The Unfriendly Skies: Airmaggedon and Its Discontents

Published: Aug 23, 2022  |  

New-York based writer, translator, and editor

It’s hard to say exactly when the miracle of flight and the elegance of the Jet Age melted down into an ordeal that begs you to ask yourself the question—in the deeply unflattering light of an airplane or terminal bathroom—how badly do you actually need to go away? Was it the idiot—and long-forgotten—failed shoe bomber who has us shambling barefoot through security the world over? Is it the price of gas that adds sticker shock to the price we pay to be mistreated? Is it that 3.4oz liquid toiletry magic decanting act? Economy seats the width of one adult ass cheek with legroom for double-amputees? Or is it the intense and sour irony that the Biden administration has spent $45 billion to fight climate change when the airlines—which do a fair amount of polluting—were gifted $54 billion to perfect the art of incompetence, tardiness, and abusive customer service?

Who can say? 

My summer vacation this year was notable in many ways, but typical in this regard: it was bookended by very expensive and time-consuming panic around air travel on either end. First things first: I didn’t check bags. For one thing, I’m a light packer (physically if not emotionally) and for another, it’s really not a great idea this year. One friend of mine had a bag lost in late June en route to an extended work trip, only to have it delivered to her front door in Brooklyn in late July, miraculously on her birthday, but unfortunately while she was still abroad for work. Another friend had a bag also delivered to her house while she was still traveling, and it was simply left outside on a New York sidewalk. 

A few days before I was slated to depart, I received a notification from United that my flight itinerary had changed. The flight out wasn’t anything awful: it was just pushed back a few hours, but it necessitated taking off an extra afternoon from my job, which wasn’t in the original plan. The trip home was another matter: rather than flying home from Florence to Frankfurt to Newark, I would be rerouted from Florence to Frankfurt to Washington to Newark. Total travel time: 18 hours. This didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to ring up United and spend a breezy two hours on the phone. Essentially, I had two choices: either I could depart Florence at 6am (meaning waking up at 3:30am and attempting to travel to the airport when United surely knows Italy has zero infrastructure to get to the airport) or I could keep this verkakte itinerary, which I did. 

A couple of days later, I realized it was about 24 hours before my flight, yet I had received no notification to check in. Again, I rang up United, only to learn that the phone operator to whom I had spoken a few days prior had “accidentally” canceled my entire itinerary. Hilariously, I had received zero refund for this mistake, yet I no longer had flights. Somehow, it didn’t feel accidental—the way the cops where I grew up claimed to have no monthly quotas for speeding tickets, but your ass was grass if you went one mile over the speed limit on the 27th of the month—but it really didn’t matter why it had happened, I just had to fix it. Three hours later, I had the same itinerary I’d started with, including the insane reroute on the return trip. 

The entire time I was on this call, I assured the operator that I knew I was very, very lucky to get to go away, but this wasn’t a sum of money I was used to dropping and really couldn’t be casual about the need to rebook or flexible about the time I landed. After all, I was meeting other friends who were flying in to meet me. I felt so desperate to get my original itinerary back that I nearly cracked and made up some heteronormative reason for this travel: my own imaginary wedding. In the end, I didn’t need to betray any reasons for the trip, only that it had been planned all year (which was true) and very important to me (also true). I refrained from telling the operator that this really shouldn’t matter at all. However, when she asked if I would be happy to stay on the line for a customer service survey and I eagerly—too eagerly—assented, she hung up on me at once. 

I didn’t sleep well that night and arrived at the airport fried but happy to get away the following afternoon. I was tired enough that I simply fell asleep as the plane spent an extra 90 minutes on the tarmac after leaving the gate 25 minutes late, but—#travelmiracle2022—all of my friends’ flights were delayed, too, so we still met up at the airport in Rome at the same time and got on the road a couple of hours late, together as planned. That constituted a win. The gateway to wine, pasta, beaches, boats, and morally ambiguous but aesthetically stunning Renaissance artwork had been breached. (Never mind the two tires we blew out on the scorchingly hot highway en route to our first destination; that’s another story for another time.) We were on vacation and it was a glorious two weeks. 

Departure menaced on the horizon like a looming storm. One might say this is true of any quality vacation, but we heard horror stories from the Western Front starting after the first leg of the trip. Essentially we were one of those inadvisably large and unruly groups of vacationing friends on a multipart journey. A core crew stayed the entire time, but others came and went. The reports they sent back from the airports were abysmal. One friend got rerouted through Chicago on the way home to New York. Another had two flights canceled at the airport before arriving home at all. 

Around this time, I noticed something disturbing about my itinerary home. As I knew all along, I would be flying home through the labyrinthine hellmouth that is Frankfurt Airport, I initially made sure I had a two-hour layover which, to be honest, could still mean cutting it close, as the airport runs extra security checks at each terminal and those lines can each take over an hour. My new itinerary to which I had not consented only had a 55-minute layover in Frankfurt. This meant I had less than an hour to navigate what is essentially the Pacific Theater of air travel—gory, deadly, too enormous to comprehend. 

I arrived at the Florence airport on the day of my departure well in advance of my flight. As if to rub salt into an oncoming wound, the airport sound system blared The Offspring’s entire oeuvre at considerable volume. I looked up about 40 minutes before my scheduled boarding time to see my flight to Frankfurt was delayed 10 min. I began to text friends and family that I would likely be spending the night in Germany. Ultimately, the plane took off 35 minutes late. I told the Air Dolomiti flight attendant that I was pretty sure I was about to miss my flight and I would love to be let off the plane early, though I added I was sure I wasn’t the only one in that position. In fact, the whole flight was full of travelers transferring in Frankfurt, since who the fuck stays in Frankfurt? (Sorry, Frankfurt.) The flight attendant told me what he could do was limited since my connecting flight was not Air Dolomiti, which one has to admit is a weird excuse from a regional carrier. So much for the Star Alliance!

Of course, there was a bus to the terminal, and of course there was another bus unloading ahead of mine, and of course, because this was Germany, the driver refused to open the bus doors at “the wrong” part of the sidewalk. It was time to sprint. There is a thrilling tradition of American sprinters in Germany, with Jesse Owens’ victories in 1936 in front of Hitler’s eyes leaping to the fore of my mind that day. However, I am not a part of that tradition. And, even if I do work out regularly and pride myself on being athletic enough not to embarrass myself in social situations where athletics come into play, I was no match for the Frankfurt labyrinth with a roller board and shoulder bag. Truthfully, I felt more like Catherine O’Hara in Home Alone, especially when I got to the third security line. Alles war verloren—all was lost.  

It wasn’t even a close call. Panting, I trudged to the Lufthansa redress line with literally every other traveler in Terminal Z—yes, Z—as it turned out that day there were no flights to North America after 5pm. The whole terminal simply shuttered. I was assigned a man who might have been Slavoj Žižek’s twin, separated at birth or in some Cold War tragedy. Firstly, I was handed a voucher for an airport hotel—more on that in a moment. Secondly, I was assigned a flight the following day that went directly to Newark. However, Lufthansa could not honor my upgrade. I said that was totally understandable, if they didn’t mind refunding the price difference. 

I was met with laughter from the other side of the glass, and I assured fake Slavoj I was not laughing. I was then informed that Lufthansa cannot honor the upgrade because it was Air Dolomiti’s “fault” that the flight was late. (Never mind that Lufthansa actively chose to partner with them.) Furthermore, even though I had booked the whole trip through United, the flight I’d missed was operated by Lufthansa, and my new flight was operated by United, so the system couldn’t process the original upgrade effectively. So somehow, the whole thing was no one’s fault. Did the Star Alliance have any meaning at all? Or was it like Voltaire’s definition of the Holy Roman Empire: neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire? 

Somewhere in the redress line, I befriended a woman about my age from Hamburg who was waylaid en route to see friends in San Francisco. Together, we made our way to the hotel where Air Dolomiti put us up for the night, which could only be properly described as a human trafficking airport hotel. Everything from the Cold War era concrete sculptures that dotted the grounds to the decor—actual photographs of early 90s office supplies featuring fax machines, post-it notes, and desktops—and a bathroom with a pocket door had me wondering if I’d be waking up in the following morning one kidney short. 

However, there was at least a salad bar, and this was where my fortunes turned. As I assembled a meal that was somewhat in penance for my caloric sins in Italy, a couple of tiny older women made fun of me, giving me a little chance to practice my (extremely rusty) German. My friend from the redress line joined me for a drink and, before long, I was getting lit with a peer from Hamburg and five 80-year-olds from Lindau who had been best friends for 60 years and were on one of their still-regular girls’ trips. I told them about how I had just had a fabulous time with my friends and my other new German friend told me about everyone she was going to see in San Francisco. A number of glasses of Riesling deep, it was nice to be reminded why we travel—I just hope we get to do so with a little less dysfunction in the near future.

Filed under:

Tags mentioned: