Is it my imagination, or is travel getting even weirder than it’s ever been?
I’ve written about bad lodgings and my love-hate relationship with United Airlines. But a recent business trip to Seattle seemed like one long string of is it me, or is this just really strange? moments. It seems whenever you embark on a trip these days, it’s like walking into a ’60s sci-fi television series. Think of how many classic Twilight Zone episodes dealt with travel: William Shatner on the plane with the gremlin. Inger Stevens on the highway with the hitchhiker. William Shatner in the diner with the fortune-telling machine.Or consider the appropriateness of the introduction to The Outer Limits: “We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour[s], sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear.”
And I’m not just talking about the TSA. It’s also the airlines, the airports, the rental car agencies, and the hotels. To wit:
● I walked into the Sea-Tac garage to pick up my rental car as I had done many times before. Like a Twilight Zone episode, everything seems familiar, with one glaring difference. There were no rental car facilities. There were no signs for rental car facilities. It was like the rental car floors had never existed. It turns out that five months ago, Sea-Tac opened one of those offsite rental car facilities that provides untold convenience for everyone involved – except the traveling public. And because everyone flies to Sea-Tac that often, directional signs were deemed unnecessary.
● I’m in Hertz’s Number One Gold program, which means my name is supposed to be on a board directing me to my car in a numbered space. It wasn’t, unless I wanted to pretend to be someone named Steven Baldwin. I found this odd since when I reserved the car on Hertz’s site, it clearly said I was logged in, but it turns out, if you’re one of their favored customers, you need to log in a second time. This doesn’t make any sense to me, especially since I’d rented a car two weeks before and the system worked perfectly.
● From there it was off to a Fairfield Inn, which offers a breakfast buffet in the morning, complete with a refrigerated case full of milk and juice, and warm cookies in the evening. There’s nothing like enjoying a warm cookie while standing next to a locked refrigerated case full of milk.
● When my business was completed, I began the process in reverse. I dutifully went to the bank of computers the Fairfield Inn had set up for printing out boarding passes, and discovered that United’s new online feature that allows you to check in for your entire trip also prevents you from printing out a boarding pass from any computer that’s not your own.
● The on-screen boarding pass also included fine print that stunned me. “Due to security restrictions at this airport, please arrive THREE HOURS AHEAD OF DEPARTURE TIME [italics and capitals mine] if you are checking luggage and two hours if you have carry-on baggage.” I’ve flown in and out of Sea-Tac lots of times, and I’ve never had a (big) problem with security. What could have changed? The answer? Nothing. I breezed through security no differently than I ever have post 9/11. This gave me plenty of time for a leisurely lunch and hours of working while trying to keep my laptop from falling of my lap.
● My outbound flight was on a brand-new 737-900, whose interior has been completely redesigned using some of Boeing’s latest features, including mood lighting that feels like you’re flying in a bar. Boeing also redesigned the overhead bins to be more visually pleasing, swooping upward in an arc. This aesthetic change means the bins now have less than half the capacity they did previously. They were full by the time the second boarding group was called (I was in the fourth group, after people who’d paid more than I did, fly more often than I do, and who are prettier than I am). This strikes me as a brilliant strategy, so how can an airline that charges people to check luggage, and then buys planes with no overhead space, be losing money?
As a Boomer, I grew up in an era where travel went from a journey that took untold grueling hours on prop planes to modern jets and sleek terminals that were a breeze to move through and a joy to visit. But now we’ve devolved back to untold grueling hours spent in stultifying security lines, endless gate waits, and interminable bus rides to rental car facilities.
Everything was supposed to be better in the future, and yet we’ve somehow ended up traveling through another dimension, a journey into a woeful land whose boundaries are that of tedium and exasperation, a middle ground that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his patience.