Gatekeepers

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Waiting in the gate area for my flight to Belize. Why do people crowd around the jet way entrance as soon as the boarding announcements begin? It takes at least half an hour to board everyone, and once you’re in the jet way you stand in line anyway.  Then you stand in the aisle of the plane til you can reach your seat, so what was the rush?

But crowd everyone did, except me and a few other hangers back.  Maybe people thought the announcements would sound clearer if they got closer.  Why is it that airlines can propel a million-pound vehicle through the air but they can’t invent a PA system that’s as clear as a MacDonald’s drive through?

A group of military personnel stood patiently as tourists in flip flops and shorts shoved in front of them.

Ah, now I could make out part of the announcement.  They were asking for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight because the plane was “very full.”  You mean, overbooked, don’t you? I thought.

I used to work for a consulting firm that analyzed the data of applicants to private colleges.  Using an algorithm with 400 data points, we would sift and sort and make recommendations.  If you were poor but your test scores were high and would bring some kind of diversity to the student body and you played the marimba, you might be offered a $50,000 scholarship toward the $60,000 annual cost of attendance.  If you were dumb but lived in the Connecticut zip code with America’s highest per capita income, they might give you a President’s Scholarship of $2,000 to flatter and lure you in.

The two principals of the firm traveled extensively to visit our clients.  College enrollment, explained one of them, shared similarities to how airlines filled seats.

“Everyone on a plane has paid a different price,” he said grumpily, which was how he said everything. “I might have paid $850 to go to Sioux Falls while the guy sitting next to me paid $500.  They’ve got my travel history, they know how much I was willing to pay in the past, they probably know how much I paid for the house in Georgetown and my condo on Summit and my Volvo, so I’m fucked.”  He had done very, very well in the college admissions consulting business.

So knowing how sophisticated it all is, you have to wonder whether, when an airline overbooks, is it intentional and if so, what’s the point?

I didn’t pay enough attention to see if anyone gave up a seat.  Next they announced that most everyone would have to check their carry ons.  What the hell?  Is this because of the jerks who are trying to game the system with their one “extra carry on item?”  That used to mean a handbag or a laptop case, but now people are testing the limits and bringing purses the size of Labradors, in addition to their actual carry on.

“We’d like to thank the US service members who are flying with us today,” was the next, pretty-clear announcement, “and invite them to board first.”

The people who had shoved past these military members now turned and smiled and thanked them for their service. Some people applauded.  The soldiers looked uncomfortable and made a beeline for the gate.

I would like to think that Delta and my fellow passengers were sincerely appreciative of these military members’ service. But we’re all so detached from the wars—er, conflicts—in which we’re involved. It’s easy elbow past them in line, then give lip service to “honoring our veterans” five minutes later without much thought about what they’ve witnessed.

I interviewed a young veteran last year.  She had been on gate duty at a US compound in Afghanistan, and she told of having to turn away a desperate father who came seeking medical care for his small son, who he was carrying.  She started crying. “Maybe you should keep working at The Gap for a while,” I said gently. “Maybe it’s too soon to work with torture survivors.”

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