A Transcontinental Voyage
4 May 2009
As transcontinental travel goes, northern South America is perhaps the easiest step into a different world when starting from the northwest coast of North America. If you go across the Pacific to Asia, you cross the dateline and arrive at the country of your destination the afternoon of the following day. If you go to Europe or Africa, you have to hop to the east coast first (in most cases), and then go further on, so you arrive the morning of the next day, if not later. If you go the southern South America, you will usually arrive early in the morning of the next day.
The Jet Age journey to northern South America, however, can be accomplished in the space of a single day. I woke up in Portland, flew from Portland to Houston in three hours, and then in less than five hours flew from Houston to Quito. I met my sister at the Quito airport, and we were in the hotel by 11:30 pm — time enough to get to bed and get a good sleep so as to be rested for the day tomorrow. That means one day lost to travel, but one day lost to travel followed by a good sleep is far, far better than two days lost to travel and attempting to sleep in an airplane seat.
I must say the Continental Airlines made a very bad impression. I arrived at the Portland airport, and upon checking in I was offered an upgrade to first class for a mere $200.00. This seemed like a good deal to me, so I took it. But when I got on the flight from Portland to Houston, they didn’t have a first class seat for me. I made inquiries with the staff, and they told me that the plane was completely full and that they couldn’t change my seat. One flight attendant was genuinely apologetic, but only one. All the other Continental Airlines staff with whom I spoke were utterly indifferent to my experience.
Everyone who has flown recently knows how bad airline service has become, so it isn’t just Continental. Somewhere Nietzsche wrote, “Always keep a little more than you promise.” There are words to live by, but the airline industry has made a business model of always keeping a little less (sometimes a lot less) than they promise. Some years ago I heard a speaker say that the airline industry had suspended the laws of capitalism: they can sell you a ticket but are not obligated to honor it. Now this has happened to me personally. It does not give a good impression.
Is it any wonder that such an industry is in trouble? When perennial economic principles are abrogated by a government or by an industry, the attempt is manifestly unsustainable and one can predict with confidence (if also sadness) that any who participate in such a regime will inevitably be punished by the market. When the customer service of the airlines has fallen to the point that someone holding a first class ticket is treated with indifference (if not hostility), then the airlines have ceased to be businesses in any authentic sense. We know they are too big to be allowed to fail. And we know that we need the international air transportation network. And so we have it — with Soviet-style service that reflects the Soviet-style management of the industry.
My disappointment with Continental Airlines, however, won’t spoil my vacation. It is deeply satisfying to once again set foot on the soil of another continent. Why? It is difficult to say. The air is the same, the water is the same, the earth is the same, the sun is the same, the night is the same, and the day is the same. And yet, everything is different. That the differences are subtle does not alter the fact that together these differences constitute a unique and distinct experience. And it is the difference that intrigues me, piques my interest, ultimately fascinates me and keeps me coming back.
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