Tale of a Tormented Traveler

Instead of a night in a room overlooking the Hong Kong bay, I am staying tonight in a random hotel at the Zurich airport. Swiss International Air Lines cancelled a flight on me for the 4th time in the past 360 days.

It somehow brought back a 2015 memory of being on stage at NEXT Conference, when curator Monique van Dusseldorp kindly smiled at me in the Q&A session when I said I was coming back from a trip to India, and had actually stepped off the plane minutes before I took the stage.

She winked at me and said something like “you’re such a globe-trotter”.

If in the past travel could carry a sort of prestige or magic, it is long gone. Here is how things happen in 2017, in this particular case on a Geneva — Hong Kong trip via Zurich.

Leave home at 18h to go to the Geneva airport, arrive there 45 minutes later to be told at baggage drop you were put on an earlier, delayed flight, as “it leaves at the time of your original flight, itself delayed, so you won’t miss your connection in Zurich”.

Flight is displayed with a “more news at 20:25” mention, by 20:45 nobody has heard anything, until the earlier flight is cancelled, you rush to a counter where you learn you have been transferred back to your original flight.

TVs are now blinking with green “boarding” signs, and you are kindly requested to rush to the gate because everybody must be on board in the next 10 minutes “or the plane will be grounded” according to the captain who is somehow behind the gate’s counter mingling with the ground staff.

Seeing a pilot at the gate is never a good sign, at least according to the captain of a 2015 KLM flight I was on. He came out of the cockpit and to the gate and started his announcement with “if you see me up here, it’s not a good sign. Fog is now preventing us from landing in Amsterdam…”

Reptile brain whispers: “captain is here, not a good sign”.

Board at 21h, wait one hour while the staff manages angry customer who are left out, luggages are added or removed depending on who made their way on board, and snow is cleared off the runway in Zurich.

The decision to pack winter clothes into the checked-in bag looks increasingly ill advised as the prospect of being transported to a warm country looks more unlikely with each passing minute.

Take off at 22h. Flight attendant says we “will get information about whether connecting flights waited or not 20 minutes before landing”. On a 30 minutes flight it should be soon.

Learn just before landing you have been “rebooked”, whatever that means.

Upon landing, your connecting flight is still displayed as “boarding”, so you make a split decision to ignore your “rebooked” status and try your luck. You embark on the 3km journey from terminal A to terminal E to try to catch the plane you can see on the other side of the runways, sitting physically 500 meters away from you.

Run, wait for the elevator, frantically press the “close doors button” once inside.

Another sign warning passengers about Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Laugh at a sign saying that you can’t take your Samsung Galaxy Note 7 on board an airplane. Feel guilty for laughing about something that likely cost tons of people their job. Remember that the trends is clear: owner of Apple products will soon not be the ones with the best possible devices in their pockets, so that joke might not last long.

Arrival at the customs. Agent is unhappy about your passport being in a protecting pouch you didn’t bother removing. Custom agents are almost always unhappy about these as it prevents them from seeing your nationality instantly. Yet some don’t mind, so you sometimes try your luck, especially when you are in a hurry. Same with toothpaste in carry-on luggage: sometimes it makes it past x-ray screening, sometimes it does not. Which means Procter & Gamble is probably making millions off people like me who play “toothpaste roulette” and sometimes have to throw away the tube they just bought.

Agonizingly slow automated train to newer, fancier international terminal. Escalator, wrong end of the terminal, run run run.

Make it to the gate, the plane is still here, the tunnel is still attached. But they won’t let you in. One of the guys says in German they could do something as the door has not been closed. They talk to each other, the guy with a fluorescent vest saying it would be simpler to let you in, while the people in white shirts decide to call it a day and ask you to go back to the main terminal.

At this point you realize that, if you had left Lausanne with the train at 18h to go to the Zurich airport instead of the Geneva airport, you would have arrived here around 20h30, more than two hours before take off, which means you would have caught your Hong Kong flight.

You start to think that there should be a system kicking in 5 hours before take off to geolocalize you, and the computers would send you directly to Zurich via rail if delays or over-bookings are expected on the Geneva — Zurich leg.

But that would also demand a change in airline rules which, having been allowed to drift away from a client-centric approach for decades, currently prevent you from joining a trip at one of the stops. As the more convenient direct tickets sell at a higher price than those with a stopover, allowing travelers to hijack that system would ruin the business model.

You cross the terminal again but in the other direction, re-clear customs, get a smile and “oh I’m sorry” from the border agent. Rush to the transfer counter — by now the more convenient lounges have closed. A look at the clock says it is now 23:30.

Wait 45 minutes in line. By now it is clear that checking-in that hat and scarf was a bad idea.

Two passengers to go in the line, they get into an argument as one of them, a Spanish-speaking man who is clearly reaching his limits and seems to have been unable to sleep or wash for more than 48 hours, jumps ahead, showing that he has different standards when it comes to socially acceptable behavior in queues. Things settle down.

Wait. Look at smartphone. No GPS signal while indoor so Pokémon GO won’t work. Facebook friends are asleep means nothing new in the feed. Wait some more.

You wonder what you are going to get at the counter; sometimes it’s service, sometimes it’s care. Sometimes it’s relief, but too often it’s agony.

The last passenger between you and the lady with the badge is a doctor. He explains that a team of 8 surgeons is waiting for him in Brazil to perform several procedures. For him — or for his patients — this delay might very well be a life and death matter. He is worried about the bag he checked in as he has some important and pricey tools in there.

He get offered a seat the next morning. But it’s past midnight, so tomorrow just became today. Take off is just a few hours away. He refuses the hotel voucher saying he has to work until dawn anyway, and a bench in the terminal will do. He is a road warrior of a man. He looks incredibly wise and profound. He does not get mad. He seems to be able to brush aside the constraints a 190cm body usually put on people.

The lady at the counter begs him to take the voucher: “even if you work you will be more comfortable at the hotel”. He relentlessly accepts, ignoring his profound belief that this room is unnecessary, that it is just a waste of resources. I wonder if he is just going to throw the voucher in a nearby bin and spend the night bent on his laptop in the wait area.

Your turn comes. You are interacting with a temporary worker who says she with a huge german accent she is “not used to working here”. She clearly has family waiting for her at home. She anxiously looks at her watch, perhaps worried because the babysitter is soon leaving. After a long struggle with a computer from the 1970s, she rebooks you on a flight that will barely allow you to be on time to speak at your event, and includes a four hours waiting time in Frankfurt. Not as good as the direct flight, but still, it should work out!

Since you have kids, you are dealing with a strong case of fear of flying, a more or less rational feeling that is influenced by things like where you seat in the plane, which airline you fly with, what aircraft is used. You ask what type of plane it will be, because a 30 years old 767 from a North American airline is not, in your mind, the same as a brand new A380 or 787.

Boeing 777, Cathay Pacific. Not too bad, not too bad.

You have to choose between a seat at the front but in the aisle, or a seat at the window but in the back. The closer to the plane’s nose you are, the less disturbing turbulences feel. But having a window helps, because you see what is happening outside and that somehow makes you calmer, especially during take off and landing. You settle for the seat in the back, because the window is more important to control your fear than the slight attenuation you get from sitting 15 meters closer to the nose.

You receive a voucher for a hotel night, walk towards the terminal exit, spend 15 minutes to locate your luggage in an ocean of bags that have been piled on carts.

You walk 2 kilometers in a deserted complex until you reach the hotel reception. On the way you see families going on the same journey with young kids, strollers, half a dozen bags.

You smile to a 35 years old woman who seems panicked to have to cross what is likely a full of life train station during the day, but that currently looks like the back of a shady parking lot in a Detroit suburb. She tries to stay not too far from you, as to not invade your privacy while still maintaining proximity to another human being in case of trouble. Her high heels are definitely not helping.

Wait 15 minutes in line at hotel check-in, where you are told breakfast will be served starting at an hour that is past your boarding time. Ask if there is room service as you thought you would be served a dinner in the plane, but you were not in a plane at dinner time, and then there was no plane at all.

The clerk points you to sandwiches served under the lobby’s green light — which makes it impossible to see what is inside. You wonder how your friends who do not eat pork would have done to pick their food knowing most of the subs seem to contain ham, but there is no way to say what is what unless you randomly pile half a dozen on a plate, take the plate to where there is more light, and put back whatever you don’t want.

Sandwiches for stranded travelers at the Zurich Airport Radisson Blu hotel.

You say you want real food, and that the voucher you received from the airline says you get a budget of 30CHF for dinner. You are told that “because we have prepared sandwiches you don’t get the 30CHF budget, so you will have to pay room service yourself”.

At this point you hate the lawyer who told the airline about this trick: “you legally have to pay UNLESS you prepare food. Technically, two pieces of bread with a bit a lettuce are food, so here you go: SA-VINGS !!!”

You order room service and pay for it. That soup was not really worth 15$, but hey, this is Switzerland and this is Zurich, what were you expecting.

You email your client to say you will arrive 8 hours before you are supposed to take the stage at their event, the margin of safety long gone. But “it will work out in the end, don’t you worry”. Having given hundreds of talks and overseen events yourself you know how hosts get more and more nervous as their event nears, so why not try to help calm their nerves. It won’t change much, but why not do what you can to help them go through this moment of stress.

Set the alarm for 5:30am while the clock reads 1:35.

Realize there are things far worse in life, and that what’s important is to make it on time and safely.

Yet this is what travel has become in this century, probably under the assaults of people like you and me who think it’s normal to pay 50$ to fly 2000 kilometers.

Flying increasingly feels like being confronted to a soulless machine that I am not really sure anyone can influence or control; a long litany of processes, computer based decisions, things that could be done “but not for your fare class”, queues and security checks, procedures, more queues, more checks, jargon, codes, stickers, tags.

In the middle you find humans who are genuinely trying their best to serve customers. But despite all their goodwill and competence, you hear horror story after horror story from occasional and frequent travelers alike. It’s as if the system and tools of this industry were conspiring to prevent the staff to succeed at treating customers like humans.

I sometimes wonder if this is the world we built and build, if this is what always happens once you start letting computers, data, regulations and algorithms govern our lives.

Is dehumanization a consequence of technology? Is it rather a byproduct of global competition and today’s complicated political context?

Could it be the level of maturity of this industry and the inevitable commoditization and convergence that goes with it? Or are cheaper fares taking their toll on the quality of service? I have no answer, but I find it an important question, because if technology is responsible then perhaps we should rethink how we approach it.

And all of the above happens while I’m traveling business, and hold the “gold” status in the Swiss frequent flyer program. It means I had access to a lounge while I had to wait, and could go to priority counters that likely saved me hours of wait. My thoughts are with those people who had kids in their arms, that poor chap who was becoming agressive because of disrespecting his fundamental needs for so long, and with that doctor who, I hope, will make it on time to do what he has to do.