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Ireland Day 1: Huddled Masses Yearning

We are in Dublin – finally and as usual after flying Canada’s national airline, I feel like I’ve been ridden hard and put away wet.

imagesI remember that it wasn’t so long ago that travelling by air was an enjoyable experience – almost a luxury, even if you were traveling coach. The airlines provided real customer service back then and decent food. They made an effort to try and ensure that you trip was a pleasant experience.

Those days are gone for good, my friends. I suppose if you are much younger and have never really experienced what air travel used to be like, what it is today seems pretty normal but it isn’t.

Now, it’s all about them and you are merely one more packet to be shipped, an inconvenient, whining packet that makes the trip all the more unpleasant – for them. I don’t know when it happened but at some point, the people who run airlines were replaced by the same people that run our governments; dull, grey, humourless people with no understanding of a simple concept like customer service.

Our airports cost billions to build but are not designed for the convenience of the traveler only for the convenience of the airlines and the airport administration. Nothing is easy, nothing is convenient and no matter where you need to be in any airport in the world – it isn’t near wherever you are at any moment in time.

The flights themselves if uneventful are miserable experiences. The seats feel like they were designed by somebody with scoliosis and a serious grudge against humanity. The food served on most flights barely qualifies as food and you’re hard-pressed to identify which of Canada’s four major food groups it comes from. The flight attendants have all the personality and warmth of a triage receptionist in a hospital emergency room and best of all – we pay for the experience.airport-security2

We arrived at the airport in Ottawa fully two and half hours ahead of our scheduled flight to allow ourselves time to check in, grab a quick bite to eat and to maximize the experience going through security. You don’t want to rush someone you’ve never met putting their hands down your pants; you want to savour the moment.

I should have known we were headed for another dark experience from the moment we ordered something to eat. I ordered a burger and onion rings and even though that’s pretty much all this particular restaurant offered, they managed to screw it up. I believe the ability to screw up even the simplest things is a job requirement for working at airports.

Maggie refused to have her optimism undermined, however, so with a song in our hearts, or at least in hers, we finished our meal and wandered over to security to be ‘processed’.

We joined the line and inched our way along slowly and with pretty much the same enthusiasm as cattle at an abattoir. I showed my passport and boarding pass and emptied my pockets into a big plastic tray. It wasn’t good enough for them. They wanted things sorted out and I had to use another tray for my laptop and separate tray for the bag and another for my belt, my wallet and another for everything else I had that might be a potential threat to the life and limb of others, including my glasses and my cane.

r325847_1459908I went through the body scanner and set it off which led to a more personal scan of my body with a handheld wand which didn’t reassure them so that led to a physical pat down. Personally, I think it was just an excuse. I believe the security guy thought I was cute and just wanted to touch me. It’s an unusual experience to have someone you’ve just met put on a pair of latex gloves and run his hands over your body before he’s kissed you first or even bothered to buy you a drink.

My cane really perplexed them so they sent it through the x-ray machine a second time. I am convinced it must have been the first time any of them ever saw a cane. Finally, having passed the security examination by the skin of my teeth, I was able to reclaim my stuff, jamming it back into my pockets and my computer bag and fiddling with my belt trying to get it through all the loops before my pants fell down – again.

Now it was off to the gate where our flight would be boarded. Our gate, of course, was the last one in the row. It was so far from where we were, I considered calling a cab to take us to the gate. We persevered.  We arrived. We sat down. We waited.

And we waited and we waited and we waited.

That’s the state of air travel today – hurry up and wait. Nothing is done for the convenience of the passenger. The entire process is filled with people and organizations who have built a system that is so bureaucratic, it is pointless and has almost ground air flight to a halt.

It now takes longer to be processed for a flight than it does to fly from Ottawa to Toronto and the entire experience including check-in, security and the flight actually takes longer than driving from Ottawa to Toronto; I know – I’ve tested it.

A colleague and I were both going to Toronto for the same meeting. He opted to fly and I opted to drive. For the hell of it, we decided to have a bet as to who would arrive first. We agreed to leave our home at the same time; 5:00 am. I arrived at the meeting location thirty-five minutes before he did even after having had trouble finding a place to park my car.

Air Canada flight attendants could strike next week

Air Canada flight attendants graduating from customer service school

When our flight was called, we presented our passports at the gate. This was the third time we had shown our passports to someone. In fact, so far the only people who hadn’t wanted to see them were the guys at the restaurant who screwed up our food order.

We had to show them again at the door into the plane. Why? The gate entrance is the same as the door to the plane. There is nowhere to go down that long ramp hallway except into the plane. Do they actually believe that somehow, someone is going to slip into the ramp and secretly board the plane?

It’s process for the sake of process; designed to give the appearance of security rather than to provide it.

On board, we were wedged and strapped into our seats although the seats are so confining you can’t move which pretty much makes seatbelts redundant. A flight attendant announced over the address system that Air Canada was pleased to provide service in English, French and – Arabic. Arabic? I have no issue with Arabic but if you were going to pick a third language, why wouldn’t you pick Chinese or Urdu? We have far more East Asian immigrants than Middle Eastern.

It was redundant. All of the safety instructions and announcements were only in English and French. Anyone on board who only spoke Arabic was going to have to figure out what do to for themselves if the plane fell out of the sky.

The French instructions were twice as long as the English ones and I believe it is because they got extra instructions which means than anyone who only spoke English was only slightly better off than those who only spoke Arabic.

images (1)

Don’t ask what it is, just eat it.

 After take-off we were served another famous Air Canada Mystery Meal which they claimed was beef but could have been anything smothered in some kind of Chef Boyardee sauce and mixed with overdone pasta.

The only good thing you can say about the meal was that the portions were very small. It was cold, bland, tasteless and as appealing as left-over hospital cafeteria food on a Tuesday evening around 9:30.

For the rest of the flight, Air Canada’s world-famous hospitality consisted of having one of the flight attendants wander up and down the aisle every now and then with a bottle of water and asking us if we would like some more. I felt like Oliver Twist in Dickens’ famous novel.

One of the passengers sitting near me fell asleep and knocked a pillow on the floor. I watched flight attendants kick the pillow out of their way a half dozen times rather than bend down and pick it up.

The only time the drink cart appeared was shortly after take-off and again five hours later just before they served our breakfast muffin. Hmm Hmm good. I’ve seen gluten-free building products with more moisture and flavour.

The only reason they brought the drink cart out the second time was because they know that if they don’t serve drinks with those muffins, people will choke to death on them. They know it would be considered bad form to arrive at Heathrow with a plane full of dead passengers with muffin crumbs around their mouths. There’d be no way to blame the deaths on Al-Qaeda in the subsequent investigation.

We did arrive alive, however, and because we had a two and a half hour layover in London, our plan was to check in for our connecting flight and then grab coffee and some breakfast before the flight.

That was the plan; simple, direct – too simple as it turned out.6988_MHE029

If you have never been to Heathrow Airport in London, let me describe it for you. It’s the size of Toronto. It doesn’t matter where you are in Heathrow, wherever it is that you want to go is approximately a day and a half’s journey on foot. It is one large labyrinth of alleys, corridors, hallways, moving sidewalks, underpasses, overpasses, terminals, signs, check-ins, check-outs; just one continuous twisting, turning, confusion.

It was so bad, that at one point, Maggie and I actually found ourselves outside standing on British soil without having gone through customs or immigration. It made filling out those landing forms meaningless.

What a waste of paper those things are. Basically you write down the same information that is on your passport and give it to the guy who reads your passport.

It took us thirty minutes just to walk to a place where we could connect with a people mover to take us to a part of the terminal we were in where we could catch a bus to take us to the terminal from where we would catch our connecting flight.

The bus ride took twenty-two minutes. We had been on the ground a total of 52 minutes and hadn’t stopped moving but were no closer to the gate where our flight to Ireland would be boarding.

We had to go through security again.

First there was a biometric security checkpoint which is European security double talk for, “This is where we take your picture and pretend that it’s biometric.”

Then it was more twisting and turning down corridors, people movers and hallways until we finally got to another security checkpoint where they skipped the biometric thing and opted for the old-fashioned Canadian approach of

“empty your pockets, let me fondle your body and would you mind stepping into the x-ray machine so we can take a couple of pics for our Christmas party.”

More walking, more people movers and more twisting and turning down corridors and hallways. We’re now passing shops and restaurants where people are eating and laughing gaily, no doubt at our misery as we scurry by, tongues hanging out hungry, thirsty and rushing to try to beat the clock and make our flight on time.

We arrive. We board. We are seated. It took two hours to go from one terminal to the gate of our connecting flight – two hours; the same length of time it took to fly from Ottawa to Newfoundland.

Our flight is called and we board. It is the usual organized confusion. The airline staff starts boarding people by seat row but ignore it when people jump the line even though their row hasn’t been called.  Everyone is in everyone’s way, some people are carrying too much hand-held or over-sized carry-on luggage which they jam into the overhead compartment above your seat so you have no place for yours.

We show our boarding pass and our passport at the gate and then again at the door of the plane. Why? The people at the gate work for the airline. They are the gatekeepers to board the plane. What is the point of showing it fifty feet down the ramp to a flight attendant other than to provide the appearance of doing something important?

We go to our assigned seats and wedge and strap ourselves in. All I want is a coffee and something to eat. I’ll even take gluten, flavour free airline muffin made of sawdust at this point.

It was not to be.

 The airline had seated us beside an emergency exit. This worked out great for me because there was more room and it allowed me to stretch out my legs. By this time, my arthritis was on fire burning through my joints like lava and any relief during a flight would be welcome.

That’s when I discovered that our flight attendants were not sweet Irish lasses named Fiona and Sinead – they were eastern Europeans; good strong and officious ladies named Olga and Natasha.

Unfortunately, my cane caught the eye of one of the flight attendants who flew into a tizzy. We had to move, she told us. Airline safety regulations would not permit someone with a disability to be seated near an emergency exit and because I had a cane, I was disabled and a serious threat to the safety of the aircraft and the other passengers.

She found two other seats at the back of the plane and sent us there. Now I was not only frustrated, sore and tired. Now I was angry. If I had had C-4, I would have stuck it in my underwear, told Maggie to leave the plane and then blown the damn thing up, taking Olga with me.

It got better. Forget the St. Patrick’s Day image of the warm Irish hospitality that’s all River Dance and singing Whiskey in a Jar.  Nothing on the flight was free – not even the bloody coffee. You paid for everything; it was like taking a bus but only 20,000 feet higher and without the rest stops.

Good Christ! If you have a couple of hundred people who have all paid you hundreds of dollars to move them from point A to point B, could you not spring for coffee for bloody sake? How much can that cost the airline for pity’s sake?

As we start to taxi towards the runway, the other flight attendant notices that the guy sitting in front of us has his window shade down. This, apparently, also poses a threat to the aircraft and she instructs him to raise his window shade in accordance with safety regulations.

I spent the balance of the flight from London to Dublin trying to work out in my mind just how raising the plastic window shade makes us safer during take-off.  I failed but a new thought did occur to me just before we landed in Dublin.

The inscription at the base of America’s Statue of Liberty has long been an inspiration to many.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .”

What most don’t realize, however, is that those words became an inspiration for the airline industry that modified it only a little.

“Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . .and we will make them appreciate the miserable lives they had before they dealt with us.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.buzny Michael Buzny

    It’s actually less of a hassle to go through Kabul International. I think Ottawa International is just “special” and not in good way. I have had no issues going through security in Toronto, Kabul, Dubai, Sydney Australia, Paphos -Cyprus, or Bangkok, just the usual empty pockets into tray (although the first time I was asked to place my laptop seperately that through me but I didn’t need to dig for it). When I was coming back home from Afghanistan in 2010, we landed in Ottawa, and I had to take a flight from Ottawa to Toronto.

    The experience was how you described, friggen incompetent morons. First, there were about 20-25 of us in our desert uniforms, so it was pretty obvious to 99% of the people there, were we had just come from, the 1% were the security folks. When we went to check in our ruck sack in the oversized baggage area, the girl was about to swab our stuff for explosives. I told her if she did that, it would set off her machine, she looked incredulous, and asked well what does that mean? I swear I think I actually asked if she was an idiot. Trying to explain where we just came from didn’t seem to help out matters, luckily a supervisor, came around and told her don’t swab our stuff, there’s no point. Second going through the security check….some how a few us (myself included) rated additional checking (ie pat down or getting nuked), needless to say we weren’t impressed, This time I know I called the screener several choice words, and there were several civilians in the area who were also rather confused and not impressed that we were getting additional security processing. Thankfully I never have to go through that airport again.

    I am actually surprised Ottawa is still using the body scanners. When I went through Pearson in November on my way to Germany, it appeared as though they mothballed theirs, and I have read several US airports have done away with them as well.

    • MaggiesBear

      I believe that airport security is, unfortunately, a necessary part of air travel these days but it is so chaotic and disorganized that it has become just one more mindless bureaucratic appearance of security rather than a provision of true security. I’ve gone through security, and had my passport checked no fewer than three more times after I’m in the secure area. Why? Once you’re locked up, what is the purpose of doing another check?

      The entire airline industry including its ancillary supports is out of control and virtually mindless. Regulations are added or changed mindlessly and without much real thought, In the United States, many airports now permit people to carry small knives but ban bottles of water and shampoo in carry on luggage.It now takes longer t check in and go through the process to board most domestic flights than it actually does to fly to another city and the calibre of most of the people doing the security checking do little to instill confidence that they could ever correctly identify a real terrorist.

      It is particularly galling to see the men and women of our armed forces treated like goons when they are returning from a tour of duty and just further underscores how mindless and bureaucratic the entire system has become.

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  • oldwhiteguy

    you just listed every reason why I no longer fly anywhere. if I can’t drive I won’t go. when in business I would take on average four flights a week. Canadian airlines was in business in those days. I flew business class more than coach and the service was superb. I still have an old menu from one of the meals I had. three choices of entre, wine and after dinner drink. port with grapes and brie served as a snack. actual knives and forks with silver plate as well as glass glasses, china plates not plastic. today I guess you would have to fly a private jet to get anywhere near the level of service Canadian used to provide. we are treated like cattle everywhere we go. some people do try to provide service but they seem to be few and far between.

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  • http://twitter.com/EnasYorl Mitchell (D)

    Other than that how was your trip?

    One thing I remind myself about uncomfortable plane trips is that you can get from one place in the world to another place in the time that would have taken months (if not years) not too long ago and had a fair chance of dying along the way.

    • MaggiesBear

      You sound like Maggie – the eternal optimist. :-)

      But to answer your question, we love it. Ireland is a great country and Dublin is a lovely city full of interesting and lovely people.

  • http://profiles.google.com/gerry.ewert Gerry Ewert

    Ah, so you experienced Heathrow. The single worst airport experience in the world – and I have been in a few including in the 3rd world. Did you ever manage to find a toilet in between the endless sequence of queues as you went from one place to another?

    However, now that you are there I am looking forward to your notes on Ireland – one of the places my wife wants to visit (ancestry and all that). Have fun.

    • MaggiesBear

      What a dog’s breakfast that place is. I didn’t exaggerate one thing in my description of our time at Heathrow, if anything, I backed off some of what really happened. It was just too unbelievable.