By BRAD WARTHEN
Editorial Page Editor
“NEWS IS whatever happens to, or interests, an editor,” a wise colleague named Jerry Ratts once said. Actually, he said it more than “once,” which is why I remember.
I would insert a corollary: “… or to the editor’s wife….”
For the past year, my wife has traveled a lot back and forth between here and Pennsylvania. So have I, for that matter. She and our youngest have been up there so that our daughter can study ballet with extreme intensity. My wife has worked up there as a pre-school teacher to help pay for keeping two households, not to mention all the travel.
She’s spent a lot of time in airports — enough that when she comes home this week, it will be by train.
A trip back up there in May was the last straw. She recounted her ordeal in an exclusive interview with this correspondent:
She had to fly out of there early Mother’s Day afternoon, and given the airlines’ rule about early arrival, there was no chance to celebrate the day over lunch. She intended to have a nice dinner with my youngest up in the Keystone State, but that was not to be, either. She wouldn’t get home until after 1 a.m. Monday.
Miraculously, she left Charleston on time. But she had to make two connections to get to Harrisburg. Things seemed fine when she arrived at the gate for the first connection. They still seemed fine — the sign at the gate still brightly proclaimed that her flight would be on time — when she and other passengers noticed that the flight after theirs was boarding, and they weren’t.
Somebody had the temerity to ask, and was told, “Oh, we canceled yours.” No apology, and apparently no intention of making an announcement.
It was either on that leg of the trip or the next (“Can’t remember… so exhausting…”) that she found herself wandering about a terminal after having received no helpful advice at the gate. She learned by chance that another passenger was going to Allentown, with a promised 75-mile bus ride to Harrisburg. She went back to the apathetic agent at the gate to ask about that, and was told yeah, we could get you there that way if that’s what you want.
The alternative was a flight to Harrisburg at noon the next day, so yeah, she’d like a bus ride. She reached her bed about four hours before time to get up and go herd 4-year-olds all day.
“So I’m not flying any more,” she said with that dangerous emphasis that I know not to contradict. “They don’t care how much they inconvenience you, or how much they lie to you. I’m just not doing it any more.”
Of course not, dear. Especially since, between her experiences and my own, this was the third trip in a row that could have been completed more quickly by driving. That haul up interstates 77 and 81, passing through six states, is a stroll in the park compared to these aeronautic nightmares.
I’ve been on the verge of writing this column a number of times in recent months, but have held back, remembering what Jerry Ratts (the Sage of Wichita, quoted above) said about editors and their sense of perspective.
Besides, I wasn’t sure it was right for the opinion pages. It had happened to us several times, and the Sage was also known to say: “That’s twice. Once more and it’s a trend, and we can send it to Lifestyles.”
Then I saw Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, which had a bona fide news story about how many passengers had become fed up with air travel and were taking Amtrak: “Airplanes are getting stuck in lots of traffic jams this summer, but Amtrak is on a roll.”
Then I realized USA Today — the paper whose only “home town” is the nation’s airports — had been all over it: “By virtually every measure, this is shaping up as the worst year ever for air travel. (That is, if you’re a passenger. Some of the airlines are actually making profits for a change.)”
Good thing my wife swore off air travel in May, because things have only gotten worse since:
“There’s really something different this summer,” said a frustrated traveler who blogs on the subject (at TakingtheKids.com), which is almost as authoritative as being an editor. “Not only can’t you count on the airlines giving you anything to eat, but you can’t count on a three-hour flight actually being a three-hour flight. It’s a whole new paradigm.” (Journalists find it soothing to describe their personal frustrations with words like “paradigm.”)
And if you’re the old-fashioned sort who wants facts rather than anecdotes, USA Today supplies this: “In June, 462 aircraft sat for at least three hours awaiting takeoff after leaving the gate, more than tripling the 137 such delays during May. DOT says it’s the highest monthly number since at least 2000.”
Why has all this happened? Disgruntled scribes differ on that. There’s an air traffic control system that isn’t using the latest technology. There’s the increased number of short-hop flights, taking up more gate time and creating more chances to get tangled up. There’s the cutbacks in airline personnel, who are getting cranky and increasingly unlikely to give you the time of day, much less fluff your pillow.
But who cares about the why when the answer to when is, “Not any time soon, so sit down and shut up or we’ll call security”?
In any case, it’s clear that my better half swore off air travel just in time. So I won’t mind a bit hauling myself out of bed at midnight to drive my pickup down to the railway station and wait for my woman to come home. I’ll take along a notepad and a harmonica, ’cause if that don’t get me halfway to a country song, I ain’t got one in me:
Well, I went down to the station;
I was feelin’ kinda sore…
Yeah, I went down to the station, mama;
I was feelin’ mighty sore…
Mah woman, she done tol’ me,
She ain’t gonna fly no more… (Honka wonka waw-waw-wahn)…