I have a horrible idea for a reality TV show. Put a bunch of people on a plane, then delay that plane so that everyone is about to miss their connecting flight. The only way to make the flight is to have enough people missing it that they hold the plane. So everyone has a limited amount of time to convince others to switch their flights (it’s TV – no one actually has to go to the new place in the end).
I’d call it “Plane and Simple.” Here’s a short story I wrote which illustrates how I got to have this horrible idea:
Plane and Simple
“We’ll let you know as soon as we know.” The first officer’s voice is calm, perhaps mildly annoyed. The plane was a little late in boarding. We all cast about at our new seatmates, our thirteen hour friends, and give small smiles. The price of flying.
“They’re not telling us anything. Once we have any sort of answer we will let you know. We apologize for the delay.” By now people are standing, despite the seatbelt light still being on. Some mill about the cabin, taking little walks. Nerves are starting to show. We have a late arrival – the connecting times have been trimmed so much that any delay can cost a person their next flight, perhaps the last flight home. I’m calm – I have a three hour cushion. The girl sitting next to me has twisted a napkin into a caterpillar. Wearing a raincoat and stowing a guitar, she’s returning to America for the first time. She had a thirty minute connection. Her brown eyes are forlorn and full of polite concern. She does not want to be a bother, but she is bothered.
The man in front of me, a young businessman with heavy plastic tortoiseshell glasses, gets drawn into conversation with a stately Chinese woman sitting next to him. This woman grabbed my attention as well, for she managed to get both the businessman and the heavyset industrial type sitting next to me to both volunteer to help her with her bags with minimal effort. She radiates confidence and dependency. Clearly she could do it if required, but surely someone will help her, correct? She had a permed head of graying hair, and wore a brocade jacket of purple and red flowers. With a knowing nod, she listens to the pilot.
“Can’t control them,” she says to no one and her immediate listeners.
“Oh, that’s all code for the Government.” She says it as a proper noun, as someone who’s lived her whole life under the watch of an official eye. “They’re keeping us here.”
“Well, I’m about to miss my flight,” says the heavyset man next to me. He’s in business too, though he’s wearing a Mustang shirt and board shorts. “Hope it gets fixed soon.”
1 hour 15 minutes
The flight attendants are floating around the aviary, soothing ruffled feathers and being rational. International crews don’t have to maintain the forced chipper attitude of domestic crews. They can speak it plainly – it’s rough, they’re sorry. We are in a foreign land, and we’ll move at the pleasure of the country’s government. Here’s five thousand bonus miles. Have a glass of complementary red wine.
The stately dame won’t take the miles. The flight attendant, a tall man with a genial attitude, offers twice and is rebuffed. The dame talks to him like he is a well-meaning but ignorant son. No, she won’t take those miles. Have him mess with her boarding pass? They’ll never let her through immigration – how could he suggest something so clearly foolish? My seat mate takes the red wine, though she sloshes it on the bulkhead in purple drops.
The level of patience in the airplane fluctuates now. We’re all being patient, worldly travelers. No one wants to be the one to snap. More flights are being lost. Tension rises under the jokes. The price of flying.
1 hour 30 minutes
This is when it all changed. The first officer, who keeps us up to date on how little everyone knows, comes over the intercom.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your First Officer speaking. Still nothing to report – the air traffic tower is not giving us any information, and so we are going to have to stay parked for the time being. We regret having to keep you all waiting. We know many of you have connecting flights, and we have no new information to report from Detroit. One of the nice things about being on a big plane like this is if enough people will miss a flight, they’ll be more likely to hold it. Once again as soon as we have clearance we’ll be pushing back, and again thank you for your patience.”
A ripple, discernible only as a collective shift in the flotation capable seats, suggests a unified mental realization. The only reason I don’t join in the thought process is that I still have two hours of wiggle room.
The raincoat girl next to me shifts, however. She gets up and walks slowly to the back of the plane. I throw a casual glance over my shoulder, and see her showing her boarding pass to another person in the back.
The tortoise glasses man is no longer typing on his computer. His fingers are poised over the keys, but his head is cocked to one side, listening to the murmurs of conversation.
The grand dame nods knowingly.
Then I hear it.
All through the cabin, I can hear where everyone is going. New York, Atlanta. People are looking at their boarding passes like they’re trading cards. Cincinnati, Miami. The plane, not being full, is getting reshuffled. Washington DC, Omaha. People are tallying, passengers are making alliances and camps. The flight attendants don’t stop them.
The New York camp is very persuasive. They ought to be, as they have representatives from the business class section moving through the rows with the oiled precision of prosperity.
“You know, you can switch connecting flights before we leave,” a grey-haired man is chatting up the grand dame. She looks at him, dark eyes full of mirth, but says nothing. “We get enough people to go to New York, they’ll hold the flight. Switch back when we land.”
“And what would I do in New York when I’m headed to DC?” She asks, voice direct and sweet.
“I can make it worth your while.” The man says, letting a hand linger on his breast pocket knowingly. The woman shakes her head with a chuckle.
“I’ve seen this before. And I’ll keep what I have. Have you tried going through immigration with mixed cards? They’ll never let me through.” The man, recognizing an immoveable object, keeps walking. He stops at me, contemplative.
“Where’s your connection going?”
“Indianapolis. I have plenty of time though.” I say it light-heartedly, but inside I’m starting to cringe at each passing minute. I’m an anomaly. I have a long layover in Detroit, and I am also alone. No one is going to Indiana. Should I need allies, I’ve already lost them all because I didn’t need them to begin with. The man moves on, clearly disgusted by my good-natured attitude.
He’s wasting his time in the back. The Omaha basketball team has the sympathy vote going strong for them. They’ve gotten people to switch tickets with swishes of blond hair and the youthful pleadings of needing to be back in time for finals. This is a lie. I know this because I listened to them chatting loudly from the carpet of their enclave in the terminal. Finals are done. This is just a last hurrah of the basketball team, one final bit of official campus business.
But they’re all leggy and pretty and it’s hard to say no when a team of leggy, pretty, giggling women put on the pressure to perhaps change destinations just to help them out. And they are smart – they’re targeting the businessmen who don’t have families.
That Omaha camp is the black horse of the race to stall future departures.
2 hours 30 minutes
It would be incorrect to say that the tension continued mounting. When flying, there is always tension. Even easy fliers have the presence of mind to feel a little pressure. If it’s not a second flight, it’s a family member waiting to pick them up, or a morning meeting, or a decent night’s sleep. Delays simply serve to magnify all those tiny gears in a plan which can break. The longer the delay, the more cracks form in the gears.
The crew turned on the entertainment system, placating those of us who could be bought by movies not yet sold in stores and HBO specials. Like me. The tension did not mount. The tension simply magnified. From my aisle seat, I saw all the camps.
The New York camp was sitting pretty with the bulk of the wealthy seats. They might save their more immediate flights. They had the platinum cards and could bring a great deal of customer service weight to bear. And some of them were. If their numbers wouldn’t save them, the cost would be great to their loyalty. That’s the word they keep using – loyalty. They’ve been loyal customers. And if that loyalty doesn’t get them anything, then perhaps they should take their loyalty elsewhere. Might as well start smacking people with billfolds.
I was right about Omaha being the dark horse. The Omaha girls acquired temporary allies from around the globe, and their numbers were now impressive enough to perhaps get that connecting flight to wait for them as well. Well done, college students.
DC was not so fortunate in numbers, but they have a weight of their own. They had claimed the economy comfort section, and were employing technology to negotiate their way to other flights, or to powerful friends on the ground who could save them. They had the longest reach. Sure, they could wait to get another flight, spend the night in Detroit. The repercussions for the good of the country were at stake, but oh well. They are clearly the tensest, as their means and pressure all are done through favors and political string plucking.
The Atlanta camp was strong, but they weren’t actually trying to save themselves. They were headed to a hub, after all, and there were always more flights to the main hub. Miss one, and another was leaving in an hour. They clumped together in the center aisles, and discussed the offers they’d received. They knew they were prized commodities for other cities. For the right price they’d say they were headed to Omaha, or Dallas, or Cincinnati. What did it matter, as they had the most options to get to their real destination? Oh yes, for a little grease those Atlanta flyers would say they were headed anywhere.
The rest of us – those of us going places with no weight – were a little like those from Atlanta. We could be bought, in theory, since we had no camps to speak of. But we were a hard sell because we weren’t going to hubs. Ours were the last flights to small places in unattractive locations. I might love Indiana, but I wasn’t going to convince a single soul to try and help me stop my flight from leaving without me. Sure, I could claim Omaha, but if I switched I could not switch back.
The man in the Mustang shirt looked at his watch, and did some mental math. “My flight’s going to be landing by the time we arrive.” He says it with finality, a man who knows there is no hope. The stately woman nods in sympathy. The tortoiseshell businessman has disappeared to the back of the plane, replaced by a Chinese man in a windbreaker who pushes his seat all the way back.
Looking around, I’m thankful that we’re in an airplane. Anywhere else and the camps would be at each other’s throats, like a collection of medieval provinces. Planes force civility. You can’t go anywhere, so if you lose your temper there’s nowhere to go. You don’t get to storm off – first class is off limits to the rest of us, anyway. So the camps glower and make catty remarks at each other. Stereotypes abound. The non-English speaking passengers eye us all warily.
The truly calm are those precious few who are actually stopping in Michigan. This is their last connection – so apart from the annoyance of spending a few extra hours on a parked airplane in China, life is good.
“If we hit four hours, they’ll make us leave the plane,” the gray-haired woman says to me. Unlike most of the plane, neither she nor I have left our original seats. I nod, feeling half my mouth quirk up in a smile.
“Heaven forbid. All these machinations.” I nod in the directions of the camps.
“They’ll never get through immigration,” the woman agrees. I go back to being entertained by movies.
There’s a different hum.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been given clearance to push back. We are no longer first for take-off, but we should be in the air shortly. Flight time estimated at thirteen hours and twenty-seven minutes…” He continues, but I can’t hear over the muffled clapping.
Almost everyone reshuffled in the great grab for connection allies, and no one feels like going moving back to their old seats. So people bundle in their chairs, setting up tray tables and fastening seat belts and going through the motions of pretending as though they still care about procedure.
The tension dissipates out of necessity. There is no internet over the Pacific. There is no way to know, and not knowing means not controlling. Thus movies, and snacks, and sleeping – the hallmarks of the long trip – take precedent over worrying, negotiating, and demanding. Also prayer. Prayer lives in both worlds, within and beyond tension. I would bet my connection boarding pass that there was a lot of prayer as we broke through the dimming cloud bank and into the darkening sky.
In those thirteen hours, I bet there was a lot of prayer.