Going to Mexico City on United

Port Columbus seemed busier than usual. It isn’t a big terminal, but even then it has been pretty drowsy most times I’ve been through it. Not Monday. Besides endless repairs which have been ongoing for the last three years, that I can tell, the gates were crowded. Ours was crowded because United had an inoperative plane. Did it have a flat tire? Were the engine transuper magnifolators distorting the fuel intake? Nope, the speaker in the rear of the plane that served the flight attendants was hosed. They were trying to fix it, but could not apparently get off the ground without having that in order.

And the woman giving updates was not helping. “So . . . the latest is that they still haven’t fixed it. They were told by Houston to switch the speakers from the front to the back and so . . . they’re going to see if that works.” Her tone of voice was, it seems to me, the result of deciding that the best approach would be to take the baffled customer’s point of view and provide color commentary on her employer’s fiasco as an outsider; as if to say: we don’t know, it is ridiculous, some guys are walking around in there, honestly in my whole entire life I’ve never had to deal with something like this before. Which doesn’t help (nor the inadvertent associations of the coincidence that a formerly Continental jet should have headquarters in Houston). Hours–hours!–of delays because of a speaker.

I remember once in an airport a European family of four missed their big flight, being left stranded in Atlanta. The way the employee at the gate dealt with it was by affecting anger: why didn’t you listen to the announcements, why did you walk away from the gate for a short while, what kind of irresponsible people are you about the irregularities of travel. Very brusque, upset–which is irrational, and she made them cry. I know people employed to deal with the actual matter of any business have a hard time of it, but it doesn’t make it easier to make it harder on the customer. Maybe she was having one of those days where you just long for a good fight.

But our plane was functional. It was uncomfortable, especially for the enormous dude sitting beside me, but functional. We departed, we flew, we were to our relief released from the plane. Many were a bit stressed about their connections in Houston, and we ourselves almost went to the wrong gate, but arrived before boarding, almost the last.

Then we found out our plane to Mexico was not functional. No description was given of the problem, but the airplane was inoperable. The woman doing the announcement was Latin American, and she dealt with the problem professionally, assuring us that since it was a hub no doubt a replacement would be soon found, although one was not yet. I appreciated her making up extra reassuring things. It did tell me that they were rather scattered about contingencies at United/Continental. You’re at a hub and you can’t figure out right away whether or not you can replace one airplane or another? Do they run their fleets of barely functional ancient craft at the stretching point routinely? Was it that the speakers required had not been manufactured since 1982 and they’d used up the last dozen of them that day, shooting the whole stock of them to Columbus via FedEx? I watched them poking around with flashlights in the cockpit for the better part of an hour.

They played up the safety aspect, which was annoying. “We don’t want to send you in an unsafe plane because we care about you.” Rubbish. If you cared, you’d have backup safe planes or at least ones for which spare parts didn’t have to be fetched from a junkyard and not a string of malfunctioning aircraft all over the country grounded because you can’t in this age of electronics figure out how to get a working speaker in a plane in 15 minutes. In the end they figured out another plane an hour later, rerouted us to the most distant gate (buying time, I guess), had most of the people in line, and then figured out the plane was not in fact ready to fly over the mountains of Mexico with any but the clearest weather, which was not in the forecast.

Then some fifteen minutes later they figured out that the little plane indeed could.

“Again, we apologize, but it is your safety that is foremost with us at United.” Do you know what happened in the rattle of landing? One of the compartments opened from which the emergency supplies of oxygen are supposed to come in the event of a loss of pressure. It swung open and stayed open, and nothing else came out. It made me wonder if in the event of an emergency the systems are as reliable as the routine safety patter they go through before take off.

Because the employees were tired of being there late, because the people were in no mood to be hassled with boarding neatly, because the crew were scrambling to get the mothballed A319 operational, we ourselves didn’t board till everybody had pressed ahead, and so when we found our seats in the back our carry-on of course did not fit. I’ve seen it happen where the crew find a place, take small bags out and hand them to people who don’t want to obstruct their leg space. But we were summarily told to check ours, plus, we had to walk it up to the front of the aircraft. I was so mad: no help, no understanding, no let us take care of that for you, no apology–as if we had somehow offended by having carry-on baggage on top of everything they had had to go through in that day. What about, “I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to check that, do you mind taking it up to the front when the way is clear?” Then they got on the PA and said we should hurry because we were holding up the plane. I understand the moment, but not a shining United experience.

It was not till later I realized I’d stowed my passport in the front pocket of my carry-on. When they were passing out customs forms I explained, and the stewardess told me she could not help me because her responsibilities end at the door of the plane. She was polite and empathetic, but rather helpless. The problem is you have to go through customs before you get your baggage.

Fortunately, the ground crew United employs in Mexico City has a bit more of a handle on things than the American end of the operation. The woman told me to just get in line for customs and they’d get the bag to me by the time I needed it. I got to the official and was talking to her about it. She told me that because I’m not a Mexican I can’t be in this country undocumented. And she would have appreciated it, I think, had I joked about how we have 11 million undocumented Mexicans in my country, but I did not think of it till a few minutes later. I guess it had been something of a wearing trip.

And then the bag came, and I was saved.

What a good thing for United they have Mexicans working for them!

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