Hydrogen Bombs & Airline Rants: Changing Mores and Revenue Grabs
The Hydrogen Bomb was set, fused, and ready to go. We were tense. Nervous.
Of course, this wasn’t a thermonuclear bomb, it was a garbage bag of hydrogen, tied with a rubber band, with a piece of fuse taped to the side. The idea came one lazy summer day during graduate school, and we could simply not let the tank of hydrogen sitting by the GC go to waste. In those days, explosives fuse could be purchased at many hardware or farm supply stores. We typically used long fuses on surgically-altered M-80 firecrackers to give us more getaway time.
We stuck the hose into the large black garbage bag and cranked her up.
My coconspirator asked, “Should we mix in a little pure oxygen?”
“Nah, there’s plenty in the atmosphere. Once the fuse fries a hole in the bag…” I didn’t need to complete the sentence.
Laughing hard, I carried the bag, now totally upright as it wriggled to escape my grasp — realizing its end was near.
“Open the window,” I commanded.
My friend Tim (who I unsuccessfully tried tracking down for this column) grabbed the window handle.
“Damn! It doesn’t open far enough!”
“No problem, give me the lighter.”
I grabbed the BIC from him and walked out the door. A few minutes later, I was standing on the grounds just behind the chemistry hall. People started to gather as I lit the fuse and released the bag.
Of course, one unanticipated problem cropped up. I didn’t realize our seal at the bottom of the bag had leaked some hydrogen, and the expected rapid ascension of the bag to the heavens to be followed by a spectacular explosion was not in the cards. I released the now-flaccid bag only to have it hang right beside my head.
“Holy %$#@,” I yelled, the fuse burning. I pushed the bag upwards and it gently rose — towards the chemistry building, following a trajectory dictated by karmic justice — right back to the window where Tim held his hands to his face in a pose inspired by Edvard Munch. I stepped back and stood next to a few students who now watched the bag bobbing against the wall, seemingly trying to break-and-enter back to its birthplace.
The giant fireball was gone in an instant, and only a few burnt remains of the bag fluttered to Earth. I made my exit, returned to the lab, and found Tim inside sitting down against the wall, weeping with laughter.
You can’t even joke about bombs these days. About the same time I had launched the H-bomb, I had made a Halloween costume resembling the vest of a suicide bomber. Bear in mind, such bombers were extremely rare in the late 70s, and were generally lunatics protesting a too-high water bill, or perhaps a parking ticket. Made out of duct tape, railroad flares, red spray-paint, and a high frequency Q trap filter (commonly used to steal HBO in those days), it looked very real. When I attended a Halloween kegger, people were amused, but nonetheless admonished me to stand clear of the bonfire.
The costume was in my car a few days later as I parked outside a bar in downtown Ann Arbor. A police officer came into the bar looking for the owner of the car.
“That’s mine,” I waved.
“Will you come with me for a minute?”
I followed her out to the curb, and she pointed to the faux bomb vest in the backseat.
“What is that?”
I popped open the back door and held it up to her. She looked at it for maybe five seconds, sniffed and walked away without another word.
Can you imagine what would have happened in any of these scenarios in this millennium? I would be hammering out this column from a day-room computer shared with Sirhan Sirhan or Ted Kaczynski.
We frequent travelers endure the scrutiny of the TSA at airports. I’m not sure how others feel, but I rarely get annoyed with backscatter porn photos, hand searches, wand scans, and the ubiquitous bleating of the magnetometers that, lacking consistent calibration, may or may not require me to remove my belt.
The fact remains that the TSA is there to protect us. I guess if I had a complaint, it would be there aren’t enough agents. When I’m in the Denver airport, I can use my Clear Card to jump even the frequent-flyer lanes and bully ahead to the front of an x-ray line. In other airports, Orlando comes to mind; the few staffed x-ray lanes sit nestled next to a half-dozen more sitting idly even as the Disney-style line barrier queues up the masses in a serpentine dance a hundred yards long.
Speaking domestically, when it comes to inefficient airports, Orlando, as abysmal as it is, trails the almost psychopathic incompetency of O’Hare followed closely by Washington Dulles. O’Hare’s demerits stem from the pain and suffering inflicted when transferring between airlines across its sprawling expanse. Of course, since TSA bag checks requires passenger to haul their own bags to the x-ray scanners due to a lack of infrastructure (or employee willingness) to handle it, O’Hare sinks further on the D list of airport shame. Dulles is profoundly disorganized in its ability to ferry passengers between terminals. The large bus-like shuttles that rise to the concourse doors and then sink to the pavement are eerily reminiscent of the Imperial Walkers of STAR WARS fame, except more jarring.
But, if we exclude third-world airports like Montego Bay and Penang, and consider countries who should know better, few airports stand a chance of unseating Frankfort, Germany, as the world’s most modern airport disaster. Not only is the layout so ill-conceived that you need to pack a lunch to walk from international to domestic departure gates, the personnel staffing the airport organize passengers with all the care and respect normally reserved for the Canadian seal hunt targets.
Upon landing in Germany, good luck finding out where your connection might be. I was connecting through to Lyon and walked about a quarter mile to what appeared to be the security gates for the planes to France, and was brusquely waved away. I walked another quarter mile to a huge, suffocating lobby area where probably a dozen check-in gates were closed with metal barriers pulled down. Perhaps 800 of my closest friends were crammed into the space. No signs, no personnel to guide us, and no hope. Finally, after waiting for an hour in the heat, excitement rustled through the crowd. About four of the gates suddenly opened up and passengers, with flights due to depart in 30 minutes, crushed forward. After about three waves of people were cleared through, the security agents slammed the metal barriers down without a word. Fifteen minutes later, a lone agent pointed back to the hall I’d walked down more than an hour earlier — back to the gate where the previous set of guards had barred me from accessing, and now, 800 people crammed into the line to check through with two security agents.
Once on the concourse, I sought out a restroom. Restrooms in Frankfort Airport are few and far between, and astonishingly small. One has to pass through a door into a small ante room capable of holding maybe four people. Next step, another door leading to the lone sink for the washroom. The final door leads to the sacred toilets with dozens of people competing for the few open spots.
Not only are most airports rigged as passenger booby-traps, but security measures have made travel even more onerous. Gone are the days when I used to live in the Tampa area and one could disembark the plane, ride to the terminal, retrieve one’s car from the parking ramp, and park it right outside baggage claim. All one had to do to justify abandoning the car at the curb was to tuck the parking lot pay receipt under the windshield wiper. Now? Well, your car would remain there for maybe 60 seconds before being towed to a remote lot where the bail on the vehicle would reach $100 or more. If not paid in a day or two, it would be compressed into a metal bale and dumped in Tampa Bay.
Have we gone nuts? I’m not sure. Though not terror-related, the use of wireless devices aboard planes was (and still is in many cases) prohibited. That is, unless the plane offers onboard Wi-Fi for a fee — then wireless is a party to which everyone is invited. Hmmmm — why are those planes safe?
Which brings my rant full circle to the airlines themselves. In their endless search for revenue recovery, airlines have banged people for checked luggage. Of course, people are towing thicker and thicker bags on board. Those little devices for judging bag size? Well, I’ve seen them used twice over my last, say, 200,000 miles of flying. By forcing people to carry on, flights are delayed even more than they used to be. Flight attendants bark at the passengers, “The sooner you get in your seats the sooner we can depart!”
Really? Duh. So it’s our fault? Please.
And airline consolidation? Well, anytime two airlines merge, don’t believe it will help you, the passenger. Let’s be honest here; road warriors for the most part don’t care a lick for frequent flyer mileage. We know that trying to use miles for a frequent flyer ticket is a joke. Some of the best destinations are sold out to awards travel 10 months hence — unless you want to burn miles at a 2X premium, then seats magically become available.
Business travelers covet two things and two things only: (a) upgrades, and (b) early boarding. That’s it.
We like to work on planes and the reduced pitch (the distance between you and the seat in front of you) in coach prohibits opening most laptops lest the moron in front of you slams his dandruff-encrusted skull back into your personal space, snapping the bezel of your machine in the bargain. But mergers of big airlines mean a reduction in personnel, flights and more crowding on the remaining flights. And the combining of two high-mileage frequent flyer tiers means that the competition for free upgrades is fiercer. The 100,000 miles-per-year travelers are pushing out the 50,000 mile travelers.
So, why bother to be loyal to an airline? If I know I’m not going to be upgraded (I am 0-for-2012), why fly an airline that may stop once while a discount carrier may have a direct flight? Indeed, the main decision point I use to select flights these days is duration. Give me Joe’s Cattle Car because I can stand on my head for three or four hours rather than connect and stretch the journey to seven or eight. My company is generous in allowing business class travel for international flights, and that’s all I care about for luxury.
And the cycle continues. As more and more business travelers — the cash cows of the airlines — defect to duration-motivated travel, airline revenues will drop even more, layoffs will ensure, fewer flights scheduled, and the cycle spirals down to the last plane flying.
And so be it.
So, all this complaining requires a solution, so here are my top 11 tips to the airlines:
1. Transparent overhead doors. You can announce 100 times to people that closed bins mean full bins, and they will still open them to check.
2. Expedited luggage handling. You get my bags out by the time I get to baggage claim and you’re a hero, because I didn’t have to schlep it through the airport.
3. Super-expedited passage through minimally-invasive (meaning, leave shoes on, carry drinks and shaving gear) search lanes for cleared passengers (this is actually in the works, but I didn’t want the airlines to forget).
4. Board ALL passengers window-center-aisle from the rear of the plane forward (I know what you’re thinking, frequent flyers, see number (5) next).
5. For elite flyers, allow gate check-in of roll-aboard bags so they get them a couple of minutes after leaving the plane — same time as stroller, car seats, etc. This reduces the incentives for elite flyers to have to barge onboard early to get their overhead space and leaves room to implement (4) above.
6. Re-tool the stupid overheads so they can fit more gear.
7. Install an alert system allowing flight attendants closing the bins to signal to a panel near the front of the plane that bins are full. If someone boarding late for row 32 has no open bins near their seat, they gate check the bag on the spot. 90 percent of the musical chairs bag-dance occurs in the last 10 minutes before scheduled departure. You’ve seen it. A plane is packed with sweaty passengers and some hapless passenger is allowed to drag a bag the size of a rhinoceros to the back of the plane. Everyone staring at this event sees the bag hauled back to the door minutes later.
8. When some idiot ignores the warning to place small items under the seat and elects to place it in the overhead, a flight attendant should come along, remove it, hand it to the person, and stare at them with the intensity of Charles Manson.
9. When the pitch of an airline’s seats is 32” or less, simply disable recline. As entertaining as the circus of head lice might be on the person in front of me, I’ll pass.
10. Coach flight attendants to watch for passengers trying to get rid of service items (trays, cups, etc.). We know you see us but are choosing to ignore us. We need to reclaim what limited space we have.
11. For God’s sake, be honest during delays. If the flight has a 10 percent chance of leaving, don’t string us along.
Randy Hice is Director, Strategic Consulting at STARLIMS. He may be reached at [email protected].