DALLAS — Stretched out on his back on the linoleum floor near Gate A9 late Wednesday afternoon at Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport, the two-year-old boy appeared almost oblivious to the crush of chaos going on all around him.
Then he began to slowly … bang … his … head.
Toddlers catch a lot of grief at airports, most of it undeserved. For my money this kid was a Zen poet, a spiritual canary in a coal mine of absurdity.
On a day no words could truly capture the level of frustration air travelers felt following the emergency grounding of dozens of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft, in a week that found much of the nation paralyzed by winter storms, the boy distilled the moment to its essence.
Then, of course, the child did what we all wanted to do. He began to cry for his mom, who was busy wrestling with her young daughter while keeping an overloaded stroller from rolling across the terminal. It was unclear where her adult companion had disappeared to, but my first guess was a nearby bar bursting with lubricated passengers commiserating over cocktails about missed business connections to Baltimore and Cozumel vacations vanishing into the Texas sunset. The halls of DFW, a headquarters and major hub for MAX-user American Airlines, was busier than Tan Son Nhat airport after the Tet Offensive.
It was one very long day, one made all the more irritating by the lack of accurate information coming from the poor airline personnel tasked with keeping growing legions of delayed passengers from going rogue. Instead of admitting our flights had been called off, we were subjected to endless updates in our estimated departure times. And so the 10:34 a.m. flight to Baltimore slowly and painfully morphed, through gibberish and gate changes, into a 10:30 p.m. red-eye to Washington Reagan that arrived about 2 a.m.
Luggage? Of course it was at the other airport. Where else would it be?
This past week, the only thing more prolific than the whining about flight delays was the political palaver and finger-pointing from Boeing, some airlines, and the Trump administration from Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao to the president himself. It was easy to find fault: There was plenty go around after the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 into the Java Sea killed all 189 passengers and crew members aboard. With pilot complaints about the Boeing MAX computer navigation system mounting from April-December, according to reports first published in The Dallas Morning News, federal airline safety investigators were busy running down leads and sifting through debris evidence. Then, the administration’s critics remind us, they ran smack into December’s government shutdown over the president’s border wall obsession.
Then came Sunday’s crash of Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302, a Boeing MAX 8, shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 159 passengers and crew members aboard. After some fine corporate doublespeak from Chao about the safety of the aircraft, the decision was made without warning to ground the planes.
Even Trump, who never met a rule or regulation he liked, snorted his approval just days after he decried all the complexity involved with those modern jets the world relies on. The fact that the United States was the last country to practice the precaution it likes to preach must have made him plenty proud.
Far below the lofty pay grades, the airport’s hired help toiled away Wednesday. Over the course of an increasingly frustrating day, I dealt with perhaps a dozen airport personnel, most of them in American uniforms and some tasked with passing along unreliable information to at times unruly passengers. The behind-the-counter soldiers and flight attendants were pros and managed to keep smiling when others were surly.
Beyond the discomfort of the masses and government asses, there’s another impression I was left with after a very long day at a Dallas airport. It was a television news report with a few seconds of b-roll from the debris field of the Ethiopia crash site and another snippet of men and women overcome by grief after learning of the deaths of their loved ones.
What all those families wouldn’t have traded, and what discomforts they wouldn’t have gladly endured, for a little more oversight and regulation.
At that moment, my long day didn’t seem so bad at all.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR. His newest book—a biography of iconic Nevada civil rights and political leader, Joe Neal—”Westside Slugger: Joe Neal’s Lifelong Fight for Social Justice” is published by University of Nevada Press and is available at Amazon.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith