On Sheep, Wolves and Unfriendly Skies

NEW YORK – I think I’ve figured out the American penchant for bombing the crap out of airfields in so many places around the world. It’s just our innate generosity. We want to bring them to the level of La Guardia.

This began as another traveler’s tale of spending 48 woeful hours on what should have been a 90-minute American Airlines hop to the Carolina beaches. But then I stepped back to consider causes and implications. It’s time, as Seth Meyers would say, for a closer look.

Like Abe Lincoln said, you can’t fool all the people all the time. But in a fleeced, flocked-up nation of sheep, you only have to fool enough of the people enough of the time. And as Ben Franklin warned Americans at the outset: “Make yourself sheep and the wolves will eat you.”

Big business understands this, and so do lawmakers who depend on corporate largesse for their jobs. The Democrats have picked an apt campaign slogan for 2018, harking back to those crucial three words in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: for the people.

First, the basic facts.

My far-flung family decided to gather at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina, and I popped over from Paris via New York. After the usual maddening La Guardia concourse change, American cancelled the flight, blaming weather, which relieved it of paying expenses. No big deal. I got some useful insight into Third-World squalor at a ratty chain hotel in Queens.

I snagged a dawn American flight to Philadelphia. It was delayed an hour while a Laurel and Hardy maintenance team dealt with an overhead bin latch, but we got to the Philly departure gate on time. The flight was cancelled. Happily, I was with my wife, Jeannette, who is among the world’s great travel mavens. She found the airline’s hard-luck number and got us on an afternoon plane. Which was cancelled.

Jeannette once shepherded 100 schoolgirls in an Akron, Ohio, marching band around the Soviet Union in the bad old days. In Philadelphia, after a flinty-eyed American transfer agent neglected to tell her of an unposted flight we missed by minutes, she wept in frustration. She found us another, but the wait list was long. Then we happened upon the hero of the piece.

The last flight of the day left the gate almost on time, and then sat on the apron for an hour. Finally, as other aircraft were called back, our pilot announced with a note of triumph that we were ready for takeoff. He had maneuvered to the top of the runway while air controllers kept changing his route. When the tower finally called him back to the gate, he said, essentially: Fuck you, we’re going. He was cleared, and we went.

“Another minute more, and we’d still be at La Guardia,” he told me when we landed on a dry runway after a flight through clear skies. “It’s pretty crazy out there.” I won’t risk his job by naming him.

At the car rental lot, we run into a couple from that first mysteriously grounded flight. They caught the same Philadelphia hop we did. When the grumpy gate agent told them the plane wasn’t going -- tough shit -- they spent $1,400 to rent wheels and arrived when we did.

A week later at lunchtime, an hour before I was to head for the airport, American called off my flight, giving no reason. The next morning at 4 a.m., I drove an hour for a flight that actually left. As it happened, my seatmate was a talkative veteran American Airlines pilot, one of three dead-heading north to fly a plane from La Guardia. Maybe. I won’t name him either.

The bigger picture, way beyond American Airlines, goes back to 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers and banned them for life from federal service. That crippled unions across the board. Big business – airlines included --got the message.

Flights must be grounded when conditions demand it. But far too often, weather is a thin excuse for something else entirely. Each day, 2.5 million passengers are aloft in U.S. airspace, many of them in jammed coastal corridors.

Airlines are overstretched and understaffed. So are control towers. Even in normal times, the easy way to relieve congestion is to hold planes on the ground. Jumbo jets and puddle-jumpers full of people eager to get somewhere are just green lights on a screen.

In 2016, a federal law reduced the time departing aircraft can remain on the tarmac, and it limited the hours crews can remain on duty. Aging fleets and backed-up maintenance cause delays that require fresh pilots to fly in from somewhere, if they can.   

“The rules are overly conservative, and that creates a mess all around,” my pilot seatmate said, echoing the opinion of other crew members I debriefed as I roamed twixt the Philly cheese steak line and a crowded pizza parlor.

This was mid-August, and the weather was only mildly rainy. Assume that climate chaos we are already is no Chinese coax -- and imagine a near future of fast-burgeoning air travel under extreme conditions.

Priority status helps. But the more people pay for privilege, the more everyone else gets shunted to the back of the line. If the plane doesn’t go, even diamond-platinum poohbahs stay on the ground.

Mostly, passengers simply take it without a bleat. When I spun out this story to a very smart beloved relative at the Carolina beach, she gave me that look: stop complaining, it said. They’re only trying to keep us safe.

Airlines are only part of it. The banks that used to give us calendars and thank us for entrusting them with our savings now fleece us at every turn. We all know the rest of this story.

Just as I finished this lament, a text arrived from Jeannette the travel queen, who was at JFK about to board a Delta flight to Nice using her big-deal priority card from the airline. Yes, the agent told her, she could check a second bag for a mere $279. Baaa.