Even the Children Behaved

On July 20, 2016, the Republican National Convention entered its second day.  Ted Cruz took the podium and told listeners they should “vote their conscience.”  A friend escorted his wife Heidi from the convention hall when the delegate mood and chants reached a fevered pitch.  
Now history, with recorded delegate chants of “Hang Hillary” and characterizations of American disfunction, the Republican National Convention invites (perchance incites) comparative review.
On July 22 in a critical commentary of Donald Trump’s “rhetorical infamy” and unpatriotic convention speech, John Podhoretz objected to Trump’s portrayal of American life:  The America Donald Trump portrayed is a horrible place, awash in barbarity, crime, disorder, decay, deceit, rigging, cheating, exploitation. It is very nearly beyond salvation, in such dire straits that a man who was having a wonderful time in business felt called upon to serve as “your voice” because “only I can fix it” the problem.*
On July 20, 2016, Southwest Airlines experienced a 24 hour nationwide system outage that stretched and staggered for five days. While allusions to lynching and direct assertions of violence reverberated in Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, disappointed and anxious passengers waited patiently in line at Southwest Airlines check in counters and gates for information regarding the status of their flights.  
This comparison between the moods and attitudes at the overheated GOP convention and Nashville airport’s Southwest passenger service counters and gates provides instructive insight into the reactions of normal people living in real time, under duress, confused and frustrated, but still managing to restrain themselves from shouting, chanting insults, making unreasonable demands, or misrepresenting circumstances — not that some people didn’t get angry or faint or fuss. Online you can find complaints — but for the most part, I can testify to patience, honesty, humor, and forbearance.
On July 20 my husband and I arrived at the Nashville airport two hours prior to our 3:25 Southwest flight to Denver. The passenger check in lines snaked ominously into the lobby area.  At first the line moved normally but then suddenly stopped.  The kiosk computers went blank.  The customer service reps’ faces took on that expression one gets when you’ve expected sugar but got salt instead.  My watch read 1:51.  
At 2:14, we were still standing at the same spot where we’d been 23 minutes prior.  Passengers mostly stood quietly waiting for information or movement.  A woman behind me fussed to a stranger who kindly gave her a polite ear without agreement.  A man going to China with seven bags apologized for his stack of bags.  An athletic black man in expensive shoes asserted loudly to no one in particular that he had to be in Tampa that night.  People quietly moved a few inches away from him. No one assured him, no one put him down, no one joined him in a group howl.
A diminutive customer service supervisor stood up on the steel baggage shelf. “Everyone listen! We are experiencing a nationwide system shutdown. We cannot check you in electronically.”  No one shouted, cried, or protested.  
The supervisor then began sorting groups.  “If you are going to Houston or Tampa and have a boarding pass, please move over to that wall.”  Passengers politely moved aside to allow that group to exit to the wall.  “If you have a boarding pass and need to check bags, move to this side so we can process your bags.”  The man going to China grabbed four of his seven bags.  We stood guard over his other bags.  
“Don’t worry about missing your flight.  No planes are flying.  All Southwest flights are grounded until the system comes back online.”
After a few minutes, a customer service agent spotted in my husband’s shirt pocket our bar coded security passes which looked like boarding passes.  “Sir! Do you have a boarding pass?”  The agent insisted that we check our bags and move to security and get our boarding passes at our gate.  So we moved forward as one of the privileged number released to security and flight gates.
At the baggage counter the agent looked at Herb.  “Are you okay, Sir?”  Herb looked pale and disconnected.  At pre-check the TSA agent asked, “Are you okay, Sir?”  We moved steadily forward through Security and toward a bench.  
I thought, We should leave NOW!  But Herb said, “We should find our gate.”  However, we and others couldn’t locate our flight gate numbers. The electronic boards were scrambled.
Suddenly the intercom came alive.  “Listen to announcements carefully.  If you hear your destination, proceed directly to your gate to board!”  
Joining the confused hoards, I trolled the concourse for our gate while Herb rested.  Joining a long line at gate 7, I saw two men dressed in black standing outside the queue.  As people left the line, the men in black would ask them what they had learned.  “No one knows anything. They say, ‘We don’t know.  I’m sorry.’ ”  I was lucky, the Southwest rep knew our gate number: 25.  “Get your boarding pass there.”  
The two men in black sipped cold cups of beer.  “What did you learn?”
“Gate number.”
 These two had smartly decided not to wait in line but to interview people as they left the line and assess the situation based on people’s answers.  Smiling and jostling his companion, I heard one say to the other,” “See?!  Come on. Let’s go get another beer.”  
We did finally find our gate.  Our boarded flight was parked at the jetway. An agent handed a paper to a trainee who wrote our names on a blank paper boarding pass.  His hand froze above the second line.  “What do I write here?”  
The supervisor next to him glanced at him but was busy trying to fill out a paper manifest while  answering a young woman about her baggage.
“Can I get my bags back?  I want to leave.”  
The customer reps looked helplessly at her.  “Ma’am, it will take hours to locate your bags.  It’s best to leave them. You can pick them up at your destination when you rebook your flight.”
“I don’t need to go now. I just want to leave.”

And that is exactly what the woman did, leave her bags and walk out, which is approximately what happened to us: our bags flew without us while we used Uber to escape the airport.   We rebooked when the system came online two days later and finally regained possession of our bags at midnight in Denver four days later.
Throughout the situation, Southwest employees were polite, always sorry.   Customers, albeit frustrated and stressed, shared tables, made jokes, offered advice.  It was as if we had arrived within a shared surreality where people wished to reassure one another, where patience was our oxygen and resignation our energy.  
“Here, share this table with me,” said a man at the wine bar.”
“Does anyone know how to write a manifest?” asked the gate clerk.
“Did you understand that announcement?” Was it Kansas City?”
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly on October 21 said the airline’s priority was to get the system back up and to restore service.  “We’re worried about the financial impact of this, but what is far more concerning is the inconvenience we caused our customers.”
We received a generous rebooking discount and 50% off our next two bookings.  Not exactly what I’d call rigging, exploitation, or deceit.
Later, when I read the news about the GOP convention, I was struck by its anger, the voice of fear.  Where has this come from? I thought.  I had just left an airport crawling with disappointed people, families postponing vacations, business people missing conferences, individuals missing weddings and funerals.  Adults didn’t shout or curse, insist or demand.  They regrouped, adjusted, rebooked.  Even the children behaved.
As a companion flyer in the seat across from us, four days later said as we waited an hour on the Tarmac for our continually delayed flight to finally depart for Denver, “Isn’t this wonderful that you and I have had this chance to chat?!”
______
Donald Trump’s GOP convention speech was a ‘deeply unpatriotic act’. Commentary by John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, a columnist for the New York Post and a contributing editor for the Weekly Standard. Friday, 22 Jul 2016 | 11:18 AM ET.  CNBC.

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