I was returning from Italy in the summer of 2009 when the second leg of my flight, from New York to Boston, was delayed due to weather and I was forced to spend seven hours at JFK, wandering around the airport and trying to nap on the dingy carpet. What most frustrated me during that episode was not the fact that my airline was not willing to send a jetliner into thunderstorms, but the lack of information I was getting from the company's employees.
Still, looking back, the airline's first job is to convey me to and from my destination safely, which of course they've done every time I've flown. The monotonous delay is now just a slightly funny anecdote, a footnote on the story of my fantastic trip to Europe. I don't fly that often, so I've been lucky enough to avoid horror stories about sitting for hours on the tarmac, which would be understandably terrible. This week tens of thousands of travelers will have their own horror stories about trying to get somewhere for the holidays when the recent snowstorm struck.
I do think, however, that the furor people are expressing is a bit unfair. I am not one to defend giant corporations, but imagine how incredibly complex the air travel system is and then add to it a weather event that cripples a number of important transportation hubs, including the New York metro area's three airports. This was, I read, the Big Apple's sixth-largest snowfall on record and it struck during the height of the post-Christmas travel period. Do people really expect that the planes, pilots, personnel and passengers can all be swiftly repositioned so that everyone is where they want to be?
Of course, if I missed a long-planned trip or the funeral of a relative or a holiday dinner I would be understandably upset, but the weather answers to no one.
Maybe people really were not irrationally angry about air travel delays; maybe it was just the media coverage that created hysteria where there was little. In New York City, however, people seemed genuinely upset by the municipal response to the two-foot snowfall, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg eventually accepting responsibility for the shortcomings of the response. Not being there, I'm not sure how well or poorly the city tackled the storm, but I again feel like the fickle feelings of the public were on display here. The nation is emerging from an economic crisis, people want governments to spend less, but when services -- from border security to trash pick-up -- are scaled back the citizenry goes beserk.
Today, Americans seem to want to have their cake and to eat it, too -- and then to have another piece while complaining about the price of the cake. It cannot go on like this forever. Another old but relevant proverb comes to mind: If we want to dance, we have to pay the piper.