Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Escape from ATL

Escape from ATL
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here
Hilary Lambert
With selected quotations from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

My Travel Plan – and Its Destruction
Dark, profound it was, and cloudy

On Friday February 22 2008, I began a trip by air from Barcelona Spain to Lexington Kentucky USA, scheduled from 10:30 am Barcelona time to 10:00 pm Lexington time.

However, on Saturday February 23 at 3 pm I was to be found driving north from Atlanta Georgia in a rental car toward my Lexington apartment, where I arrived at 10 pm, ate crackers and cheese, and went to bed.

In the interval between Friday morning and Saturday afternoon I experienced and witnessed continuous, total and unrelenting misery of such depth and amoral cruelty that it cannot be written off as a ‘bad travel story.’

Air Travel: Convulsing Toward Breakdown
O creatures foolish, how great is that ignorance that harms you!

Massively destructive to people’s lives, cruel and inhumane, events like that of February 22 are papered over and dismissed as temporary, unavoidable glitches, to be accepted as part of normal travel. I disagree. These disabling seizures, and the ensuing cruel treatment of human beings, cannot be blamed on the weather. Airport breakdowns of this type are in fact the result of computer simulations, outcome scenarios, and other deliberations of a profit-based decision-making process.

On time, the plane from Barcelona arrived at Newark and descended through white cloud cover toward our landing. The ground below popped out of the snowy whiteout in the final thirty seconds before we landed with impeccable smoothness. I saw around us a scene of rough and rugged plowed snow – we had arrived during a major snow storm. By the time we got to the terminal, it was clear that few planes were moving. Massive streams of snow were being blown off the runways, and plow trucks were everywhere – but no planes. A brief weather delay, I thought, is good. I can relax about making my connection to Lexington.

The passengers streamed out of the plane and along corridors with passports and filled-out forms in hand, cascading down escalators toward our preferably brief interactions with Customs personnel. The human contents of several international flights in their many hundreds blended into a massive converging stream down a final set of stairs and escalators to a big room with Customs booths lined up along the far wall – a line of cash registers at a big box store.

Settled on the floor of the immense room, the crowd edged forward into an orderly line, controlled by adjustable avenues of black retractable ribbon on movable uprights. Long lines of international humanity wound back and forth, back and forth, inching toward the booths. I was carrying a heavy backpack and a shoulder bag filled with Spanish gift purchases. Once on the far side of the booths, I anticipated grabbing my suitcase, then dropping it into the stream of domestic flight baggage, for my flight to Lexington.

In the hours of misery to follow, I was glad I had kept up with the passengers who started running as soon as they were off the plane. As a result I was in the front third of the giant group of many hundreds who became a captive refugee group within the wider world of Newark airport, then a problematic diaspora struggling to make ongoing connections – in the face of ferocious efforts by the airlines to shake us out of the system and forget us.

The Newark group became an indigestible bulge in the belly of American air transport. Across the Northeastern US on Friday, there were massive bulges in the bellies of airports large and small. Hundreds of miles west in Kentucky, the Lexington airport on Sunday, two days later, was awash in unclaimed baggage from travelers victimized by this paralysis of our massively overgrown air travel “system.”

In my mid-50s, I was fit, healthy and able to take care of myself, kicking my bags forward in the shuffling lines of airline prisoners, hour after hour. By midday the next day, I had the resources and energy to escape the circle of Hell to which hundreds of passengers had been consigned and forgotten.

However, as did Dante with Virgil, his guide to the deepening circles of Hell, I witnessed the unspeakable discourtesy, torment and misery that the airline industry uses as the standard cut-rate, dump-and-run management methods for passengers caught up in the toils of yet another “adverse weather event.”

I saw and spoke with families with small children, old folks, ill people, and non-English speaking foreigners who were totally overset and swept away with the enormity of the catastrophic situation we were dumped into. We all began the day in anticipation of a reasonable travel experience, and instead found ourselves lost, isolated, and at the mercy of savage and inhumane “procedures.” No information or relief was provided. We were roped off, separated into a captive herd, shuffled forward through the chutes to an unknown fate.

Technological Breakdown in the Customs Hall
…through me is the way among the lost people.

I was three rows deep in the crowd waiting to go through Customs, and we moved along at a fine pace, with eight or more open booths processing people quickly. I finally emerged from the pack as a blue-suited gal pointed me to a short line for the next booth. I was behind a family with two active boys, who were screaming and running back and forth to a nearby pillar. I looked up to see the Customs officials in their glass booths sitting still, staring at their computer screens, and the lines ground to a halt.

We watched for fifteen minutes as they conferred with one another, until one man stepped out to shout at the many hundreds filling the hall. He told us that the computers controlling the Customs process had just died – nationwide. All along our American borders! He said that no one could be processed until the computers went back up, and he asked for patience.

I am not going to dwell on this startling development (though others may want to), because in comparison to what followed around the next few bends in the building, it was a mere detail. We waited for about a half hour, with rising tempers for many and hysteria from the kids. During this time, we began to hear that some flights had been delayed or cancelled, this information spreading quickly via conversations. However, anyone using their cell phone was shouted at by the blue-suited officials to “Stop that immediately;” I guess due to fears that terrorists might storm the booths and force their way into the US of A.

Slowly, one by one, the computer screens came back to life and I was processed through, thankful again to be near the front of the massive group behind me. Hustling along the slick-walled corridors, I burst into a room filled with baggage carousels, quickly grabbed my bag and moved on around the next bend, ready to drop it into the domestic travel bins. I was grateful that I still had a bit of time before my flight to Lexington, and hoped that the worst of the snowstorm was past. This cheery outlook was about to undergo an abrupt change.

The Re-Booking Process: Continental Dumps Us Onto Delta
Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on

Ahead were signs with arrows, pointing to the exit and to connecting flights. As I approached the bins to redeposit my bag, a young man with dreadlocks and clipboard stepped forward. He smiled and said, “Hi! What flight are you on?” I smiled back and told him. He glanced at his clipboard and said, “Oh! Well, that is one of the cancelled flights. Can you go around there,” (he pointed onward in a swirling motion), “and get in line to be re-booked on the next available flight?” I said, “Oh darn, but thanks,” still feeling good, not yet having felt the bullet.

Adjusting my backpack and shoulder bag to accommodate my suitcase, I rounded the corner and advanced several hundred feet along a variety of passageways, crossing the paths of airline employees and other customers, following the ragged line of fellow rebookees ahead of me. Around another corner, across a main terminal hallway, I espied the end of the line of two hundred or more who clustered in a squared-off, corralled group, zig-zagging back and forth across a patch of floor in the direction of several computer terminals where passengers were being booked onward, one by one.

I timed how long it took for me to get from the end of the line to the re-booking computer ladies: three and a half hours. Once I was there, it took the employee a full half-hour to book me onward. I was relatively near the front of the group, remember. It was in this line that my sense of shocked disbelief and outrage set in, though that took a while. The first thing I noticed was that I was in between two simmering men.

The guy behind me was with a friend his cell phone glued to his head while they figured out an escape. They were trying to rebook via phone, calling their co-workers who had already headed to a New York hotel. The glittery-eyed guy under his Red Sox cap was enraged. For our first hour in line, he ranted and swore continuously. I did not mind – he saved me doing it. He went on about how he would never travel again, never in winter, never here, never – he made many solemn oaths. I learned that he was suffering from a fever and other symptoms, perhaps picked up from his airplane seatmate on the way over to Spain. My friendliness stepped back a foot or two. He was ill – he needed to be in bed, where he had spent his entire trip.

The man in front of me was not so civilized. He was telling someone on his cell phone to wait until he got there to throw a “jerk’s stuff out in the street.” That was intriguing but alarming, and I kept my distance as we shuffled exquisitely slowly forward, until I saw the fingers on his left hand. Several were scabbed and sore looking and one was red, swollen, pink with new skin, and bent at a slight angle. “That must hurt!” I said. “Yeah! I did that with a snowblower,” he replied, and told me the gory story.

When we returned to our present situation he said, “This is what happened to me on the way over. I was stuck in the airport for two days!” He said he had paid the airline an extra $295 to return a day early so that he could see a doctor about his hand. Long hours later when we got to the re-booking ladies, he lost that appointment when they couldn’t book him on to Syracuse until the following afternoon.

I began to feel thirsty, very thirsty. I was fortunate that I did not need a bathroom. If this line had been shuffling mournfully onward in the morning hours after my daily diuretic pill, I would have lost my place in that eternal line, with my (repeated) need for a toilet.

I watched the line lengthening behind me. Airline personnel were fitfully directing the hundreds searching for the back of the re-booking line. It ran out of sight; from the arm-waving and swerving of family groups dragging suitcases and children, I saw that it had wound way the heck back beyond staircases and into an adjoining room, where more zig-zagging lines of shuffling hundreds were curling back and forth upon themselves. I could not imagine the horror of being back there, burdened with bags, illness, age, and children. For those people, glimpses of the next chunk of shuffling passengers in the distance were the only reassurance that this experience would ever end.

I do not know how long those people were in line. My mere three and a half hours was an eternity. I looked toward the re-booking ladies, and saw how slowly the line moved forward. We were roped off from regular life in the airport. New arrivals would gaily walk past us, chatting; one would remark, “Look at all these people!” like we were freaks – and then they would hurry onwards. I saw that we were managed, controlled, and cowed into dumb obedience. I wondered how it was reasonable that four or five slow-working employees were all the resources that Continental could spare to rebook this massive, tired, needy group of paying customers.

Other than the occasional uniformed people directing the flow of rebookees to the back of the line, the only person I saw regularly was an airport employee whose job was to re-adjust our zig-zagging lines and to add more as the crowd continued to swell. I called out to him, “What is going on here? Can you tell us?” because we had no information, other than what people gleaned via their cell phones and shared. “Ma’am,” he shouted, “Just you don’t leave this line!” “But why are we in this line?” I shouted back. “Ma’am, a lot of flights have been cancelled from the snow. If you want a hotel room tonight, you stay in this line. You get out of it, you lose that.” He walked off.

A television interviewer with his camera man came along the line, calling out, “Who wants to tell us about their experience here today?” I called to him, “I love visiting New Jersey! But before we talk to you, can you tell us what is going on?” – I could see his startled realization that while the world outside knew all about our situation, we were captive to it and had no clue – no one had the simple courtesy to inform us. He said, as his buddy set up the camera, “Well, a lot of snow fell, and three hundred flights have been cancelled. Want to tell us how you feel about that?” and several did. He did not get any fireworks from us, soon wandering off down the line in search of hotter tempers. I am sure he found them.

As we edged forward from the hallway into the zig-zagging corral of lanes, there was a small gap to cross. Less fastidious travelers were trying to sneak in at this point. I was mean to a tired young Italian man and to a Frenchwoman my age, who were incorrigible with long sad stories that matched or surpassed our own. I told them where the back of the line was. I scared the people around me a bit with my sternness – but did not intend to lose my place in line to others, no matter how deep their suffering. But the Frenchwoman was determined. Inserting herself several people back, she slowly made her way forward until she got behind me, and got no further. I entertained myself ensuring that she did not edge past me at the turns in the zig-zags.

After two hours, the men behind me slipped under the black ribbon and were gone, headed to a Manhattan hotel and rebooking through their business travel office. I watched others in their groups, able to get coffee or food and use the bathroom. I wondered at the small number of employees assisting our many hundreds, and why there was no attempt to give us information or to provide bottled water or any other type of assistance or comfort. We had been shunted into cattleyard chutes, transmuted from passengers to problems.

Arriving at the rebooking lady, our negotiations began tersely, thawing as the minutes passed. The woman next to her was apparently unaware that she should be nice to the passengers – her attitude was just short of “I’m doing you a big favor here pal” to the guy with the medically-needy finger. They did not get along. I won’t go into the negotiations over where my gal could get me and when, because I assume – based on what happened the next morning – that it was a mostly bogus interaction, and that her assignment was to get me out of Continental, dump me onto Delta, and move on to the next person.

I was supposed to feel grateful for the hotel and food chits, indicated by the gracious manner in which the rebooking gals handed out the pieces of paper and smiled as they waved us toward distant escalators, with murky instructions about next steps. Based on what happened the next day, I am – though only in retrospect – grateful for the hotel and food chits I received on Friday from Continental. I did laugh out loud when told I was assigned to the Holiday Inn in Edison. That’s a good distance from Newark! I was a New Brunswick resident for eight years, and I know my Joisey. I realized at that point the extent of the problem, booking passengers to such distant hotels.

I had to take my suitcase with me – was told that “due to security reasons, you understand,” they could not hold it for me that night or book it onwards, although I had “confirmed flights” on a piece of paper they printed out and gave me. I noticed that the folks in the first and business class speedy line were able to book their luggage onward. I should have had a strong presentiment about the next day’s travel challenges at that point, but was too tired and thirsty to think about anything more than my need to sit down and drink something wet.

“Exiting the rebooking area,” I paused as an exhausted man of about my age, probably Italian, rose from a bench outside and said, “May I speak with you for a moment please?” A woman sitting near him glanced up as we talked. He said, “I am wondering, can you give me any information about what is happening here, and what will happen next? My son is in line” – he pointed into the shuffling corral – “my knees could not take the wait. We do not know what is happening here.”

I slowed down at the misery and loss of dignity in his face and said, “With the snow, many hundreds of flights have been cancelled, so they are working to get us onto other flights, but you and your family will have to stay here at a hotel tonight. Your son will return with free hotel rooms, directions on how to get there, and coupons for free meals. You will come back here tomorrow to resume your travels.” He thanked me – apologetically – and sat down next to his wife. I walked away, stunned that, after four hours, he knew nothing about the situation until I told him.

After a ten-minute interval of bag-shifting, resting my feet, a bathroom visit and a long cold drink, I began the trek across distant floors and rising escalators toward a destination called “P-4.” As I trudged I wondered, what would the non-English speakers think of the directions we had been given? Could they interpret them correctly in order to find shelter that night? Why were there no Continental or airport employees there to help us as we emerged from the rebooking corral and made our way onward? I thought about the people behind me, with another three to five hours in that line.

The Wait in the Snowy Cold for Hotel Shuttles
…no hope ever comforts them, not of repose, but even of less pain

Vaguely recalling the instructions from the rebooking lady, I made my way up several escalators with my bags looking for P-4, and reached a foyer for the trams that connect the Newark airport terminals. The room was jammed with people trying to get to P-4, which I finally realized was a distant airport location where we could board shuttle buses to airport hotels. Maybe under normal circumstances, the train cars are big enough, but on the evening of Friday February 22 they were tiny. They arrived full, only a few got off, and only a few could jam in with bags and families. A wonderfully competent young man in a red jacket stepped forward just before each train arrived to give instructions, slow and clear, for people to stand away from the doors to ensure faster flow.

Arriving at the P-4 stop, I came into direct contact with the bitterly cold winter night. At the foot of the escalator was a vast cold hall full of people waiting for the hotel shuttles that pulled up to the snowy curb outside. A woman shouted for us to call our hotel at a shining board advertising many hotels, a line of free phones below.

I searched for the Holiday Inn at Edison – it was not listed! I began calling the available Holiday Inns, and was told that they could not help me contact the one in Edison. On my second call, a human being said, with real anguish, that the Edison hotel was far away from the airport, and he did not think they had airport shuttle bus service. All I could do was hang up and try the next one. I was awash in a sea of shouting, demented, cold passengers, and could not hear or be heard.

Exhausting the list of Holiday Inns on the glowing board, I looked out at the snowy night and decided to board the first Holiday Inn bus that came along, go there, and rage and shout until I got “service.” Great choice, huh! It’s not like any airport or airline employees were present to advise us. We had been kicked to the curb. Outside along that curb, a couple hundred people were standing with their luggage and families, facing into the winter wind, watching for a bus that met their needs. Shuttles zipped out of the snowy night and zoomed up to the curb. Behind me hundreds more people were arriving via the tram, descending the escalator into this intensifying mess.

I dug into my bags, got out all my clothing layers. Lacking “only” a hat, I put it all on and stood at the curb in the wind. Behind me were two shivering women in light windbreakers, newly arrived from Spain or Italy. I heard the familiar tones of a laughing lady from Kentucky, and saw that she was wearing light slippers on her feet, in the freezing slush along the curb.

It was a demonic scene in the floodlit, freezing darkness. A bus would emerge over the hump of the approach ramp and people would cry out, “What is it?” and run out into the street dragging their bags to be first in line. More often than not, they had to go back; it was the wrong bus, the wrong hotel, or the driver was not instructed to pick them up. Often there was a tangle of four or five buses arriving and departing, with packs of people shouting and running out madly, dangerously, their wheeled bags turning over and falling in the snow.

Over 45 minutes passed before a Holiday Inn bus arrived, but was a “It looks like a Holiday Inn bus but I am only taking Howard Johnson passengers” bus, according to the young driver, who was nice but quickly overwhelmed by the screaming, shoving mass of cold-crazed, mob-like passengers. He told our growing group of Edison-assigned passengers clustered at the curb that this was not the Edison hotel bus. As the Howard Johnson passengers converged on him I called over their heads, “Is there really an Edison bus?” and he shouted back of course there was, and it would arrive soon.

The shuttles came and went, and the increasingly angry, cold and scared crowds continued to flow down the escalators and out onto the curb. One couple was really upsetting to see – a man in his mid-thirties with his young son of about three. The man was wearing only a shirt and light trousers. He had no coat, hat or scarf. His son had on a small grey jacket and a backpack that had dragged his jacket halfway down his back. They were standing at the curb, right in the storm. I think the dad was stunned by their circumstance and his discomfort, and could only reassure his son with words, to be brave. The boy was standing there, facing into the wind, crying. All they could do was talk and wait as the wind buffeted them and they got colder and colder.

Few of us behaved well that evening. If I had been less stressed I would have gone to hold the boy, or at least tell him how to stand close to his dad’s legs. But we were all under a spell of desperation, that I understand is what happens in times of war and deprivation, but certainly was not anticipated by those who had arrived at P-4 and descended the escalators at the cheerful instruction of the ladies back at the rebooking corral.

A full-sized bus rolled out of the snow, Holiday Inn plastered across its sides. We rushed the bus and climbed on but were rebuffed – it was not headed to the Edison hotel. The bus driver was agitated but firm and told us to get out and wait, as he manhandled tons of luggage and a guy in a wheelchair through the snow and up the steps. It was the right bus for the underclothed man and his son. I was relieved to see them hugging tightly for warmth and comfort in a seat by the door.

Back in the snowstorm, people conferred about how best to notify the Edison hotel that we were waiting. One brightly-dressed woman wearing a shawl and sandals with her summer dress said that we needed a cab. Just as I realized no cabs had come to P4, a cab appeared out of the snow and approached the curb. We ran for it screaming, “Grab it! Edison!” I and three other women dived in as a man at the curb with his family called to me, “Tell the hotel we’re here, would you?”

The cabbie told us that cabs are not allowed at P4, but he had heard “There was trouble at P4,” so he ventured over anyway. We were grateful, as we thawed. We had been waiting an hour and a half. Later at the hotel, the man who had called to me from the curb said that the Holiday Inn Edison shuttle pulled up “about a minute” after we fled by cab.

Portents of Disaster Begin Early the Next Morning
…Who heapeth up so many new travails and penalties as I saw?

The overnight interlude at the Holiday Inn Edison was short, weirdly fun, and distinctively New Jersey. I wonder how much of these hotels’ revenues come from adverse weather events. However, the pleasant pause was not a long one. I had finally caught on that my getting back to Lexington KY was a savage, dog-eat-dog proposition, so I was in the hotel lobby forty minutes early for my 5 am shuttle back to the airport – and the lobby was thronging with like-minded travelers. By standing out along the curb and pushing, I was on the first of three buses the hotel was sending to the airport at that early hour. Again, being near the front of the line made a big difference – for a short period.

Returning to P-4 in the pearly dawn of a slightly less nasty day, we travelers retraced our steps down escalators and across vast marble floors, dragging baggage, to the airline check-in desk we had been rebooked to. I was moving speedily until I got the Delta desk in sight and saw a long line of rebookees in front of me – at 6 am. Time to toughen up, I thought. Brace for the struggle. I was not worried about time in line – I had an hour and a half before my scheduled flight on to Atlanta, and another solid wait there for my final jump to Lexington.

When I shuffled up to the check-in desk, with an hour to go before departure, I smiled and said “Hi,” and plopped my i.d. and travel coupon in front of the gal. She said, “Don’t smile, I may have bad news for you.” I froze and stood silent, before venturing, “Why is that?” in a quiet, calm voice. Clicking away on her computer, she did not look up as she said, “If I can’t get you a seat on this flight, I am going to have to send you back to Continental.” I said, “Yes, that is bad news.” I waited. She looked up and said, “You’re lucky. There’s a seat to Atlanta. Continental is overbooking on our flights, and we have our own cancelled flights to deal with.”

As I accepted the all-important boarding pass and committed my suitcase to their tender care, I realized that rebookees have very low status. We are detritus, gritty sand in the machinery of air travel as it begins a new day. I thought about the hundreds behind me who, by trustingly taking the 6 am bus as they had been instructed, were going to be sent back, across the long departure floor, to Continental to stand in long lines once again. They were headed back to the start-point they had endured in the rebooking line the day before. It was a game of Chutes and Ladders.

The Terror of Airport Security
...I come into a region where is nothing that can give light.

Time for the security check line – it was long, but moving rapidly. I eyeballed it at a half hour, followed by walking without haste to the gate for boarding. Off with the shoes, jacket, bags on the conveyor belt, out with the laptop, the baggie with lotion. I stepped through the detector when motioned forward – and was informed that I was selected for additional screening, and would I please get in the other line.

Time tightened up, and so did I, monitored for tell-tale terrorist signs like extreme nervousness and tension. I sat on a chair as directed after the wand was passed over my parts, and watched as a uniformed gal rubbed small pieces of paper on the openings of my bags while she observed results on a screen. Required to sit very still and appear calm and all-American, I was a bundle of twitches and sharp movements when the machine stopped working and beeped insistently. The gal handed me my shoes with a grim smile, said, “These are OK,” and as I put them on she called a guy over to help re-set the machine. It stopped and needed re-starting, with much rubbing of surfaces, three times.

The way she intensively rubbed the teeny bits of paper over the openings to my backpack and shoulder bag was lubricious – sexual and gross. I wondered at “thinking about sex at a time like this” – was that somehow terroristic? I ran my hands through my hair, looked down at the floor, tried to breathe deeply and held on to my temper for dear life as I said quietly to her back, “Will I make my flight?” She ignored me and continued her stroking and penetration and wiping. When she turned to smile and say, “These are all fine, you can go,” I got up and, sweeping everything into my arms, swore loudly and luxuriantly at Homeland Security as I ran for the gate.

Of course I was not the last onboard – they had to delay the plane for a half hour due to “delays at Security” – other rebookees selected for additional screening, I’ll bet. The flight to Atlanta was flawless. I was seated among a self-termed “pod” of happy people who were on a ski trip to Montana. Unable to relax or speak pleasantly, I sat in isolated gloom among them, trying to wrestle my bad temper back into its box. We arrived within a reasonable time for my flight to Lexington, but as I walked toward that gate, I saw on a screen that the flight had been postponed for one hour.

At that moment I encountered a close family friend and her sister, and we had a warm and happy chat for about ten minutes. I told them that I had been delayed overnight and had seen some true travel hell, but was headed toward my final jump back to Lexington. Arriving at the departure gate and glancing at the screen, I saw that the flight had been cancelled. A long line of disconsolate passengers stood in front of the check-in point. A voice boomed, “Passengers who were on cancelled flight 6124, please proceed to gate 24 for rebooking. Please scan your bar code to determine your rebooked flight.”

Discarded by Delta in Atlanta
But now let us descend to greater woe.

I went to the back of the long line to be, yet again, rebooked for my final jump to Lexington. One lone woman was at the computer terminal, to help what began as 20 people and suddenly mushroomed toward 30-plus. These people were in states of fear and unraveling. After twenty minutes, the line had not budged – she had not been able to complete the rebooking of one single person. I looked around and saw a line of black phones for contacting “agents.” I also saw a small ugly machine jutting out of the floor where I could scan the bar-code on my ticket to get my new flight departure time. The first time I used it, the machine spat out a receipt with the now-cancelled flight on it as still active.

Then the fellow behind me tried it, and shouted out, “I’ve been rebooked – for tomorrow – Sunday – morning.” I tried again and got the same news. They were shaking us out of the system, relegating us to a level of Hell in which we would be tossed back and forth, abandoned by our original airline, left to live on the floor of the airport for untold days until they found an empty seat they could fill with our insensible bodies, one by one. And I was fit, an English speaker and a citizen of this country. I could not begin to imagine what was happening to others. I thought about all those hundreds back in Newark being rebooked by Continental.

Responding to this new bad news, we surged lemming-like toward the line of black phones, forfeiting our places in the lengthening line. On the phones, people talked to “agents” with their best charm and in pleasing voices, invoking secret statuses and memberships – none of which I had. In fact I was stymied immediately, because when I gave my Continental flight number to the agent who answered, she said that she could not handle an “international flight,” and could I please hang up and dial 2? I argued that I had been on an international flight but was now trying to make a domestic connection, but she said it was no use. So I hung up and dialed 2, and got another “domestic flights only” agent. I tried again – same result. I moved to another phone, while the man next to me was called over by the woman behind the desk to get his boarding pass on a flight immediately headed to Lexington.

I spoke across the crowds to the woman behind the desk, “Does Delta provide a motel for tonight, if we have been rebooked on a flight for Sunday morning?” She replied, “No ma’am, the airplane only does that if there is a weather event. If it is a mechanical failure, like the Lexington flight, you must pay your own overnight expenses.” I know how stupid it is to rant in an airport, as it just digs your hole deeper, but I called out, “You people should be ashamed of yourselves.” There was a brief silence while she typed furiously, and then she replied, “No ma’am, you’re wrong about that. Those are the rules.” Best not start on a reply to that!

I finally got a human being agent on a phone, who said that I was not going to get anywhere in that line of phones by dialing 2, and that she would take the time to connect me to an international flights agent. I was connected to Wanda. She was warm-voiced and supportive, perhaps trained in the skills of those who work at hospices, making patients comfortable and helping them with “acceptance.” Wanda could do nothing for me. She could not even figure out where my bag might be, “What with all the cancelled flights and everything.” She was deeply sympathetic, and looked here and there online, but there were no seats on flights to Lexington until the next day, Sunday morning (I was becoming highly doubtful of that flight’s existence, or of me being allowed on it).

Maybe Wanda was hoping I could give her secret words of a high-status type so that she could suddenly see an empty seat on her screen, but I had no such status – I was simply a passenger in coach class, who had paid in full, and had been tossed out of the system as an inconvenience. When Wanda so very nicely got through with me, I felt more isolated and alone than at any point earlier, and began to weep a tiny bit. But people in the long line were staring at me, so I lugged my two bags into a corner to do some thinking.

Decision to Break Out Takes Shape torments and new tormented souls I see around me wherever I move, and howsoever I turn, and wherever I gaze

I could not stand to stay at this airport all day and overnight, and I refused to pay for another night at my own expense. I could not afford to hang out in exciting Hotlanta to shop and eat. I was not confident of having a seat if I waited for the Sunday morning flight. I began to think: Greyhound.

I saw that I and hundreds of others were discarded pieces of passenger trash. We were the dregs of the previous day’s climatic misfortune, computer modeled to float around filling empty seats across the region until we eventually washed up on our home shore. I saw that it was time to escape from airport world, from ATL. I have been captive in the machinations of monster institutions before, and have learned when it is time to remove myself from the trap, cut my losses and go off on my own.

If I wanted to take a Greyhound bus to Lexington, I had to find out where my suitcase was. This meant I had to find the baggage assistance office at the entrance to ATL, twenty minutes distant. I began the hike in that direction, walking and riding on the train and escalators and people movers, crossing over terminal after terminal, all the way back to the entrance area, exiting out beyond a dramatically-announced point of no return, to the realms of baggage claim: massive rooms filled with rotating baggage carousels. I tracked down the baggage claims office, where I listened to the horror stories of the people in front of me and learned that my bag was caught up in the turmoil of trying to transport itself back to Lexington. I could not get at it. The grim-faced man behind the counter said, “When you get to Lexington, ask there for it.” That was good news. I would not have to tote it with me to the Greyhound station.

Ghastly Failed Escape Attempt at Greyhound
…too long stay is forbidden

Breathing the open air of relative freedom, I walked out the front entrance of ATL to see what I could see in terms of ground transportation. The MARTA train station was right there. Their map showed the Greyhound station about seven stops to the north, near the MARTA station. I did not want to go all that way without more information, so I asked the young woman at the MARTA ticket counter if she had a phone number for Greyhound, and she handed me a sheet of paper with a toll-free number. That was a good thing because my cell phone was dead and I had no calling cards. At a pay phone I learned that two buses left for Lexington in the next two hours, with another at midnight. The trip was ten hours long, and the cost was $82.

I paid $2.25 for a MARTA ticket, boarded and watched the southern edge of Atlanta roll by. At the Garnett station I descended escalators and stairs, following signs to the Greyhound station, situated below the MARTA tracks. Planning genius, I thought – until I entered the bus station and saw that it was tiny, outmoded, low-ceilinged, and packed with hundreds of people, waiting without seats to sit in. But I was happy to be there, and to have escaped ATL. Buses are just my speed. The ticket gal sold me a ticket on my credit card, and for $5 extra I was allowed to choose my seat. I chose the one right behind the driver, so that I could watch the southern landscape go past. The ticket gal gave me my ticket and with a purple marker and verbal warnings stressed that I needed to stand right near lane 7, and wait until they called my name for the special seating.

I had about a half hour, so I waded through the massed crowds of very young people, families with babies, and Hispanic workers in groups. The bus station was as overwhelmed as the airport. I learned that the bad weather of previous days had wreaked havoc here as well. At the cramped and jammed food counter I got a fine burger and fries, watching a master short-order cook and his team move things along, serving dozens in just a few minutes. I used the bathroom, got a fancy bottle of water from the machine, and stood near lane 7, where a busload of people was lined up with all their stuff at a door marked with the name of the next city down the road. I kept looking at my ticket to be sure I had it right. They called out a list of destinations for lane 9 that included Lexington. Sure sounded right, but it was not the lane I was told to wait at, and my name was not called. So I waited, and that bus departed.

After another fifteen minutes I began to think about how things might have gone wrong, and went to the service counter. I explained to the gal. She gave me an expressive look and called over the all-purpose bus scheduler and announcer guy. He was contrite: I had missed the bus because he had failed to call my name, and the ticket gal had put the wrong lane on my ticket. But he could fix the situation. He would put me on the bus headed to Chattanooga that would be arriving soon, and would call the Lexington bus to wait there for me to arrive. I just had to stand next to this chair until he called my name. Two men joined us – they too had missed the same bus, due to it not being announced well or for very long. The announcer guy began to hem and haw and said that he could probably only guarantee a seat for the lady – me – who had preselected her seat. I did not like the unfairness of this situation. He told us to just stand there by those chairs and he would try to fix everything. He vanished.

We waited and talked as the announcer guy kept running through the room, saying “Just sit in that chair and I’ll get you on that bus.” I got back in line to ask another service gal when the Chattanooga bus was leaving. She glowered at me like this was top secret, got caught up in why I was asking – and would not tell me the departure time! There were no schedules on view, and no booklets where I could look it up.

Suddenly an announcement boomed out that the Chattanooga bus was going to be delayed for an hour and a half. The announcer guy was saying this from a hidden bunker. He did not reappear. I said to the customer service gals, “Now how do I connect up with the Lexington bus? They are not going to wait for me for an hour and a half in Chattanooga.” They shrugged and dismissed me by looking at the next person in line. I stood there thinking it over.

I went back to the service counter and said, “I’d like a refund, please.” My reaction time was improving! They printed out a thing in twenty seconds and sent me back to the gal who had issued my original ticket. It took another twenty minutes for her to locate the necessary supervisor, in the swirling masses of people. No one could figure out how to refund me the $5 for the special seating, so I said, “Don’t worry about it,” and got out the door.

My two bags and I went back up the escalators, and for $2.25 more took MARTA back to the airport – back to ATL, that citadel of dismay and misery. I had one more middle-class ace up my sleeve: car rental.

Return to the Prison, Seeking Escape by Automobile
With weeping and with wailing

Stepping off the train at the airport stop, I walked boldly through the doors back into ATL. I knew this might result in my spending the night sleeping on the floor, but my spirit was calm and confident. I had committed to that ultimate form of escape, the rental car. No one could stop me now. After some minutes of searching for the line of car rental offices near the baggage carousels, I found them hidden behind a wall of happy people waiting to greet soldiers returning from Iraq. I entered the Enterprise office, having had good dealings with them over the years. Walking up to the counter in response to the young woman’s “How may I help you?”, though kind of grubby at that moment, I felt confident in my essential respectability, and asked for a one-way rental to Lexington.

Not So Fast
Vain thought thou harborest

The large young woman in her handsome suit folded her hands on the counter in front of her and said, “I have to inform you that we do not do one-way rentals. But National and Alamo do.” I thanked her, still sanguine, and headed to those adjacent offices. There I was given sob-stories that they had big conventions coming to town, and they were not “allowed” to do one-way rentals. But Hertz did!

As sleeping on the airport floor loomed larger, I trudged gloomily to Hertz. The young woman at the computer terminal said the same thing as the others. I decided to try a little harder, seeing as how this was the final rental company available. I dragged out the tattered remnants of my charm and laid middle-aged pathos on top; and she responded. She pointed to something in the upper corner of her computer screen and said to her co-worker, “When did that go up? I think that means we can do one-ways.” “Well, I don’t know,” said the other woman, “Why don’t you find out.” Much clicking ensued and I held my breath. The young woman looked up and said, “It would cost you $231, for 24 hours, mileage waived.”

I laid my head on the counter and began to think about the costs and benefits (because that was a lot of money). I realized that putting my head down looked bad, so I stood up straight and said, “I’m sorry, I am just trying to work through the costs.”
“Take your time,” she said.

I thought about Atlanta food and motel costs that night and the next morning. I thought about the gas on top of the $231. I thought about staying at ATL in airport world for at least another 20 hours, with no guarantee that the promised flight the next morning would actually include me. I thought about sleeping in my own bed. I knew I had been reduced to the level of an irritant, an externality, and that no one at Delta or Continental cared. I figured that they had built into their computer models a percentage of passengers who would get fed up and seek other ways to get home. I knew the $231 was wasteful, and that I could not afford it. I thought about my carbon footprint for this trip – bad, and getting worse.

“I’ll take it – with my grateful thanks for your flexibility,” I said to the young Hertz employee. I had to get out of the system that was doing its best to crush or expel me. Yes, I was willing to pay my own money to complete my trip. And I was fortunate: I was mobile – in my mid-50s, in my home country, with resources. I thought about the hundreds or thousands of others still trying to get the system to work following the previous day’s bad weather, via airplane or bus. The “system” was not going to work for me, or for them. They were trapped. I refused to be trapped.

I must have looked pretty bad, because the young woman asked, me, “How long is the drive to Lexington?” “About seven hours,” I replied, “nothing to it.” “Well,” she said worriedly, “Remember that if you get tired, you can pull over and sleep.” I laughed, because long-distance interstate driving is my specialty, and reassured her that I was now in my comfort zone.

The Sour Victory of Escape via Interstate Highway in an SUV
Fear not, for no one can take from us our onward way

In thirty minutes I was driving north on I-75 through Atlanta in a “small” white SUV. I had satellite radio, cruise control, and the interstate highway system: my mightiest technological foes were helping me get back to Lexington.

I drank the fancy bottled water I had bought at the bus station. I plugged in my cell phone to recharge it, finally able to get in touch with my world. I called my daughter and my friend as I blasted north into Tennessee. It was dark when I crossed Pine Mountain and entered Kentucky. I zipped past the exit where my caver friends were camped for the weekend, and did not stop until I turned into my narrow Lexington driveway. Putting the SUV in the backyard behind my VW Golf, I fell into bed at about 10:30 pm after wolfing down cheese and crackers left out by my friend. Best $231 plus gas I ever spent.

Aftermath: No Baggage, No City Bus
Fixed in the slime

On Sunday I awoke slowly, and around noon drove the SUV to the Lexington airport, to turn it in and retrieve my bag. No problems with the car – money did exactly what it is supposed to do. I went into the terminal to get my bag. After all, it was one hour past the arrival of the flight I was supposed to be on. There were a lot of bags piled up outside the small office, but not mine. At the counter inside, the gal checked my bag’s whereabouts as I told her that I had driven up from Atlanta. She replied, “That seems to be an increasingly popular option.” She said that the long-distance reach of Friday’s storm was still affecting flights and lives into and out of Lexington. My bag was still in transit – no room for it on any flights from Atlanta. Maybe it would be on the noon flight. Maybe I would have been, too. (They delivered it to my apartment at 5 pm.)

Once I learned that my bag was not available, I headed over to the information counter to ask the dignified woman there, splendid in her chiffon scarf, about the bus schedule back into town. She tilted her head and said, “Oh honey, they don’t run buses on the weekend. I am sorry.” I thanked her and headed out to the head of the taxi line. Twenty dollars later, I was dropped off in downtown Lexington to walk the final mile back to my apartment, hoping to clear my head.

The Widening Gyre of Systems Collapse
...not without cause is this going to the abyss; it is willed on high...

This experience was not a glitch; nor was it an unfortunate exception. It is the airline industry’s new normal. It is business as usual, in a grossly overextended industry undergoing implosion and convulsive collapse. When bad weather or power or mechanical failure causes cancellations – local, regional or nationwide – the passengers are discarded. The system expels us, closes up, and moves on, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

Major consolidation is in the works for the airline industry. Carriers are negotiating among themselves without much thought for their customers. Consolidation will not reduce these convulsive and inhumane cataclysms. As in other economic globalization processes transforming our planet, the interlocked, vulnerable and gravely malfunctioning airline industry has abandoned its base: the human beings it was created to serve.