May We Have Your Attention, Please

Tributes to Ray Bradbury, who died a few days ago at 91, included reference to his refusal to fly or drive.

Challenged that he was afraid of machines, he retorted that his fear was of “boys and their toys,” not the machines themselves.

A few hours after reading this, I found myself marooned in the Toronto airport waiting three more hours than planned for my connecting flight, thanks to mechanical problems.

That length of delay can easily lead to a cancelled flight, so I watched and listened for updates.

The $10 voucher bought a glass of red (not dandelion) wine as compensation for having to troop to the opposite end of the terminal for the new gate.

Thirty minutes before departure, the mechanical PA voice announced a return – en les deux langues officielles – to the original gate, but at 11:45 in the morning – our original departure time and apparently the next day.

With consternation I checked the flight board, only to find the plane still due to take off in half an hour, not tomorrow. So, I hiked the length of the terminal again, went up to the gate personnel, and told them about the faulty announcement.

With an air of condescension only possible from long experience, I was told (in unison) that it was a machine that made the announcement, not a person, as though this was a sufficient and obvious explanation.

Ignoring the implied affront that I could not distinguish a human voice from a mechanical one, I pointed out this was the wrong time and that (should anyone actually be listening to the instructions) it might cause a problem were they to be obeyed. Now with a trace of irritation, the pair repeated that it was a machine, adding that it had been programmed to do things this way. Case closed.

The mellowing effects of the red wine having dissipated, I somewhat tartly observed it was unfortunate that a person could not override the machine and correct the problem. Chagrin starting to dawn on their faces, I then waited to board the apparently repaired aircraft.

There were two problems with the exchange. The first relates to customer service. It might be the 10,000th time someone asked them such a question, however absurd, but it was the first time I had done so. Their civility – especially given the unnamed flaws with another of their mechanical systems that delayed the flight – was marginal, at best.

More distressing was their inability even to recognize the absurdity of a mechanical gate change announcement in which the time of the flight could not also be changed. They were unconcerned at the possibility of someone listening to what was said and actually doing as the airline instructed. Their condescension at my question – and irritation at my response – made it clear the problem lay in my view of how the universe should work, not their own.

Boys – or girls – and their toys…Bradbury had a point.

If I post this, it means the mechanics did their job and so did the pilots.

But there are an unusual number of empty seats around me, throughout the plane.

I hope there is extra space on the flight tomorrow morning.