First the Good News, Then the Bad News
Not long ago, I flew Alaska Airlines, a small regional airline serving the US West Coast, on flight AS2602 from Loreto, Mexico, to Los Angeles.
The aircraft was a Canadian-made Bombardier Q400, a short-haul turboprop carrying about 80 passengers. Seating is a bit cramped – not well suited for “wide load” or XXL passengers. The cabin has only one small lavatory.
At the gate in the small town Mexican airport, most passengers were in relaxed holiday outfits — shorts, sandals, sun hats, shades, etc. Many were middle aged retirees. Some had their children and grandchildren with them, including tiny infants. Several had small dogs.
Just before the boarding call, the gate attendant made an announcement without the aid of a microphone. I could only hear a part of his message: something about bathrooms. Some passengers seated near him walked over to the bathrooms after his announcement.
This seemed more a question of common sense (80 people and a few small animals sharing one bathroom for several hours) rather than anything specific to our flight that day.
Then came the boarding call, and off we walked, across the tarmac in the hot midday sun. The plane was full. As passengers settled into their narrow seats, the doors were closed, and the pilot made an announcement.
First, the good news: the weather in L.A. was good, our departure would be on time, and flying time, as scheduled, would be about 2 hours and 10 minutes (roughly the same as a flight from Chengdu to Beijing).
Then, the bad news: there would be no lavatory service on this flight.
The pilot explained that the reason for no lavatory service was not that the toilet was broken, but rather that it was “full.” This seemed to be a case of adding insult to injury.
The tone of his voice was very matter-of-fact, as if he were announcing a small change in the lunch menu, such as: “Sorry, folks, no chicken sandwiches today. Try the ham and cheese.”
I wondered if the plumbers in Alaska were on strike.
The plane began to taxi down the runway. It struck me as incredible that our rights as fare-paying passengers had been infringed in this way. We were locked in a crowded space without access to a lavatory for roughly three hours (including boarding and deplaning time).
While pondering how this could possibly be happening, it occurred to me that apart from this airline, the great state of Alaska had also produced Sarah Palin, Republication Party nominee for Vice President in the Presidential election of 2008, and a rich source of material for late night TV hosts and comedians. Hmmmm.
As we gained altitude, the Sea of Cortez was a vast expanse of blue water far below us, at sea level. I couldn’t help but wonder about the holding capacity of my fellow passengers up here at 20,000 feet, forming, as we did, a kind of airborne Bay of Bladders. Turbulence could turn this into one ugly flight.
What if the big guy next to me wearing the Hawaian shirt had a Jalapeno-pepper-induced stomach outburst? Or if that restless teenager up front can’t hold his Pepsi?
And what about the giggling lovebirds behind me who’d been slurping jumbo Margaritas in the airport bar just before boarding? Any regrets, I wondered, now that their bladders had been sentenced to three hours’ in jail without any chance of parole?
A high percentage of the passengers were older men like me. As we all know, middle-aged men pee more frequently than puppies in the park.
What if a handful among us can’t make it all the way to L.A.? The risk of what Chinese authorities might call an unharmonious incident seemed high, given the bloated fullness of this skinny aircraft. What might a desperate person (or persons) in distress actually do in this situation? Storm the cockpit demanding a nightsoil bucket?
Just imagine the urgent pilot-to-control-tower chatter in such an emergency:
Pilot: “AS 2602 calling. Mayday. Mayday. Reporting an incident with a small group of hostile passengers making demands at the cockpit door.”
Control Tower: “What exactly are their demands?”
Pilot: “Demanding access to the lavatory for three ‘number ones’, one ‘number two’, and a diaper change…”
My mind surveyed the options. Even though turboprops fly at lower altitudes than jets, none of the leading experts recommend opening the windows.
OK, I thought to myself, it is what it is. Just don’t think about it. Accept the situation gracefully, and hope the other passengers do as well.
Of course, just at that moment, I had an inkling that the call of nature was faintly ringing its initial warning bell.
No, no, no, I thought: it’s just in your mind. Ignore it. Stifle it. Read your book. Read a magazine. Distract yourself. Get your mind onto something else. Think about the dry desert country below us, rather than the surging Sea of Cortez or the burgeoning Bay of Bladders.
So I started reading about business.
Unfortunately, given my state of mind, certain words and phrases kept jumping out at me as I read, as if they had been underlined and highlighted in big bold flashing neon letters.
quarterly results released earlier than planned…
sudden surge in exports…
pent-up demand overwhelmed by short-term pressures…
anti-dumping efforts fail to stem the tide…
control measures not up to the job…
explosive growth in output…
dramatic spike in emissions…
market’s downward momentum gaining fast…
intense pressure on pricing…
sudden clearance of long held inventory…
results announcement opens the floodgates…
unforeseen volcanic eruption disrupts air traffic…
back door tactics fall afoul of regs…
green groups call for urgent removal of dams on threatened river system…
This reading material is really not helpful right now, I thought. Time to stop reading about business. Also time to stop checking my watch.
So I tried napping, which on the Q400 is about as comfortable as trying to sleep while standing in a crowded subway car.
Sure enough, the flight eventually landed in LA’s International Airport without incident. Between the airplane and the immigration checkpoint, the high-speed procession of passengers resembled an Olympic sprint trial for senior citizens.
Once in the terminal, I asked directions from the information desk to my connecting flight’s terminal. The man on duty was friendly and helpful. An older lady asked him where the elevator was. He said unfortunately the elevator had been broken all day long, and was still broken. Bad news for disabled or handicapped people, among others.
I walked ten minutes or so to the international terminal, and settled into the One World lounge, which is shared by several airlines including Cathay Pacific, my carrier back to Hong Kong. It’s a nice enough lounge, although crowded and noisy.
With a five-hour layover, I fired up my laptop, but found to my disappointment that the WI-FI signal was weak and unstable. I would not have been surprised if this were Mexico, but this was the international terminal at LAX.
Later, on board Cathay Pacific’s nice new Boeing-777-300 ER aircraft, I had a comfortable flight across the Pacific with world class service, good food, and lots of toilets. Roomy toilets. Empty toilets. Long live inflight toilets!
Clearly, America needs a lot of new infrastructure.
Alaska Airlines needs more plumbers. And better management.
P.S. My letter to Alaska Airlines’ customer service head, Andy Schneider, has so far gone without acknowledgement or response. Andy solicits feedback from passengers via a card placed in each seat back. Perhaps his in-box is “full”..
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