Air travel shows what happens when we give companies ruinous power over us

By RICHARD MORGAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: November 29, 2019

Like 78% of U.S. workers, I live paycheck to paycheck. We hear numbers like these in our political debate, where they usually signal how ill-prepared Americans are for disasters and medical emergencies. Like 40% of U.S. adults, I regularly wouldn’t be able to scrounge $400 in a crisis. But if you don’t have $400 (or considerably more) on hand, your poverty can trouble you in all sorts of other, more mundane ways, thanks to the abusive nature of the companies that provide us with services. America is a paradox where paying customers can also be have-nots. I discovered this, most recently, at the airport.

A flight from New York to San Francisco in 2019 takes about 6 1/2 hours - unless brief storms happen. A few months ago, weather caused a three-hour delay of my flight, one of 4,700 waylaid that day. Then the flight was canceled, one of 350 at my airport and 1,400 nationwide. What followed was an ordeal spanning 53 hours, six gates, three airports and two airlines. And I was one of the lucky ones.

As roughly 25 million Americans set out for Thanksgiving reunions during the busiest week of travel, when winter weather can be even more disruptive than summer storms, it’s worth remembering that odysseys like mine are not - or are not merely - tales of airline villainy. They are stories about the background radiation of our rapacious economy, one in which customer and corporate desperation unwittingly amplify each other, accelerating the mutual distrust.

Nowhere is this cycle more apparent than airports, where holidays, weekends and rush hours are attacks on the notion that our time has value. For me the siege began with a Tuesday night email ahead of my Wednesday United Airlines flight out of Newark: "It’s going to rain . . . and quite a lot we hear," read the unsigned communique. "You may want to consider flying on a different day or connecting in a different city." I didn’t have any other options, so I headed for the airport anyway. The next afternoon, my flight was canceled. After I waited 90 minutes on the phone - the airline had expected the storms but not the correlating burden on its customer service centers - an operator told me that there were no available seats to San Francisco for several days from Newark or even decrepit LaGuardia (actually United’s website had one-way flights as exorbitant as $4,354). She booked me on a 7 a.m. flight Friday out of JFK - where only 260 flights were canceled - on American Airlines, just in time to make a friend’s wedding.

"If you have options in the Newark area to remain overnight, we recommend heading there," read a new email from United. I no longer had a place to stay in New York and was now broke. What was I supposed to do for 36 hours? That was on me, and the agents were sorry, but there was nothing they could do by way of hotel or even food vouchers.

What is most galling about this economy is that we are supposed to proffer compliance and complicity as companies profit amorally off of us. Facebook unveils supposedly robust privacy protections on the same day it launches a service to connect you with your"secret crush." You’re supposed to pay whatever rent landlords want, whatever bills hospitals charge, whatever price surge the car-share makes up. From Apple to John Deere, digital-rights-management technology has made us "tenants on our own devices." The terms of service turn us into the servants. And what recourse do we have? We ask to speak with the manager, vent to Yelp, endure the hold muzak and hack our way to rival bargains. But let’s be honest: We don’t have power.

I still needed somewhere to sleep, and I overheard weary travelers gossipping that hotel vouchers would be accorded only to people who braved the very long line - easily 400 people - at the customer service desk. I decided to believe this, instead of the agent on the phone. I would subject myself to the system they had laid out ostensibly for my benefit. It’s hard for a Catholic to believe that suffering won’t lead to reward.

I joined the line at 10:57 p.m. and reached a customer service desk almost 12 hours later, at 10:46 a.m. Over that span, stranded people consoled and entertained each other. Few of us slept. Colin Murray, a young English dad who had been deboarded three times while trying to get to San Francisco with his diabetic wife and two tween sons (who were sobbing on their first trip out of Britain), realized around dawn on Thursday morning that he hadn’t eaten since Tuesday. When Gwenda Hermanova, a Czech woman who was going home after her 10-year high school reunion in the States, woke up from a 90-minute nap to discover she hadn’t moved at all, she roared to indifferent customer service agents, "How can you treat us like this? Do you think that this is normal?" Hundreds in the line broke into applause. At no point in those 12 hours did a United employee walk up and down the line to see how we were doing, offer blankets or water, or get our customer service session started early, the way they do in long lines at, say, Starbucks.

Finally at the customer service desk, I asked an agent, who was wearing an "Ask Me About Punta Cana" lapel pin, if hotel vouchers were possible. I had waited 12 hours and was so sore from standing that it hurt even to lie flat on the floor. I still had a full day of waiting ahead of me. He said the storms were an act of God, not the airline’s fault, so he couldn’t help. I had wasted my time.

If I was going to live in an airport for the next day, I would do it at JFK, where my Friday flight was still scheduled to depart. I took a $34 shuttle. When I got there, something happened that eventually occurs in all crises: normalcy. I had some Chinese food, watched the episode of "Star Trek" where Captain Picarddefeats the Devil in court, called some friends. You convince yourself that this is what airports are like, what travel is like, what Thursdays are like. At midnight, 31 hours into the maelstrom, I lulled myself to sleep at my gate.

I woke up at 6:30 and, to my surprise, there was nobody at the gate. American had sent me a text message at 3:01 a.m. changing the gate. I ran. Out of breath, I asked if I was too late. I was. The plane was there, but the doors had closed. I watched it take off, sobbing.

I had thought the commotion of boarding would wake me up, and I should have set an alarm, but that was the kind of clear-headed thinking I no longer possessed. The airline got to renew and rally its position with fresh people. I didn’t. Exactly what’s frustrating about crises like this is that, as I’m worn down, I’m expected to become more competent. Who responds brilliantly to exhaustion? Burnout is more than a mood; it’s an affliction.

I didn’t get onto a standby flight at 10:45 a.m. At American customer service, I explained that I had been trying to get to a wedding since Wednesday. Benilda, the agent, knocked her glasses to the tip of her nose with a flick of her head so she could look at me eye-to-eye. "You’re not the best man, are you?" she asked. No. "Good," she said. "Because you might not make it." Benilda laid out my odds: The next flight to San Francisco was overbooked by three, followed by one overbooked by 11 and then one overbooked by 10.

Overbooking is addictive, nonlethal overdosing on greed. Imagine if Amtrak or Greyhound tried that. Imagine if the movie theater sold you a ticket for the new blockbuster and then denied you a seat when you got there. Every Marvel release would be a brawl. Now imagine coming with plans, with children or elderly relatives, with hotel reservations and a week’s worth of luggage. "What you need to do," Benilda said, "is buy a new ticket. Because now you’ll just be on standby for the next flight and the next. That could last for days."

For those of us living hand-to-mouth - which is to say, most of us - it takes years of nothing going wrong to earn your way out of poverty. I had gone wrong: I had slept, awaking back at square one. Weather may be an act of God, but it doesn’t take a storm to knock down a house of cards. I thought about my friends from the 12-hour line. Maybe a few of us were in dire straits because we were confused or uninformed or lazy or irresponsible, a common argument about why people remain poor. But not all of us. Besides, personal fortitude is no match for structural inequalities.

Fifty-three hours after arriving at the airport in Newark, I landed in San Francisco; I’d scored a standby seat. My trip took almost triple the time it would have in 1933, when the transcontinental Boeing 247 debuted. Driving across the country would have been nine hours faster.

What is strangest and saddest about the broad brokenness of America is that, actually, this is the way it works. Have-not consumers pay to be complicit in our own fleecing. That is the toxic marrow in America’s bones. More than a century after conquering the onetime impossibility of flight, we have yet to master the long-time impossibility of fairness.