Saturday at Reagan National Airport, feeling good. I had just finished Selection Weekend for the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. The other commissioners and I had chosen next year’s class of fellows. The fellowship is a remarkable leadership program, but selecting the winners is a tough job, because all the finalists are so impressive. I know the commissioners left feeling positive about the future of our country.
So, in that satisfied frame of mind, it didn’t worry me too much boarding my US Airways shuttle to New York, when the attendants told us to hurry to our seats because a thunder storm was coming in. They said they hoped to get away before the weather grew worse in D.C. or at LaGuardia. We sat on the runway for an hour. Then we taxied back to the gate.
We sat there for another hour, and then were told we could get off the plane and wait in the boarding area — but could not go back and forth into the plane, even when we had our boarding-pass stubs, because of “security.” They were predicting re-boarding at seven. By eight o’clock it was pretty clear the shuttle was not going anywhere that night. Yes, there were tremendous thunder storms in New York and everyone could understand that safety was the highest priority. But what was harder to understand was the lack of interest and downright rudeness of the gate agent, who gave no information at all about rescheduling flights.
What’s more, she insisted that no checked luggage could be taken off the plane, even though the plane was parked at the gate and easily accessible. No exception for one woman, who said she needed the luggage for a change of clothes for the toddler she was traveling with. When the woman got louder and more insistent, she was told she could be arrested. Only when she broke down in tears did the gate agent said she would try to see what she could do. It was a good lesson. Screams first, tears later.
I, experienced traveler that I am, went to another gate and said I wanted to leave the next morning on the earliest shuttle. The somewhat-confused gate agent gave me a boarding pass for that plane. No problem. She assigned me the best possible seat she could, 6C, right up front. While some of my fellow passengers were scrounging around for cheap motels — again with no help from the airline employees — and others were saying all they could do was spend the night at Reagan, I, again, felt somewhat lucky. Although my husband is ill, he could manage one more night on his own, and my son, who lives in DC, picked me up.
So I was still in a fairly decent mood when I lined up to board the nine o’clock shuttle. The eleven o’clock had already been cancelled, and there was quite a crowd. The gate agent was particularly unpleasant, shouting out orders on how to board the plane and stopping to snap at or snarl or argue with various passengers who seemed to displease him. The woman with the toddler had been put in a different aisle than the child. He told her that was her fault. Since I was in an upfront row it was nearly nine when I was supposed to board. He looked at my boarding pass and told me it was no good. It didn’t, he said, have a ticket attached. Huh? But it was the boarding pass given me by the airline. He told me to step aside, and then told me it was too late to get on the plane.
That’s when I lost it and started to raise my voice. The manager came over and I, too, was threatened with arrest, the new standard way to treat a complaining passenger. When I said I had to go home to tend to a sick husband, he asked me, why hadn’t I taken Amtrak? Good question. But is there any other industry in the country that suggests if you want decent service, you should use the competitor? When the tears of frustration started welling up, the manager told me he was not sure I was in a condition to fly and he would have to check with the flight crew. But, even though the gate agent kept protesting, he did let me on the plane about 30 seconds before the door was finally shut.
That little encounter left me feeling a lot less positive about our future. Airport safety has given the country’s airlines a really ugly way to deal with their customers — and one they seem to relish.
– Myrna Blyth, long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.