Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Pleasure of Flying

Flying isn’t what it used to be. Anyone who has flown a lot knows this. Not only is flying in economy class like taking the Greyhound bus, but the added airport security measures, and the often rude and disgruntled airline staff, can make the experience most unpleasant.

Last week I flew to Florida on Delta Airlines for a short getaway with my sister, to visit my parents who winter down south. I’ve done this trip for years, sometimes flying out of Toronto Pearson International, or out of Buffalo, or even out of Detroit. I fly direct (an easy 3 hour flight), or connect to another flight somewhere in the US. I’ve flown on many different airlines and have been stuck with booked tickets on airlines that suddenly went bankrupt (Canada 3000, Jetsgo); I’ve missed flights because of bad traffic on route to the airport; and I’ve been redirected because of cancelled flights.

My main objective when flying is this: get to my destination safely, and as close to the planned arrival time as possible. But when you fly, anything can happen. We’ve all got stories that could top the next person’s!

My story today is not a great dramatic tale, but a rant. A rant about inept check-in staff, airline mismanagement and inefficient security measures.

It all started with a glitch in Delta’s computer system, which prevented me from checking in on-line. (It turned out that a clerical person had typed my name wrong, and because my confirmation number and my name did not match when I entered them, I couldn’t continue).

Some carriers, including Delta, are now charging $50 for checked baggage and since I was only going away for a few days, I decided to bring just a carry-on. This cost is not apparent when booking your ticket, which is misleading and kind of sneaky. I reviewed the baggage rules on the Delta website:

Carry-on Baggage

All Delta passengers are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item that meet the criteria below.

Your bag must:

• Not exceed 45 inches (length + width + height), or 115 cm.
• Fit easily in our SizeCheck® unit (approximately 22"x14"x9", or 56x36x23 cm).

• Fit in an overhead bin or underneath the seat in front of you.

Personal Items

You're allowed one personal item from this sample list:
Purses, briefcases, camera cases, and diaper bags
Laptop computers (can’t be checked and must be carried on)
Items of a similar or smaller size to those above

Ok. I would bring one small suitcase and one personal item (a small over-shoulder bag about the size of a diaper bag).

I get to the airport well in advance of the flight, wait in the check-in line for half an hour to get my boarding pass, and then the lady at the counter tells me that I have to check my carry-on and pay for it.

“But why?” I ask. “I’m allowed one carry-on and this bag is within the size restrictions.” (I’d measured it at home and it was well within the limit).

“Because you can’t have two carry-on bags,” she says. “It’s a matter of security.”

I point to the sign, which is displayed near the check-in counter. “Look, it says right there that you can have two pieces. One carry-on bag and one personal item that is similar to the size of a diaper bag or a laptop. My bag is smaller than either of those.” My tone is measured and polite.

She looks at me with contempt. “Well, that isn’t a laptop or a diaper bag, is it?”

“No, but it could be a diaper bag.”

“Where’s your baby? You can only use a diaper bag, if you have a baby.”

Now I’m getting annoyed. “My baby is at home.”

“You don’t have a baby,” she snorts.

“Look. I don’t want to check my bag. I reviewed the requirements before I came and I packed accordingly.”

The woman shakes her head. “I don’t make the security rules. There’s no point arguing with me.”

The line-up is huge and there are only two Delta check-in employees at the counter. The woman doesn’t seem to care. I open my carry-on suitcase and stuff my shoulder bag inside. I can barely do up the zipper and now the suitcase is larger than the size allowance.

“There, now I have only one bag. Will that do?”

She shrugs. “I guess so.”

I get my boarding pass and proceed to the first security check. The guy looks at my suitcase and shakes his head. “That bag is too big for a carry-on. You’ll have to check it.”

“What if I remove some things?” I ask.

“You can try,” he says.

I take out the shoulder bag and zip up the suitcase. “That’s better,” he says, and waves me on.

I proceed to US customs and wait in line for almost an hour because of the shortage of customs officials.

Next, I move on to security, where they make me take off my shoes, my jacket, my belt, my hair-band and my necklace. No problem. This I get. It’s part of the deal these days. I can finally go to my gate (which happens to be at the other end of the airport), and as I walk, I pass a long corridor of tables where people have been diverted for baggage inspections. There are about fifty security workers in the area, but only a dozen are occupied. The rest are standing idle, chatting and laughing with one another. All that’s missing is a beer or a wine glass in their hands.

When I return from my trip I hear on CBC that the Federal Government is going to increase taxes on airline tickets to pay for the additional airport security. I feel so much safer, don’t you?

For more uninspiring tales of “security mayhem,” see Margaret Wente’s great Globe and Mail piece, Security Theatre for the Absurd.


  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Carla. It makes me feel better about my own airport horror stories!

  2. When I flew to NYC in January, I went through a very similar experience Carla, and then by the time I got to my final destination in Connecticut, I figured out that I could have actually driven there faster than it took to fly - food for thought!