The Ecphorizer

Airplane '86
Tod Wicks

Issue #50 (October 1985)

Nearly two years ago I joined the International Telecom Division of my company, the Rolm Corporation (then owned by IBM). Rolm designs and markets computerized digital telephone switchboards (or CBXs, Computerized Branch Exchanges); ITD is [quoteright]the arm which markets and services these

Whoops, there goes that chicken, down the aisle ...

machines outside the US and Canada. Since joining the Operations group I have been away more than I have been home. I have been to Tokyo and Singapore in the Orient, Saudi Arabia and the Seychelles, and Mexico City just days before their earthquake.

I have discovered that if you are traveling by air these days, there are many choices to make at every stage. Gone are the days when you simply bought a ticket on your favorite carrier and flew away to your destination. These days, the airlines are offering frequent flyers bonuses if you accumulate enough miles through one carrier. This means you have to study the bonus program for awards. Do you want a one-way ticket to Hog's Holler, Kentucky? You can get one after only 7500 miles flown on FlyByNite Air. A vacation flight for you and a partner round trip in cattle class to Dorking, England? Yours after only 72,000 miles on WOW (West Orkney/Wales) Air.

As an aside, you may notice that these awards often include a nebulous "partner." This means approximately that anyone you wish can accompany you on the trip. You see, years ago one of the major airlines advertised a special for traveling businessmen: buy a full-fare ticket for yourself and your spouse flies at half-price. This was fine, and a lot of business travelers took advantage of this offer. However, several months into the campaign, the airline began writing "thank you" notes. They usually began, "Dear Mrs. Smith: We want to thank you and Mr. Smith for recently taking advantage of our half-off-the-spouse's-ticket program. We hope you and Mr. Smith enjoyed your flight."

As you can imagine, not all businessmen were honest Charlies about who their traveling companions were. The ticket might have said "Mrs. Smith," but the companion was Ms. Chickadee from the office. After a few complaints and civil suits, the "thank-you" program was dropped.

Other airline choices these days include smoking or non-smoking section, meat/kosher/vegetarian meals, and window or aisle seat. But you have to be careful in choosing a seat. I have been on several midweek flights that are only half-full. There are plenty of unused seats, but half the plane is seated in rows 30 through 35. 32D, E, and F are taken up by a mother and two screaming children. I look around and I see a great emptiness. Did the airline's computer assign seats randomly or was this lumping done by a sadistic reservations manager?

When the time comes to begin boarding, you notice that everyone is crowding around the door which leads to the aircraft. Someone announces that "We will soon be pre-boarding the aircraft." No one can explain why they use the term "pre-board," except that it refers to children and the infirm boarding before the rest of us. They load the rear of the plane first so congestion at the overhead racks is kept to a minimum. But you will always find one or two clods in row 10 or 15 boarding early and holding up the whole crowd while they pack their three or four pieces of drag-on luggage into the one-cubic foot per seat of space in the overhead racks. Only when they are finished can the rest of us head for rows 30 to 40. In the terminal, we are also reminded to "extinguish all smoking materials." Why can't airline personnel speak plain English, especially in international terminals where many travelers speak English as a second language, and simply ask travelers to put out their cigarettes?  Is it because someone might be carrying a smoking gun?

Most modern aircraft are computer-controlled these days, which adds to the safety of the flight and helps the flight crew navigate around stormy weather. There must be one special indicator that shows turbulence ahead. When that flashes on the screen, the pilot notifies the cabin crew to begin serving the meal. It never fails: you no sooner get the rubber chicken or plastic beef in front of you than the "Fasten Seat Belt" sign turns on and the plane starts bouncing in and out of air pockets. Whoops, there goes that chicken, down the aisle, heading for the smoking section!

Speaking of in-flight food, I was on an early morning flight from San Jose to Nashville several years ago. As we were preparing for takeoff, one of the stewardesses announced our choices for breakfast: western omelette or fruit crepes. Apparently someone asked her what was in these meals, because she shortly amplified her announcement — the fruit crepes were made with apples and the western omelette was filled with cowboy boots.

When it's time to land, people get impatient. It seems strange that we will hurry to get out of our seats so we can wait for the door to open so we can hurry to passport control so we can wait in line. Then we hurry to the baggage carousel where we can wait for our bags. Ever notice that the first ten or so pieces of luggage are never claimed by anyone standing there? There seems to be no rhyme or reason to baggage handling, either. I have traveled in First Class, Business Class, and Cattle Class and none of these made any difference in the order in which I received my stuff. I have checked in early and late, I have my bags marked with a "Frequent Traveler" ID card. None of these get my bags in any sooner.

Speaking of patience, I am reminded of an incident upon arriving at the airport in Victoria, Seychelles, after an overnight flight. I was behind three couples and a middle-aged European couple was behind me. The fellow stamping passports for our line was inspecting all the stamps in every passport. This slowed the line considerably. However, I could see the baggage carousel from where I was standing, and my bags hadn't yet appeared, so I stood patiently waiting.

The European lady behind me wasn't so patient, though. She started stamping around and calling the officer everything from "stupid" to "jerk." Of course, I am toning down the translation of her actual expletives. I eventually got through and moved over to the baggage area, just in time to see my bag on the belt. Great timing. I took it over to customs and waited in line there. I noticed the European couple still waiting for their baggage as I left customs, the lady fuming and swearing about slow baggage handlers. What a swell way to start a vacation! 

TOD WICKS, in between business trips to far-off lands, has been buying more Apple computers. You can tell when he is at work, because the lights all over Palo Alto dim perceptibly.

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