TUCSON – For reporters, things go according to plan, or it’s a story. I finally made it to Arizona from deepest Provence in time for leftover latkes at Christmas. But I now see why those eight tiny reindeer badly need travel insurance, a sense of humor and drugs.
Travelers’ tales are usually cheap shots. If we survive to tell them, we’ve escaped real tragedy. Listeners fidget, impatient to chime in with their own. This, despite all the first person, is not about me but rather what we have made of our world.
It started as one of those best-laid plans. I paid the usual Air France extortion money for Sky Priority, lowering the chance of standing in endless lines eyeing the clock as my gut deteriorates. Then, nothing to it: a one-stop hop from Paris to Tucson.
I’d harvest my olives and take a fast train to Paris, leaving time to sort out the assorted crap I lug about the globe. But then I decided to squeeze in a pop over to Portugal for a party, just a two-hour Nice-Lisbon puddle jump return. Dumb.
The party was great, but then Thor the thunder god hammered Nice with rain, making up for an eight-month drought in a day. A freak Mediterranean tsunami washed tire-slashing rocks onto the runway.
At Lisbon airport two hours early, I found the departures board coyly posts flight info only a short time before check-in. Then I learned why Portugal calls its airline TAP. Try a Prayer. The transfer desk was overwhelmed beyond hope, so I waited.
A kindly agent said my flight would likely go; it was just waiting word for a time slot. I stupidly neglected to call the Nice tower, which would have told me the airport was shut down indefinitely. So I let the only plane to Marseille go without me.
The agent offered to shunt me to Paris but that meant giving up on Nice. Then she went off duty. Hours later, TAP owned up. Passengers milled around, helpless and clueless, and a Spaniard bellowed in fury: “These are humans, not animals…” That’s when I pulled an old correspondent’s ruse and got to a besieged transfer desk agent.
The rattled young woman said there was space on the last Paris flight but she could not sell me a ticket. I’d have to go to a counter outside security and return. No time. And that wasn’t true. “You can just buy it online,” she said, and told me to piss off.
But TAP would not sell tickets online for flights leaving within less than six hours. So I slept at an airport hotel, caught a dawn flight to Orly, made a 10-hour taxi and train schlep to Nice to pick up my car and got to Wild Olives a day and a half late.
During that process, almost inevitably in airports these days, someone’s spewed microbes gave me the raging crud. By the time I got back to Paris, I was immobile in bed, hunting for a later option. For $3,000, that was a definite maybe.
With a good doctor and some luck, I decided to take my original flight. That one stop was Atlanta, the world’s busiest airport. What could possibly go wrong? As you’ve likely heard, Atlanta went dark for 11 hours; both its main power system and its backup fried at the same time, and 1,500 flights were cancelled.
In the end, I made my connection, thanks to a Global Entry card and a priority tag on my checked bag. There is much more to say but enough about me. Step back and think about what this all means.
The climate chaos we underestimate and not-infrequent technical glitches, combined with corporate zeal to trim costs to the bone, leave the global mobility we rely on perilously vulnerable.
When it works, air travel is wondrous to behold. On an average day, 10,000 aircraft carry 1.2 million passengers somewhere in a hurry. When it doesn’t, and knock-on multipliers affect whole continents, delayed Christmas plans are the least of it.
Money helps. If you pay for privilege up a sliding scale, chances increase not to be left among the milling no-status hordes -- “gate lice” in the elite fliers’ lexicon. But if planes don’t fly, they don’t fly.
Up the road in Maricopa County, with its wealthy enclaves of climate-change deniers, Sky Harbor Airport closed briefly this summer because the air was too hot for required lift.
Volcanoes shut down air space. Bali’s Mount Agung belched last month, stranding 79,000 tourists for a day. One can’t logically blame an irked god for that, but plenty of Balinese would disagree. And coming from a place where Bible-thumping hypocrites prefer a child molester to a Democrat in Congress, I’m not going to argue.
The point is that we are at our limits, pushing technologies and probabilities to extremes. Our vulnerability is hair-raising, and air travel is hardly the worst of it.
While still in France, fed up with CNN shouting matches over domestic trumpery, I switched to BBC. British Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach warned that Russian subs were paying suspiciously close attention to undersea communications cables.
The Washington Post, picking up the theme, noted Russia’s modernized fleet has 60 full-sized submarines, only six fewer than the United States. It quoted U.S. Rear Adm. Andrew Lennon, commander of NATO’s submarine forces, as warning “Russia is clearly taking an interest in NATO and NATO nations’ undersea infrastructure.”
Peach, Britain’s top military commander, put it simply:
“Can you imagine a scenario where those cables are cut or disrupted, which would immediately and potentially catastrophically affect both our economy and other ways of living if they were disrupted?”
Yes, I can imagine. And, being a reporter, I’ve got a fresh notebook in my back pocket. Things go according to plan, or I’ve got a story. But it is not likely to be a story that I want any part of.