Every couple of years, I like to take out this old essay, brush off the dust, and shove it back in the spotlight. Maybe this time it’s because I’ve given up eating sugar, so it’s a way to satisfy my still abating sweet tooth. Whatever the reason, I hope you get a kick out of it.
This was my very first published piece. Originally titled An Airport Story, it ran in Tom Peters‘ old newsletter, On Achieving Excellence, and in The San Jose Mercury News. And I have to admit that after all these years (I think it first went to print around 1996, maybe?), I still think it’s pretty durn funny:
An Airport Story
I know airlines are service businesses with a responsibility to do whatever it takes to please us, the paying customers. But maybe we expect too much of them. After all, airports and airplanes do weird things to people. (This is because of a small vent near the terminal entrance that covertly sucks the brains out of your head.) Most of us would require years of therapy if we encountered a fraction of the resultant bizarre personalities flight attendants face daily. Take Judy–a seemingly normal traveler like you and me:
Not too long ago, Judy was rushing to catch a flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles. She hadn’t eaten, and her blood sugar was in the tank. Dashing through the airport she zipped into a newsstand and bought a People magazine and a Kit-Kat candy bar.
Settling into a window seat, Judy dropped her magazine on the empty middle seat, nodded to the guy buckling himself into the aisle seat and prepared for takeoff.
After the plane reached its “comfortable cruising altitude,” Judy unwrapped the Kit Kat, then put it back on the seat. But before she could dig in to it, the Guy on the Aisle reached down, broke off a piece and ate it. Judy was stunned. “That did not happen,” she told herself.
Before Judy could gather her wits, The Guy grabbed the candy bar and polished it off. Now that was too much. Judy’s incredulity turned to trembling, speechless rage. She gripped the armrests and boiled silently in her own bile all the way to LA.
They land, and The Guy gets off the plane, followed by Judy–still in shock. Walking through the terminal, she sees The Guy buying a muffin. Something snaps. She runs up to him, grabs his arm, takes a big bite out of his muffin and runs away.
She felt great! Vindicated! Empowered!
A few proud minutes later Judy gets into her car and puts her magazine down on the seat. Out falls her Kit Kat.
That candy bar on the flight had been The Guy’s.
Now…imagine you are the airline customer relations agent hearing this story from The Guy’s perspective: “I’m sittin’ on the plane, and the woman next to me reaches over and unwraps my candy bar…”
Well, in the airline biz, this kind of thing happens every day.
It’s the vent.
To maintain their sanity, airline folks sometimes resort to humor, especially during busy times like Christmas. But while many passengers appreciate a bit of stress-relieving humor, it’s a dicey strategy. One airport encounter recently taught me a priceless lesson in the dangers of holiday jocularity.
The woman ahead of me in the ticket line was obviously distraught. When her turn came, she rushed forward, flung her ticket at the agent and gingerly placed a box on the counter.
“Oh! A Christmas present for me?” the agent joked, “It’s so nice to be appreciated!” He picked up the box and started to walk away. The woman turned pale and screamed, “That’s my husband in that box!”
The agent could have made the situation worse. He could have shaken the box vigorously and said, “How’d you get him in there? Is the rest of your family in the Samsonite? They’re so well-behaved!” But unfortunately for those of us watching the show, he simply apologized and upgraded the woman to first class.
What a great scam, I thought. When it was my turn I said, “My wife is in this briefcase. Can I sit in first class?” This earned me a seat next to the lavatory.
So when you airline people feel a touch impatient with us, and when we passengers want to beat our crew senseless on landing, remember…we’re all brainless here.