Saturday, March 22, 2008

Safety Last?

The flight was packed. Scheduled to leave Curacao at 9:00pm, we never lifted off until well past midnight. The rumor was that the plane was overloaded. By midnight, all nerves were frayed. I worried that I had missed my connection to New York. I had come to spend a week in paradise. Leaving turned out to be one of the most chaotic experiences I have ever endured.

I didn’t hear the announcement to line up for boarding. There may not have been one. All I knew was that all of a sudden there was a mad rush to form lines. I found myself jammed between a group of vendors all wondering if they would get home in time to get their products on the streets the next day. A man jammed on my left used the opportunity to lean closer. There was no space for escape.

The counter attendant asked us to form a proper line. People jostled and pushed their way into a semblance of order. A couple of passengers boarded without fanfare. Then it was the turn of one of the street vendors, a sad-looking woman of East Indian descent. The attendant told her that her packages were in excess of carry-on regulations and that she would have to pay extra. We all strained to look at the packages at her feet. She had enough carry-on baggage for at least three people.

She started begging for lenience. The attendant insisted that she had to pay for the excess baggage. She refused. Several other vendors then piped up in support of their colleague. “What he charging she for? Two, three bags and the man carrying on! Look let the lady get on the blasted plane so we could get home tonight yes!!!”

They quarreled, they grumbled, they offered her their angry support. And she responded. Whereas before she had seemed this frail woman willing to plead her way on board, now she became an angry and hostile virago. In response, the attendant locked the doors leading outside to the plane. He waited patiently while she cussed both him and his mother.

A man at the back sucked his teeth and suggested that she should step aside so that the rest of us could board the damn plane. The other vendors cussed him into silence.

A woman in front of me started shouting, “Ask him for a receipt! Ask him for a receipt! Don’t give him a blasted cent until he give you a receipt!!” After she had said it for about the tenth time, I started getting a headache. So I foolishly said to her, “I think she heard you all ten times. Why don’t we just calm down and stop stressing ourselves so much? We all have boarding passes, we will get on the plane.”

Well I don’t know who died and made me therapist. She spun around and put a cussing on me that probably made my poor mother turn in her grave. The man jammed on my left, who had been mildly flirtatious until then, tried his best to put distance between us. He wanted no further association with someone who was clearly a loser in the cussing game.

Eventually the woman at the counter finally stepped aside, allowing the rest of us to start boarding. Once on board, there were new battles over who was occupying whose seat, and why did they have to check baggage once the overhead compartments were full, and why hadn’t the airline sent a larger plane anyway?

A woman seated next to the emergency exit refused to part with her duffel bag, despite the many patient explanations by the flight attendant that it was blocking the safety exit. I found myself feeling sorry for the flight attendant. She seemed so young, and so utterly overwhelmed.

We landed safely around 2am. I had missed my connecting flight to New York. The information desk was closed. There were no coupons for cabs or overnight hotel stays. I spent the night in the tiny airport sitting on my suitcase. Paranoia kept me awake.

I finally got on a flight to New York that afternoon. I have never been more grateful to see American Airlines. I have never been more appreciative of the benefits of order and endless security searches. And I have remained acutely aware of how much we take safety for granted when we entrust ourselves to air travel.

Which is why I was so disappointed to read recently that Southwest Airlines had violated federal regulations by not submitting 44 of their planes for safety inspections. That was a scary discovery. I found myself wanting to cuss somebody but I did not know whom to cuss.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...you sure this isn't about coming back to TT from NY? sounds alot like a plane full of Trinis to me... :-)