I’ve been home from Italy for a week and yesterday I began sleeping better, eating well and I wasn’t as sensitive to noise and bright lights. I don’t know if I was recovering from jet lag, six weeks in Florence, or 24 hours in Germany after a cancelled transatlantic flight. When it becomes clear that the Italians are more functional than the Germans I am convinced that the world is in some kind of downward shit spiral.
Lufthansa flight 440, June 15, 2014, 10 a.m., (from Flughafen am Main, the impossible airport in Frankfurt, to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston), was cancelled due to:
1. A computer problem
2. A personnel shortage
3. A labor union contract dispute
Lufthansa gave us several wavering and unclear reasons for the failure of the giant Airbus to take flight. Nearly 400 confused travelers were stranded with no info and little assistance. Major screw-ups are now included in the high price of air travel. I even build getting screwed into my travel plans, but this fiasco was far beyond my ability to predict disaster.
By 10 a.m. we had all boarded and settled in to our uncomfortable seats, elbowing strangers off of the armrests, sniffing at the still, stale air. I was imagining the first class passengers upstairs in the penthouse, naked, drunk, engrossed in sexual excess and deviations. We’d been on board for over an hour when the Captain said, in his humorous Hollywood German accent, “Ladies und Gentlemen. A slight problem. Vee will haff to reset our computers.” Obvious lie. Nothing sounds more insincere than a nervous, harsh Teutonic voice when reporting news of impending catastrophe to a restless crowd.
(And do you know how they reset the computers on an Airbus A380-300, the biggest holy Christ honking vessel to ever lift off the ground? They turn it off and then turn it on again. Same shit you do with your computer at home. Lying bastards.)
They tried to “reset” the computer three times before canceling the flight; lights went out, air conditioning shut down, no more movies. The dodgy Captain continued to ply us with insincere apologies. His story changed from “computer difficulties” to “(undecipherable) personnel problem that (undecipherable)”. Two hours later the 400 of us trundled back up the gangway, trapped in the Frankfurt Flughafen. Even the first class passengers, who had hastily dressed, filed off the plane with their heads hanging low. The crew thanked us for being patient.
Two of the blond, blue-eyed Aryan counter people were fairly efficient; they smiled and pretended to help, but most of the workers we encountered were incompetent and officious and dismissive.
Stand, sit, silence, no questions, no, I can’t help you, you must stay here, go over there, no answers.
An American woman was the first to pop her cork, then a guy from the Middle East.
The American woman was berating a small dude with shiny hair in a shiny suit as he slipped into the front of one of the endless lines that began forming as soon as we disembarked and served no purpose other than to keep us destabilized.
I’m sure she had been in first class. She shouted from the back of the line, “He doesn’t belong there! Hey, you can’t butt in line! That man shouldn’t be there! He doesn't belong, he doesn't belong.”
I admired her shrillness and outrage but I’ve traveled enough to know that line cutting is the cultural heritage of some populations. If you don’t try to push someone out of the way you are a sucker. Her protests failed and the shiny man slid through and disappeared down a narrow hallway.
The Middle Eastern guy was simply trying to get information and the woman he was addressing kept telling him, “No questions. No information. I can’t help. You must stand here until someone comes. Don’t ask me. I have no answers for you. No questions.”
The man, perspiring, asked, “What do you mean stand here until someone comes? Aren’t you someone? You have already come.”
Cool guy. I gave him a supportive thumbs up; he shrugged sadly and smiled at me. I think we could have become friends. We were both ready to issue a fatwa on Lufthansa and I was getting to the point where any solution to this bullshit, even a violent one, would have been acceptable.
The next morning we were all still together at a bland, business hotel in the dull Frankfurt suburbs; relationships and circles of defense were developing. At 5:30 a.m. a shuttle arrived to return us to the airport where we dutifully lined up.
If I see a line these days, I get in it. Stockholm Syndrome? Flughafen Syndrome?
Later that morning we finally flew out of Munich, headed optimistically to Houston, 400 tired men, women, and children, primarily Texans and Germans with a scattering of international travelers, most of whom had missed their connections. At the Houston airport, 11 hours later, we were the “extra” people. We were an obvious burden on the overweight staff and we were repeatedly shuffled around to several kiosks, counters, and holding areas and ordered to stand in line. A large woman was berating us for not properly lining up. She kept warning, “If y’all get out of line, you will have to go back to end of the line. Stay where you are.”
Not at all comforting or helpful.
Another man in a royal blue blazer drifted in our direction and eyed us as though we were the problem. Troublemakers.
I really didn’t like the way he barked, “You must remain quiet or you will not be processed”.
Fuck you, dude. I got in his personal space and told him, aggressively, maybe I poked my finger into his flabby chest, "We have all been traveling for a full day, had no sleep and little food, we are lost and pissed and you, Mr., should act like a goddamn human being, do your fucking job and help your clients." He bristled. I was about three seconds from red fog hysterical violence. One more word.
At that moment, our liberator appeared. He was benign, carried himself with dignity and in a thick Indian accent he asked, “What is wrong here.” He was focused on the prick I’d been facing off. Prick stepped back a foot or two. Obviously, the new guy was a supervisor; I used to work in a prison and I can read the body language of a submissive drone.
I turned to the new man, better suit and demeanor, and said; “We’ve been in strange airports, bad hotels, shuttle buses and crowded hallways for almost two days. We have all missed our connections and everyone is treating us like it’s our fault. We’ve been given no information and insulted, abused and threatened. In Germany, the people at Lufthansa had the balls to thank us for being patient as they were lying to us. I am not patient. I haven’t said much up until now because I don’t want to end up in Fucking Guantanamo. I don’t care anymore.”
He said, “Come with me.”
Oh shit, not again.
He then asked, “Do you have a boarding pass for today’s flight, for your connection.”
“Yes. I’ve had it since yesterday.”
“Come with me. You others with boarding passes, come with me.”
He quickly walked us through security, made sure our baggage was handled properly and sent us on our way down long narrow halls to Gate B76. Soon, I was waiting at the gate for the next flight to Albuquerque, my original destination, still five hours away but at least I was somewhat convinced that I was in the right place. It was the first time I’d felt secure in two days and it was a huge relief. I could breathe, my heart rate dropped below 100. A little kindness, a touch of efficiency and we were all much more at ease. What the fuck is wrong with the airline industry that they don’t know this? Can’t they provide some in-service training to teach their employees how to act like decent, compassionate, sentient creatures? Learn some frigging skills?
The Indian guy at Houston calmed us with his lilting accent, his cool blue eyes and his authoritative sense of duty and purpose. I never got his name and I love him. Seriously. He is my Man of the Year. I love him.
The Middle Eastern guy is runner up. We could have hung out and bonded, chanting in unison from our adjoining cells, “Almighty Allah, rain down your bitter wrath on Lufthansa Airlines and the Frankfurt Flughafen.”