Airport Delays

The time you spend at an airport could cut days off your vacation.

This is the time of year when many people interrupt their busy lives to get away from it all. Some call it a vacation. Others call it "ten days at the airport." The airlines don't care what you call it as long as you're literate enough to understand the meaning of the two most important words in the English language -- "delayed" and "cancelled." In fact, these two words are more important than learning how to use a life jacket. Because the odds of going down in a plane these days are very slim, due to the fact that the odds of going up in one in the first place is practically nil. But not fully comprehending these two words can mean spending days at an airport, literally not knowing whether you're coming or going.

The inefficiency of some airlines brings a very disturbing thought to mind: had Ponce de Leon been dependent on this mode of transportation, there's a good chance Florida would have been discovered by Cuban "boat people." Americans, as a result, would have been deprived of an abundance of robust sunshine, not to mention a lot of wholesome orange juice. And god knows how Don Johnson's career would've gotten started.

To say that planes seldom take off on time is like saying chickens seldom ride bicycles. And when the former does happen, it's almost as amazing as the latter. Spending eight frustrating hours in an airline terminal building drinking coffee, reading newspapers, and catnapping as you wait to board a plane, makes you wonder whether the advertisement, "Come, fly with us," really means, "Come, stay with us."

You finally board a plane, and, "Fly our friendly skies," begins to sound more like, "Taxi our friendly runways" - an hour later you're still on the ground. And you're sure the pilot must be breaking in either the tires or the runway. Your only hope is that the airline isn't breaking in the pilot.

That long-awaited moment -- takeoff -- finally arrives as a total shock. It's the last thing you expect. You wonder, is it really happening, or are you in a flight simulator? You order a meal, and, sure enough, it confirms your trip's unquestionable reality - although flights can be simulated, no technology on earth is advanced enough to artificially recreate a malnourished tuna fish sandwich and a small, skinny pickle on the side which look as "good" as the originals. This is the real thing alright!

You sit back. You relax. And the worst is over.

Not quite.

Only a short while into the flight, the pilot comes on the PA system: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking." (It's a good thing pilots always precede their announcements with this phrase. Otherwise, passengers might think it's Francisco Valenzuela-Lopez, announcing a K-Mart special.) The pilot announces that due to a "minor miscalculation" the plane will be making a "small" detour through El Paso, Texas. You quickly take out your calculator and try to figure out how a plane on a two and a half hour, non-stop flight from New York to Florida can make a "small" detour through El Paso, Texas. Your only answer is that the pilot must be an aspiring astronaut - by astronomical standards, the star Alpha Centauri, about four light-years away, can still be considered a "small detour" from the sun. So three thousand miles off course is certainly a "minor miscalculation." You suddenly feel lucky to still be inside the solar system.

In an effort to calm some of the irate passengers, the pilot adds that the stopover will be "short." Now you go into a panic. Does he mean "short" like in "small" and "minor?" That could be a major problem -- the lease on your apartment runs out in a few short months. You try explaining to the stewardess that you can't afford "short" stopovers -- you tied your dog down to a pole at Kennedy airport, not expecting to be gone for too long. You get the typical response, "Am I flying the plane?" I usually respond, "Well neither is the pilot -- how about letting me take a shot at it?"

Naturally, the "short" stopover turns into another long, airport coffee interlude. You now rack up enough cups to become an honorary citizen of Brazil, and wind up with enough caffeine in your system to revive a comatose patient just by breathing in his direction. Then comes the good news: sleeping on your suitcase at an El Paso airport is a lot safer than sleeping inside a vault in some New York neighborhoods. That's really great news. Next time you'll bring along your safe deposit box.

You eventually take off again. This time you know your plane is headed in the right direction because the pilot is using a new navigational method -- he's following a flock of migrating Hummingbirds. The reasoning behind this is very simple: you never see a flock of Hummingbirds stranded inside a terminal building. Conclusion: they must know where they're going.

You land in Florida, kiss the ground, quickly run over to the luggage carousel, and have horrifying visions about kissing your suitcase good-by. The suitcase situation is like a mystical experience - you spend a fortune on a suitcase with all sorts of locks and zippers so that not even Houdini could get in, then you need a psychic to find it. And this is what makes or breaks a vacation. Ultimately, you'll find two kinds of people in a vacation resort: those who are having a good time, and those who've lost their suitcases at the airport. Yet, people never learn. There are precautions you can take to greatly reduce the chances of a lost-suitcase catastrophe. When flying to Florida, for instance, always ship your luggage to Okinawa. This covers you from two angles. First, your luggage is highly unlikely to ever arrive in Okinawa, and therefore has a better chance of arriving in Florida than if you had sent it to Florida to begin with. Then, in the unlikely event that your luggage does arrive in Okinawa, you must remember that for you, as a passenger on a domestic flight, to wind up in Okinawa is not all that improbable. So, no matter what happens, there's a good chance you'll have what to wear.

Josh Greenberger: A computer consultant for over two decades, the author has developed software for such organizations as NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies, AT&T, Charles Schwab, Bell Laboratories and Chase Manhattan Bank. Since 1984, the author's literary works have appeared in such periodicals as The New York Post, The Daily News, The Village Voice, The Jewish Press, and others. His articles have ranged from humor to scientific to topical events. Visit his site: