The captain wouldn’t let anyone off the plane, and I began to suspect I had something to do with it.
The United Airlines flight from DC to San Francisco, a 6-plus hour slog in a decrepit aircraft, had just landed and pulled up to the gate. Passengers leapt up from their seats, grabbed their bags and clogged the aisles maneuvering to escape the cramped, unpleasant and outdated experience that flying on many U.S. airlines has become.
Over the PA system, the captain counseled patience. There was a delay, he said, and clicked out. A few minutes later, he came back on, and said it would be a few more minutes. He clicked out again. People weren’t happy. They grunted and swore under their breaths as they slumped back into their seats. Phones trilled all around. Airlines rarely tell you what’s going on in a single helping, but prefer to dribble out bad news in installments. And sure enough, it took a few more minutes for the captain to finally indulge us with this: “members of San Francisco police are on their way to meet the aircraft,” he said. And that’s when I knew United Airlines really was as ridiculous as I thought.
What seemed like an eternity of bad food and bad movies ago, I had boarded this wretched old plane with my wife, our four-year-old son, and our four-month-old daughter. At some point during the flight, my daughter wet her diaper. Babies tend to do these things without warning. I got up to change the diaper. Flight attendants spotted a clear and present danger in my actions, and launched a national-security scramble.
Growing up on the rough side of the iron curtain instills in you a genetic mistrust of anyone in uniform, surpassed only by mistrust of plainclothes security men, whose lack of uniform denotes an advanced degree in the dark arts of repression. And now, two San Francisco cops were stepping over suitcases piled up in the aisles as they made their way toward me. Behind them, walked a skinny guy in a black suit and a skinny tie. As I would learn later, he was securing the homeland. Passengers’ heads swiveled to follow their slow march up the obstacle course deep into the cattle class.
My hands got cold and clammy. I leaned across the aisle toward my wife and whispered, “I think they are coming for me.” She smiled, and then frowned. My son seemed intrigued by the policemen. Just earlier that day, during one of his meltdowns, I’d threatened to turn him over to the police, one of those desperate parental bluffs that rarely work. And now real-life cops were coming for his dad, and it looked like a very real time-out might be in the works.
In fairness, United Airlines had given me ample warning that it would treat my traveling with children as a hostile act. When we were getting ready to board in DC, I dragged us to the front of the crowd, hoping to get my kids settled on the plane before the general stampede began. We had a stroller, a four-month old, a four-year old, and an array of bags, satchels, bottles, toys and other stuff that tends to fill every sliver of space around a child. My daughter was crying. I’m painting this picture to prepare you for the answer from a United gate agent: “We discontinued our policy of offering pre-boarding to families traveling with children.”
Leaving aside the fact that people who use the word “discontinued” in conversation should be whipped on the spot, this change made no sense even in the common-sense challenged world of modern American flying. I understand why airlines charge us to check in bags, or sell us bad food on board, or ply us with the cheapest, nastiest junk food for free. I don’t like any of it, but I understand they are turning over every rock in search of a spare penny.
But banning early boarding for small children carries no bottom-line benefits and smacks of outright malice and stupidity. It’s also cartoonishly bad PR, the kind that no money can buy. Later I discovered that United gave its spokesmen plenty of rope so they could go and hang themselves in the media. One in-house PR professional explained that the company canceled early boarding for kids because “we figured it would be better to simplify that process and reduce the number of boarding groups.” What does that mean? Refusing to succumb to this idiocy, I argued with the gate agent in DC, and she finally discontinued her resistance and allowed us to board a minute before the general avalanche.
And now onwards to the curious case of the wet diaper. Half-way through the flight, somewhere over the Midwest, I imagine, my daughter peed. I carried her to the bathroom. Our aircraft belonged to an earlier era of commercial aviation when people could smoke on planes but when flying babies were an extremely rare occurrence. I say this because none of the bathrooms on our aircraft was equipped with a changing table, although I do recall seeing something resembling an ashtray. With my daughter’s diaper approaching bursting point, I had to think quickly. Anyone who has kids knows that the policy of containment can crumble quickly, and then you have a much bigger problem.
Unable to change the diaper in the bathroom, I stepped out into the galley, and scanned the area for a flat surface. I saw two fold-out seats used by flight attendants during takeoff, landing and turbulence. At the moment, the plane was gliding smoothly, and the seats were folded up, their occupants busy distributing free heart-attack snacks. I flipped the seats open, spread a plastic cover on top, and began to change the diaper. Two flight attendants—middle-aged women with tired faces—materialized quickly and confronted me mid-change telling me to stop because it was against the rules. They were probably mothers, though you wouldn’t guess it from what they said next.
“Where do you suggest I change my daughter?” I asked, noting the total absence of changing tables on the plane. One of the women said, “You could do it right here on the floor.” She motioned toward her feet. “Our plane is old,” she added. Now, the floor in question: spilled beverages, foot marks, and other good stuff dragged out of the bathrooms on the soles of the passengers’ shoes. There was heavy foot traffic in the cramped area as people walked in and out of the bathrooms. Doors flew open and shut. Trash bags filled with discarded food items dangled off trolleys. Two guys stood around drinking hot coffee.
No, I said, I can’t put my daughter on this floor. We bickered this way some more, the diaper change long since completed. The two guys drinking coffee nearby heard us, and I’m glad they did, for one of them would later offer to testify to the police on my behalf. Annoyed by this gratuitous attack, my little girl in my arms, I went back to my seat. One of my haggard-looking torturers found me later to say this, “I know how upset you were, so I informed the captain, and he said someone would like to talk to you after we land.” Foolishly, for a brief moment I entertained the notion that someone from customer service might be meeting me with a fruit basket.
“Mr. Shishkin?” one of the cops asked me after we landed. “Please follow us. We’ll help you with your bags.” Smiles all around. This was San Francisco, not Moscow. Cops carried bad guys’ luggage here. And with that, my son, daughter, wife and I were escorted off the plane. By the gate, the police and I chatted amicably, the homeland-security guy listening in but not saying much. They were clearly as puzzled by this as I was. I don’t know what the flight attendant and the captain had told them, but they seemed relieved I wasn’t some crazy guy with a fuse in his underwear. They apologized and let us go. That evening, I emailed United to complain. Nearly three weeks later, I received a stock e-mailed apology, prefaced by a quick summary of the United Airlines world view. “We believe all customers and co-workers are to be treated with dignity and respect,” the message began. “This philosophy is deeply woven into everything we do.” I told United I found the note insufficient. In the four months since then, United hasn’t bothered to write back. They did find time, though, to launch a spiteful legal battle to take down Untied.com, a clearly marked spoof website poking fun at United customer service.