How airlines sow the seeds of air rage

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Robert Klose lives and writes in Orono. His new novel, “Trigger Warning,” will be published this summer by Open Books.

I don’t condone air rage. And yet, at some level, I understand it.

The airlines appear to have made it their mission to make flying — which used to be a pleasure or an adventure — into a voyage of the damned. The cramped seating, the growing list of add-on fees, the inane aspects of security (“Take off your shoes!”) and the pitiful little packets of pretzels are indicative of the esteem in which airlines hold their passengers, while at the same time enjoying record profits.

But all this pales when compared to what seems to be the arch goal of the airlines: to minimize, and eventually eliminate, any contact between passengers and employees. Allow me to illustrate by way of personal experience.

I recently arranged to fly from Newark, New Jersey, to Bangor. The scene at Newark Liberty International Airport was reminiscent of an evacuation from some catastrophe. Pandemonium reigned. Any attempt to ask a question of a desk agent was met with a directive to “use a kiosk.”

And so I did. Along with hundreds of other folks. The problem: Many of the kiosks were out of order or out of paper, so no boarding passes could be printed. Neither was a desk agent willing to print my boarding pass. Why? Because I wasn’t checking any bags.

I eventually located the sole agent out on the floor. She was beset by waves of frustrated passengers assailing her with questions, pleading for information. Some of these people were offensive, and I pitied the agent. I finally got my turn, and I approached her with the preamble, “I am a normal person, and I’m begging you for help.” She condemned me to a kiosk. “If it doesn’t work, it will flash red,” she said, “and an agent will come over.”

I did as she directed. The kiosk flashed red. An agent took notice — and briskly turned away. I returned to the floor agent and begged again. She handed me a phone number to call. I felt like a drowning man who had been handed an anvil. However, I need to give credit where it is due — the phone number worked! The agent on the phone, through some magic, was able to control a Newark Airport kiosk from his redoubt perhaps somewhere in Asia. I got my boarding pass and made my flight.

That experience, I am convinced, was the leading edge of a wedge. The day is coming when there will be absolutely no contact between passengers and airline employees (save the flight attendants — someone has to ration out those pretzels). We will be completely on our own, and it will be every man for himself.

Increasingly, passengers are tasked with the heavy lifting of air travel. From booking seats to tagging our own bags to hoisting those bags to grappling with kiosks, the sense of anticipation that used to be associated with air travel has been replaced with dread and alienation.

Thus it was that, in the middle of the Newark madness, I spotted an elderly woman, standing with her luggage, turning on her heels and calling out, plaintively, “Can someone help me? I need help. Please?” But nobody came. Because there was nobody who could, or would, come.

And so, despite my own tribulations, I deputized myself and approached her. The poor woman was bamboozled by — what else? — a kiosk. I walked her through the steps, and derived vicarious joy from her success. Seeing her boarding pass issue forth was like witnessing childbirth. Then I helped her haul her luggage to the counter, because — what else? — nobody from the airline could, or would, assist her.

This is what it has come to. Air rage? I’m afraid we ain’t seen nothing yet.

We need more human contact, not less.

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