The perfect storm

 

(This Dave Barry column was originally published July 9, 2000.)

If you're one of the millions of people planning to travel by air this summer, here's some important information from the Association of Commercial Airlines:

(Silence.) UH-oh! Apparently the airlines are unable to give us any information at this time! Probably they are experiencing thunderstorms.

No institution experiences as many thunderstorms as an airline. Huge, violent clouds surround airline employees at all times. They cannot hold company picnics, because the death toll from lightning strikes would be in the hundreds. If we want to end the drought in sub-Saharan Africa, all we have to do is put an airline there; the entire region would be underwater within hours.

In practical terms, what this means for you, the traveler, is that when planning your airplane trip this summer, you should take into consideration the fact that your flight will never actually take off.

Of course, the airline will not tell you this. Airlines have a strict policy of never revealing flight information to passengers. Say you have a ticket for a flight that's scheduled to depart at 6 p.m. The airport TV monitors will insist that this flight is on schedule, even if the time is 5:57 p.m. and there is no actual, physical airplane out at the end of the jetway.

If you ask the airline personnel about this, they'll tap on their computer keyboard for a moment, then look you in the eye and say: ''I'm still showing this flight on time.'' Do not blame them for misleading you. They all must take a Secrecy Oath; if they're caught revealing accurate flight information to a passenger, they'll be locked in an overhead luggage compartment with nothing to eat but an airline ''snack'' made from U.S. Army surplus bedding.

Sometimes I think the airlines don't really own any airplanes. I think they secretly own the airport food concessions, and make their money by selling $4.50 hot dogs to the crowds of passengers who are attracted to airport gate areas in hopes of catching flights that do not, in fact, exist.

TRUE ANECDOTE: Recently, I was scheduled to take a flight from Miami to Chicago. Of course, the airline said the flight was on time. In an effort to double-check this, I connected my laptop computer to an airport phone, logged onto the Internet, and went to the America Online weather site, where I clicked on the little button labeled, ''Airport Delays.'' Here, I swear, is what it said:

``To better serve you, we are currently redesigning and rebuilding our Airport Delays section. As a result, the Airport Delays section is currently unavailable.''

I was not fooled by this message. Clearly, airline computer personnel -- the same ones who make sure that no two passengers are ever charged the same fare for the same flight -- had hacked into the weather site to prevent me from obtaining information about my flight. That's how good their security is! We should put these people in charge of protecting our nuclear secrets.

So I was forced to check with an airline agent, who tapped on his keyboard for a moment. I could not see his computer screen, but I am guessing it said something like:

``VIOLENT THUNDERSTORMS HAVE REDUCED O'HARE AIRPORT TO A PILE OF RUBBLE. COMMERCIAL AVIATION THERE WILL BE IMPOSSIBLE FOR YEARS. BUT WE HAVE PLENTY OF $4.50 HOT DOGS FOR SALE AT THE GATE AREA.''

The agent looked up and told me: ``I'm showing that flight on schedule.''

So I went to the gate, where the signboard showed that the flight was on time right up until they announced that it was canceled because of thunderstorms in Chicago.

TRUE FOLLOW-UP ANECDOTE: The next day, I booked another flight to Chicago, and, because of a screw-up that I am sure got somebody fired, the plane, after a delay, actually took off. The interesting thing was, I was flying with a ticket that said my name was ''Barry White.'' Really.

That is who the airline computer insisted I was. I pointed out to the ticket agent that Barry White is a famous soul crooner who does not resemble me in any way except that we are both bipeds. I asked if my ticket could reflect my real name; after tapping on his computer for a good 10 minutes, the agent informed me -- I swear -- that this was not possible, and advised me to just get on the plane.

So I did. I assumed that somewhere else in the world, the real Barry White, holding a ticket that said, ''Dave Barry,'' was sitting in an airport gate area, waiting for a nonexistent plane, eating a $4.50 hot dog. As a veteran air traveler, I would not be surprised to learn that the person sitting next to him was Amelia Earhart.

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