Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Robots in the sky with pretzels

I know that this isn’t news to many of you jet-setters, but it is now possible to fly from Portland to, say, Washington, D.C., and return without dealing with a real person.

Well almost.

I’m old enough to remember the days when travelers actually dressed “up” to fly on an airplane. We would be trusted to eat meals with weapons called metal knives and forks.

These days, the journey starts with buying the ticket, which, of course, you can do at home, on line. The ticket uncoils out of your whirring printer.

On the appointed day, you drive to the airport parking lot and a machine spits out another ticket. You get on a parking lot shuttle bus and a digital voice reminds you to remember your parking area.

At the airport you touch screen (is that a verb?) your reservation number into a computer. More whirring as this computer prints out your boarding pass.

The only person you personally encounter at the terminal is the guy checking whether you might be a terrorist. He doesn’t invite conversation or offer even so much as “good morning.”

Terrorism is serious business.

At the gate, another real person, who reads the first of several friendly, carefully crafted United Airlines scripts, announces the flight boarding over the address system. As you enter the gangway, an attendant feeds your boarding pass into a boarding-pass-digesting machine, which decapitates and returns a seating assignment stub. You get the feeling that this particular person (1) could be easily be replaced or (2) is surreptitiously part of security and is giving you a final “once over” or (3) both.

On the plane, a recorded video tells you what to do if the plane ditches over water. I can’t recall this ever happening. Not to anyone; not ever. The news always says that planes “plunge into the ocean,” kind of like a dagger in a chest. When you are in a 90-degree descent, it’s tough, if not impossible, to strap on a life vest, pulling the straps tightly and snapping them into the metal loop on the front. Oh well.

At some point a non-gender specific flight attendant appears. (Hard to believe that once upon a time, airlines promoted this whole “Fly Me” sexual tease about stewardesses … but let’s not go there. This is a family blog.) The non-gender specific attendant asks you if you would like a “complimentary beverage” and plops a complimentary bag of complimentary pretzels on your fold-down tray. In the cut-throat, cost-cutting world of the airlines industry, actual meals are uncomplimentary — in more ways than one.

The unrecorded (I think) voice of the pilot injects itself as a reminder that human beings are in control of your destiny. The voice offers a brief, reassuring commentary about estimated arrival time, cruising altitudes, destination ground temperature, watch adjustments and the pleasure of having us “with” the crew today.

Then it’s on to the piped-in movie. Little stalactite screens hang everywhere from the overhead bins. Even if you choose not to watch them, you “are kindly asked” to pull the shade on your window to aid those who would like to. I mean, who wants to look out the window at Mount Hood or the Snake River Canyon or America the Beautiful when it might spoil watching Mel Gibson or Jennifer Lopez?

At Dulles Airport, Avis has its routine down so that if you are a “preferred customer” (as opposed to what?) the shuttle driver just drops you off at a car that you have reserved. Kind of an automotive blind date, (we got a Pontiac G6). Now THIS I like. No counter or computer should stand between a man and his car even in this carbon-trampled age.

Coming home, it’s more of the same. Except for me, because while I’m winging back to Portland, somehow my checked bag is winging to San Francisco.

It’s OK, the Portland baggage attendant assures me. A courier will deliver my bag to my door between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. the next day. The time frame, I learn, is called a “window.”

At 2 p.m. the next day the window shuts. No bag.

I go on-line to trace it with my missing baggage claim number. Such tracings are possible thanks to bar codes, lasers and Bill Gates. Because I am now post-window, the screen instructs me to phone an 800 number.

A woman in Pakistan or India or Bangladesh answers in an accent so thick that I experience momentary culture shock.

She goes through her script. “Wait and I will call the dispatcher to see when the next ‘window’ is.” They once had music for people on hold but now there’s this very eerie, out-sourced recorded voice that sounds like it is actually coming through a long tube stretching from the Indian sub-continent to Oregon. “You are still on hold…you are still on hold….”

I know…I know....

The out-sourced, sub-continent receptionist returns to confirm my local time of 4:51 p.m. and informs me that my new window will shut at 6 p.m.

I ask, “Just in case, my window shuts and my bag still isn’t here, could you give me the Portland dispatch company number so I can take care of this intra-continentally?” OK, I didn’t say “intra-continentally” because that would be “culturally insensitive.”

I said “locally.”

“No, I am very sorry, but because of security issues, it isn’t possible for United Airlines to give you that number. We are very sorry for the inconvenience. Please feel free to call us if the bag doesn’t arrive within the new window.”

Ah yes, “security issues.” Of course. all kinds of mayhem might result if I am given the cell phone number of the courier company. For one thing, massively armed, I could storm the place if its courier misses the new window.

An hour later, standing at the door with my prodigal bag is not an FBI agent or a SWAT team but a teenager who has arrived in his lowered, rasping, tricked-out Honda Civic coupe.

“Thanks,” I say as he hands over the bag.

“No problem,” he says as one window — mine — closes, and he roars off into the next.

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