicago that is memorable because the phenomenal pilot kept is completely informed about WHAT caused the delay, plans A, B, and C for fixing it, and the estimated time for each of them to work. He sat at the gate with us and answered questions. It didn’t get us in the air faster but boy did it make the wait more bearable compared to “there’s a delay. Sit here until there isn’t. “

  3. Bummer.

    Announcements In Airports
    During my travel marathon earlier this year I went up to the gate counter immediately after an announcement that was painfully obvious that no one could understand was blurted out at light speed in a garbled sound that sounded to me like she had swallowed the microphone, over the PA it sounded like she had a heavy accent. I told her the airport PA speakers sounded terrible and politely asked her to repeat the announcement with the microphone slightly away from her mouth at something less than light speed so it didn’t sound like one long incomprehensible word. She angrily stared at me down and clearly stated in a nearly accent free voice, “Sir, you’re being unreasonable” to which I pivoted around and using my old Army projection voice, got everyone’s attention and asked “please raise your hand if you actually understood the last announcement”; yes I know it was a loaded question to ask in that situation no one would likely raise their hand. The lady was obviously irritated, picked up the microphone, held it slightly away from her mouth and repeated her message at a much more reasonable speed and included a polite “sounding” apology. When she was done, she gave me one of those are you satisfied you fucking asshole looks and I personally thanked her for the additional effort. All of her followup announcements were much more understandable. She learned something that morning, I hope it sticks with her and I hope she shares it with her coworkers. This was in Madison, WI, it was very early in the morning and it wasn’t very busy; I’m not sure such an effort on my part would have the same results in a larger busy airport.

    Bus Ride To The Plane
    There is absolutely no reasonable excuse for the bus driver to be non-communicative about why they were sitting there. It’s simple, a little communication goes a long way for those stuck in really sucky situations! Submit a formal complaint to the airlines.

    Condensation Dripping On You From The Plane
    It’s quite obvious that airline employees knew that there was a problem with condensation dripping on people that sat in that seat. It’s inexcusable for the airlines to continue to seat people in that seat knowing full well that there is a problem. Submit a formal complaint to the airlines. You should get a full refund for that flight.

    Hotel TV
    You can bet your last dollar that the last person in that same room complained about the TV when they were there. They should have gotten you a different TV or moved you to another room.

    Hope you and Mike have a good time for the remainder of the trip.

    • The worst mistake many make when doing public announcements is failing to speak at a rate where the syllables come at a rate slower than the echo rate. If they don’t, the echo of the previous syllable mixes with the next.

      Public announcements need to be made in what is monotonous conversation rate. People have a habit of speaking at a conversational rate and are completely incomprehensible.

  4. Since I haven’t flown in over twenty years, the mess that commercial flying has become is merely sad to me; if I were still flying it would be infuriating. I loved flying back in the 80s and 90s. I flew Delta whenever I had a choice, and was never disappointed. I had a few minor inconveniences on other airlines but nothing that was trip-spoiling. Since my trips homeward usually involved a flexible time frame, I often sold my seat on overbooked flights and essentially flew for free a few times. After my official travel became limited to the southeastern quarter of the country, I figured out that I could often drive (I love driving) to my destination almost as quickly as I could fly, as more and more formerly direct flights became successive hops to regional hubs. Several of my more frequent trips became a choice between four hours (portal to portal) if flying and five to six hours if driving, and I usually chose to drive.
    Failure to provide competent customer service is seemingly pandemic, and the exceptions only prove the rule.

  5. I’m one of those people everyone hates, because I travel on planes with my kids. I have an upcoming family wedding next year that I will be attending, more than 2000 miles from home with three under seven. Plane travel is my only semi-reasonable option. Unfortunately, I have to drive four and a half hours to get to the airport, get through security and then fly for six hours(if I can get a direct flight which is rare), before getting to our destination airport, much less getting to car rentals and driving to our final destination. Ten hours or more of travel is hard on seasoned adults, much less small children. Tales like this terrify my very soul as those kind of delays and troubles you experienced would make my kids even more upset and small footprint quiet time activities just can’t extend forever, no matter how hard I try or how well I plan. Crammed buses for extended periods and dripping condensation in plane seats remove even those activities. I feel sorry for you that you had to deal with this, and I feel increasing trepidation for my upcoming travel.

  6. I probably fly less than you, Jack, but not by a whole lot, and my experience is that the carrier matters. I will never drag my ass up the stair to an Air Canada flight, and no one else will be able to do without first administering heavy sedation, unless there is absolutely no other option. WestJet all the way.

    My last flight, I was sandwiched between two women that I can only assume moonlighted as sumo wrestlers. I suppose the “OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD HELP ME” looks I was flashing at the flight attendant worked, because she upgraded me to first class AND supplied the prybar necessary to get me out from between Shamu And Willy. I have never been more likely to inappropriately hug a woman in my life, but I remembered my last name wasn’t “Biden” and showed some will power.

  7. Jack, you need to get out of the Northeast, the Acela corridor, or whichever term you want to use for that shit hole part of the country. Come to the Southwest. People are polite and friendly. Except for the New Yorkers who was up from time to time. People say please and thank you and wait in line. It’s really striking. Every aspect of the infrastructure is not completely obsolete and over-loaded. Give yourself a break. Go west.

  8. In college, I worked in a fast-food restaurant. I can confirm the drive-thru equipment is terrible and we complained about it constantly. I did better than many because I modulated my voice tone & volume, as well as articulate my words to make up for the drawbacks of the speaker. It wasn’t easy listening from my end either: customers mumbled, left their radios on and were disrupted by other ambient noise like kids screaming, sirens blaring, etc. Pie sounded like Fry or even Sprite.

    But I have carried the lesson of speaking for the rest of my life. When my job requires speaking, I believe I do it well.

    I don’t, however, work for an airport. Sorry about your troubles. I hope the rest of your trip goes well.

  9. “I know learning English is difficult, and I don’t begrudge any (legal) immigrant the time to learn and master the language spoken here. However, if you can’t speak sufficiently clear English, it is unethical to take a job in which doing so is key part of the job. It is also incompetent for a company like American to hire people with impenetrable accents to communicate with their customers.

    Why would they do that? Are there really not enough English-speakers to fill these jobs? Are the companies being woke? Are they afraid of lawsuits? Do they pay the barely-English speakers less?”

    To answer your questions in order: Necessity. Yes. Maybe. Probably. and No. At least in my experience.

    When I was 20, I was managing HR for a 500 employee company in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Fort McMurray was in the midst of the boom, and trying to staff that business seemed like a constant process of hiring people and immediately chucking them into a meat grinder; People were coming to Fort Mac from literally everywhere else on Earth to get that sweet, sweet oilsands money, they wanted to work with us while their paperwork was clearing at a site, they would cross the street for a nickel an hour raise, and they had an exceptionally inflated view of their own self-worth.

    I remember two scenarios in particular:

    One, where a fellow of came into my office, unsolicited, and told me that I would hire him, that I would give him full time employment, that I would pay him $30 an hour, that he would immediately get benefits, and vacation time. I nodded, took his papers, and said, “Ok, we’ll get back to you” and immediately filed him under G, we were constantly on the verge of desperation for people, but we’d never be that desperate. He came back three hours later, absolutely irate that we had not yet hired him, and accused us of racism, because he was some shade of brown, I think Arabic. I don’t think I’ve ever been closer to calling the police to remove an applicant from the premises. He actually filed a human rights complaint, which was immediately laughed out of court, but whew lad.

    The other was a fellow fresh off the plane from India, who had a relative write out his resume. How do I know this? Because he showed up to his interview with this relative, who had to interpret for him, because he did not speak english. If hired, we were told, the relative would accompany him on his shifts until he acclimated. Again… desperate, but not that desperate.

    I didn’t (and don’t) care where someone came from, what color their skin was or who they called God, but I drew a line at language. A language barrier is real. That said, we were still constantly having to hire people with only the most tenuous of grasps on the english language, and as much as we tried to sequester them into positions that didn’t involve interaction with the public, sometimes it was unavoidable. There just really weren’t enough applicants who spoke English,

    • A relative would accompany him on his shifts…

      Was the company going to be responsible for paying the relative while he did this interpreting work?

      Apparently, accompanying relatives isn’t just a problem with those who don’t speak English as a second language. It seems there are young people who go to interviews with parents who try to answer for their kids, grill the interviewer about salary and benefits and do the interview follow-up. I think I’d reject an applicant out of hand if a parent showed up.

      • You know… I got the impression that the translator would come free of wage, but frankly, the whole thing was so an outrageous, I didn’t even ask. I mean, really… Whether the translator wanted a wage or not would not have changed my answer.

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