A few months ago I read that United wasn't the world's worst airline anymore. I don't know where I read that. And maybe what I read what that United wasn't as bad anymore as everyone thought it was. Small matter. The splotch of misinformation was somewhere on my mind when I booked the flight for a conference in Maine.
I could have flown Swiss to Boston and taken a car, but a two-and-a-half hour drive was not something I fancied after being sardined up for eight hours. Instead I opted for United, the appeal being, besides its possibly exceeding expectations, two airports added to my record. I had never flown to Newark and I hadn't been to Portland, Maine, either. Portland Jetport, to be precise in a space-age way, and less than an hour from the conference venue. Better than Logan, I thought.
It started going wrong pretty much from the beginning. We were sitting at an early Sunday family breakfast when United alerted me by text that the equipment to carry me across the Atlantic was late in arriving and my departure already delayed. The indicated delay was less than an hour and no reason for concern, or indeed for changing the train to take me to the airport, but it wasn't the end of the problems.
Once I was at the airport, departure got shifted back in half hour increments, all dutifully announced by text on my phone - not as delays, by the way, but as new confirmed departure times. The list grew longer. It was beautiful to watch and miserable to ponder. The connection in Newark became increasingly unlikely, but when I called United to see whether I could transfer onto what should have been my first choice from the start, they said the Swiss flight to Boston was full. Shortly after noon, boarding for Newark started, and not everything seemed lost.
When boarding a plane, one of the things I don't want to see is engineers with worried faces sticking their tools into the wing, but this was the picture. I had a window seat right next to the left wing, and for the next hour I beheld yellow-vested men on a hydraulic platform underneath the wing, while the crew on the ground dispersed a large pile of absorbent material to soak up the kerosene that had leaked out of the fuel dump. It didn't exactly instill confidence, but then, four hours later than scheduled, the flight departed and proceeded without another hitch.
When we landed in Newark, two flights for Portland had already left, but on the last one of the day, there was a seat reserved for me, and United even compensated my inconveniences with a most generous ten-dollar meal voucher – but only after I asked for it.
At Newark, all food outlets have gone Jetsons and put tablet computers on every table, in front of every seat. It looks as if it had rained iPads one day. How can someone have thought of this as a good idea? The aggressive glow of the LCDs evokes offices rather than restaurants. Diners in opposite chairs don't face each other because the tablets between them block the view. Traveling doesn't get lonelier than this.
Waiters bring the orders but don't take them. At a restaurant, you find your own seat, submit your order, pay for it, all without human contact. If this is the future, I prefer to be a Luddite. As I was hungry and had a voucher, I roamed the tentacles of Terminal C in search of something more conventional. I spent half an hour but failed. iPads as far as the eye could see, which, if you were sitting in front of one, wasn't very much.
The café I chose at the far end of one of the concourses was far quieter than the rest and had great natural light. The evening sun streamed in from one side, and on the other side you could see planes taking off and landing in front of the gilded silhouette of New York. I could have watched for hours but moved on when the scheduled departure time drew near.
I should have stayed. My flight's crew arrived late and then waited with everyone else for an hour while unspecified maintenance issues were put right. Again, frequent text messages relayed updated departure times that quickly became obsolete. It was a sad rerun of the morning's events, except I couldn't see whether the problems lay with the wing – and there wasn't even a theoretical alternative to waiting. Seven hours behind schedule, and here the discontinuity reflects my mind that had stopped paying attention to the proceedings, we arrived in Portland, from where the conference was only a short taxi ride away.