By GARY SHTEYNGART
NY Times Published: September 29, 2012
You, American Airlines, should no longer be flying across the Atlantic. You do not have the know-how. You do not have the equipment. And your employees have clearly lost interest in the endeavor. Like the country whose name graces the hulls of your flying ships, you are exhausted and shorn of purpose. You need to stop.
Flight 121 from Paris to New York began on a clear autumn afternoon. It ended over 30 hours later. For those of us without miles, it is probably still going.
The initial delay was a mere hour or two. Some were told that our aircraft possessed faulty tires and brakes. Others were told that the crew could not find their way in from Paris. Neither scenario was particularly encouraging.
The aircraft was indeed an interesting one. One of the overhead baggage compartments was held together with masking tape. Halfway across the Atlantic you decided to turn Flight 121 back because your altimeter wasn’t working. Some of us were worried for our safety, but your employees mostly shrugged as if to say, Ah, there goes that altimeter again.
And so you took us to Merrie England for a spell.
At Heathrow, fire trucks met us because we landed “heavy,” i.e., still full of fuel we never got to spend over the Atlantic. At the terminal, a woman in a spiffy red American Airlines blazer was sent to greet us. But the language she spoke — Martian — was not easily understood, versed as we were in Spanish, English, Russian and Urdu.
Using her Martian language skills, the American Airlines woman proposed to take us “through the border” at Heathrow, for a night of rest before we resumed our journey the next morning. An apocalyptic scenario: an employee of the world’s worst airline assigned to the world’s worst border crossing at the world’s worst airport.
The Martian took us to one immigration lane, which promptly closed. Then another, with the same result. A third, ditto. Despite her blazer, the Martian was obviously not the ally we had made her out to be. So, ducking under security ropes, knocking some down entirely, we rushed the border with our passports held aloft, proclaiming ourselves the citizens of a fading superpower.
Come morning, you, American Airlines, provided us with a free, daylong tour of Heathrow Airport. By bus. The bus brought us to our new plane, but the doors of the bus would not open. We stood, pressed to one another, in sweltering heat, as the plane was sprayed down for no reason we could discern. It would have been nice, in retrospect, had you sprayed us down, or at least given us something to drink. After an hour, we were told this flight would be canceled because this plane, too, had caught ill. Back to the terminal once more.
It became clear that the older and more feeble of us would be at a disadvantage. A 70-year-old cannot rush past 140 gates to check in for yet another canceled flight with the same brio as a 20-year-old. Some of us started to cry. Not because the journey was never ending, but because you can be told that you are not a human being only so many times.
And then you stopped telling us. The American Airlines representatives we were promised failed to materialize. One passenger told us this was all part of the union’s strategy to destroy the airline. All I know is that with each encounter, I steadily began to feel that your employees were prisoners just like us, armed only with their little walkie-talkies from which issued tinny instructions, lost communiqués from some distant Oz.
“This used to be a great airline,” one old-timer said as we were sweltering to death on the bus. I know you were. And I know you are not alone in failure. An American diplomat based in Moscow tells me he prefers flying Aeroflot to Delta. But Delta is a futuristic paradise of working altimeters and braking brakes when compared with you, dear American Airlines. So what can you do? Empires rise and empires fall. A metaphor you may need to consider closely.