EXCITING CHANGES ARE are happening at airports. Soon to disappear: Long, miserable queues in front of overworked, blank-faced staff. Soon to appear: Long, miserable queues in front of overworked, blank-faced computers. Staff will have been sacked. (This is called progress.)
It's already happening. A few days ago I entered an airport and saw a huge line of people with bags. But the brand new self-service check-in machines were deserted. I stepped up to one and fluttered my hands over the keyboard. Sixty seconds later, it spat out a boarding pass for me. Hah! Piece of cake.
Then I took a closer look. Arrgghh! Instead of a confirmed economy class seat, I now had a STANDBY seat. At this moment I realized the downside of using machines. There was no one to shout at.
“Hey you stupid computer, my seat was confirmed, not standby,” I said. It did not respond. I typed the words onto the screen, but it thought I was a new passenger whose name was Hey You Stupid Computer.
The people in the long, unmoving queue slowly turned their heads to look at me. They reminded me of cows. Their eyes said: Serves you right, nerdy-boy.
I wearily trudged more than 200 kilometers (or so it seemed) to the departure gate with a sunken heart. A long-haul overnight flight in a tiny seat was bad enough. But it would be agony if it were prefaced by sleepless hours on a plastic airport bench.
At the departure gate, a staff member explained the problem: “The flight is overbooked. We're asking for volunteers to fly a different route.”
The other people who had been demoted to standby were seething. The room was so full of negativity that it was how I imagine a Simon Cowell family gathering to be. I decided to get out of there. “I'd be happy to volunteer to give up my seat and take some other route,” I said.
The harassed-looking woman at the counter looked grateful and promised to issue a new ticket. I phoned my colleague Eddie and told him that I would be back at the office behind schedule.
“You didn’t demand compensation?” he asked. “Idiot. You should wait until everyone is screaming. Then they'll bribe travelers with hard cash to give up their seats.”
At that moment, they opened the gates and people surged on to the aircraft. It turned out that there were lots of no-shows and now they had exactly as many people as they had seats in economy class. Except for me. I was the only person who had given up my seat.
The harassed airline staff member beckoned me back to the desk. “Don't worry, I've got a new ticket for you,” she said.
I asked: “Which airline?” I prayed it wouldn’t be Air Koryo, the North Korean airline, or Afghan Airlines, described by European Transport Minister Jacques Barrot as “flying coffins”.
She said: “You’re on this plane. The main cabin is jam-packed so I’ve found you a seat at the front. You’re upgraded.”
Grinning, I moved away from the queue for economy class passengers and prepared for 12 hours of pampering and luxury. Heh heh heh.