Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

Unholy Alliances

(Luba Myts)
U.S. airlines test even the patience of a monk

Suddenly, the South Korean macadamia-nut market is on fire. Most residents of the Republic of Korea had not so much as heard of the macadamia nut until a few weeks ago — their northern cousins would be grateful for any sort of nut not going by the title “supreme leader” and inclined to herd them into prison camps — but today the delicious seed of M. tetraphylla accounts for half of the nut consumption in South Korea, with sales having jumped twentyfold in a matter of days. For that, the world’s macadamia growers may thank Cho Hyun-ah, a Korean Air executive — and daughter of the airline’s chairman — who inflicted superfluous chaos on New York’s already chaotic John F. Kennedy Airport when she ordered a Seoul-bound flight to exit the runway, return to the gate, and expel a flight attendant — who was at the time being forced to ritually kneel in shame — for the crime of serving the first-class princess’s macadamia nuts in a plastic bag rather than a warm bowl.

Cho was arrested in New York and charged with violating air-safety laws, forced to resign from her various positions with the airline, and publicly humiliated, though travelers who fly frequently into JFK might wish for a more Singaporean model of punishment, e.g., a good, thorough flogging. The lesson that South Koreans have taken from this: Macadamia nuts must be truly fantastic.

It had to be JFK, of course. According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the New York airspace is the root not of all evil when it comes to U.S. flight delays, but of about half of it: Between 40 percent and 50 percent of the flights held at the gate or delayed in the entire country are snarled up because of delays at JFK, LaGuardia, Newark, and the smaller airports in the area, which affect flights around the country. JFK is an especially hideous mess of an airport, its awesome modernist architecture cruelly contrasting with the paleo-primitivism of what goes on inside. It is the sort of airport that gives one the feeling that the baggage carousels are run by some sort of Flintstones-style prehistoric-hamster-on-a-giant-wheel apparatus. JFK and LaGuardia are in fact the only two institutions known to man capable of inspiring a modern Homo sapiens to utter the words, “I hope I go through Newark.” And that’s taking into consideration that there is a Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant in JFK’s Terminal 4 — a not-inconsiderable factor.

For those who generally travel in a bit less style than HRH Princess Cho Hyun-ah, domestic flight is a nightmare. In fairness, that is only partly the fault of the airlines. Our domestic carriers are incompetent, and they give every indication of hating their customers, but they are not directly responsible for the fact that travelers are generally required to take off their shoes and be groped by a TSA agent with a neck tattoo reading “Gangster.” The TSA received a good deal of unwanted publicity earlier this year when photos were released showing its agents manhandling the actor Verne Troyer — Mini-Me of the Austin Powers films — a two-foot, eight-inch man who uses a mobility scooter and does not seem a very likely hijacker. The ordinary crimes routinely committed by its agents — illicit scanner porn and looting passengers of cash, electronics, jewelry, and prescription drugs — do not make many headlines.

Clearing the TSA gauntlet can be made a little easier by sitting for an interview and paying a fee for “pre-check” status — i.e., paying the government for the privilege of having an opportunity to convince the TSA that you are less likely to hijack an airplane than is Mini-Me — but that is not bulletproof, either: Many airports, including large hubs such as Las Vegas’s McCarran International, simply do not offer TSA pre-screening lines when they do not feel like it. There is no particular reason, pattern, or schedule at work — it is, like so many aspects of air travel, entirely arbitrary, at least from the customer’s point of view. In reality, none of this is arbitrary: TSA screenings, like practically every government function not carried out by men with rifles and very short hair operating in exotic locales, are organized for the convenience of the government agents, not the public that they purport to serve.

The TSA, the airport authorities, the NTSB, the various shady union goons who have their grubby meat mittens in every aspect of air travel — all are culpable. And at JFK the buffoonery is compounded by U.S. Customs, which is in the habit of greeting both American citizens and visitors from abroad with hours-long waits and bristling hostility that one might be tempted to describe as “Third World” if places such as India and Haiti didn’t do it better. I once watched the actor Steve Buscemi wait very patiently, posing for pictures and pulling exactly zero in the way of do-you-know-who-I-am? shenanigans, as he spent the better part of two hours at JFK getting official permission to return from London; Mr. Pink turns out to be a decent guy. But for the more than 3 million visitors who get their first taste of American life at the JFK Customs facility each year, the experience must be perplexing. How can the country that is the home of the iPhone, the Corvette, and the Bill of Rights also be home to this pigsty of heavy-handed czaristical nonsense?

#page#The public-sector players stink, uniformly. But there is no letting the airlines themselves off, either. Simply put, they are not very good at this business of taking off and landing airplanes on a schedule. Flights are routinely canceled or delayed for hours because airlines fail to get flight crews to the airport to man scheduled routes, which is truly shocking when you consider that airlines have airplanes. It can be a little hard for people in Yonkers to get to JFK in a timely fashion when Uber is overwhelmed, but there is really no excuse for American Airlines to fail to do so. Sometimes, flight is delayed because some of the crew was arriving on a different flight that was itself delayed: a cascade of incompetence. The last time that happened to me, the villains at United Airlines — where the opening bid from customer service is always a lie — tried to convince me that the problem was stormy weather on the ground — in early September, in Palm Springs, where it was 85 degrees without a cloud in the sky. The staff at the check-in counter removed itself en masse and did not reappear for nearly two hours. A few hours more and someone finally confessed that the flight crew was resting comfortably in Toledo, or wherever.

If you fly enough — and once a month is more than enough — you will feel the homicidal temptation. I have seen it happen to the gentlest of souls: the progressive San Francisco executive stranded in Syracuse, the mellow Seattle craft-beer enthusiast who gets six bonus hours in Detroit, the generally reasonable roving correspondent who cannot for the life of him figure out why it takes 16 hours to complete a four-hour trip from Grand Rapids to New York, or why traveling between Denver and Los Angeles is so much harder and more unpleasant than flying from Amsterdam to Berlin, which aren’t even in the same country . . .

It is enough to rile up even a Benedictine monk.

In November, Brother Noah, a monk belonging to the Subiaco Congregation of Benedictines at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, just north of Santa Fe, N.M., suffered the monastic version of blowing a head gasket when, after four hours on the telephone with United Airlines, he could not sort out the problems of a brother monk who needed to change his return flight from Malawi. First, United accused the monk of having flown on a fraudulent ticket; next, the airline suggested that the monk drive to the nearest United help desk — three hours away, in Albuquerque — to sort things out. Brother Noah, at last, had had enough, and informed the United agent in no uncertain terms: “God bless you. I will pray for you. But you have not been helpful.”

That’s pretty much the Benedictine version of Bobby Knight’s throwing a chair before choking out an underclassman.

This combination of condescension, disdain, and laziness, this “Not my problem, Jack!” attitude, is not unique to airlines. It is found in similar organizations operating in similar industries — which is to say, industries organized into regulatory cartels with insufficient competition. Banks, cable companies, and insurance firms all have the same problem. It is my contention that the airlines and Time-Warner Cable have done more to advance the cause of Communism in these United States than all of the Ivy League radicals and Hollywood reds combined: If the US Airways desk and the cable companies’ “Please press 1 for utter contempt” model were what capitalism was really about . . .

Nuts to that.

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