by Bill Teitelbaum
Although scheduled to depart that Sunday morning at 7:50 a.m. the passengers of Flight 1155 were not permitted to board the aircraft until 10:25 and, since all had complied with the new security protocols at considerable inconvenience, arriving at the airport at least one hour ahead of the flight’s scheduled departure, the collective mood as they crowded the jetway could be described rather generously as irritable.
Even without the repeated boarding delays many of them felt jangled. Repeated alternations of rush and arrest are intrinsically at odds, after all, with the very concept of an airport terminal, which is not a destination but a distribution mechanism designed to speed streams of people to idling planes and then hurl them into the sky.
Among these travelers were many who could cite a recent past when they had moved through the world with ease and dispatch, who prided themselves on arriving at the airport not a scant moment before it was absolutely necessary. They could change planes with aplomb back then, save hours or circumvent delays with a few words of instruction whispered into their PDA’s.
But the high-ceilinged corridors and broad concourse-intersections originally designed to facilitate swift flows of humanity were now employed to corral those same humans into milling queues along worm-trails fashioned from stanchions and cables, and the dissonance provoked by this contradiction had a noticeable effect on even the most compliant of the passengers, inducing a perceptibly querulous sensitivity.
Consequently at least a third of the flight’s passengers entirely disregarded the request to emplane back to front by section and instead rudely boarded at random, stowing their carry-ons wherever they found room, while the rest of the plane’s manifest sweated out the boarding process crowded into the jetway.
Then, once seated, further delays occurred when the more spiteful among the passengers proved dilatory in turning off their infra-red devices, fastening their seat belts, stowing their tray-tables, and raising their seatbacks to an upright-and-locked position, with the result that it was well past 11:00 a.m. when Flight 1155 backed away from the gate.
Yet wheeling now to join the takeoff queue, the craft seemed to hum with an almost palpable euphoria. Spirits were high suddenly, particularly among returning travelers who looked forward now to the homely satisfaction of reclaiming familiar territories, to visit their own bathrooms, to read a newspaper and enjoy a cup of coffee at their own kitchen tables, and then sleep once again in the welcoming embrace of mattresses that understood them. Naturally, here and there, some still felt a residue of resentment but, in their relief to be restored to the respectability of motion, even these seemed willing to let bygones be bygones if only they could be up and away.
As the flight attendants commenced their routine safety presentation, however, the airline’s gate agent passed row by row through the aft and forward cabins to distribute printed questionnaires, and this, some of the passengers knew at once, was not routine at all, for none could recall an instance when questionnaires had been distributed at the beginning of a flight.
The questionnaires themselves were so amateurish in design and crude in appearance that a sinister sense of displacement seemed to emanate from them. In fact they were nothing more than 8-1/2 by 11 sheets of cheap drafting stock, like unbleached news-pulp, folded once in half, with questions on all four sides. And they weren’t even printed in the conventional sense; they were mimeographed, literally drummed off a roller.
Many of the younger passengers had never seen materials like these: spotted and over-printed, a text so unevenly inked in purple that even within sentences the impressions varied from a ghostly mauve haze to a clotted illegibility. While as for the questions, who had ever encountered a survey so pointlessly impertinent?
Are memories real?
Have things in general gone too far?
Does God punish the wicked?
Can you recall past lives?
Is freedom of speech all right all the time?
When you hope for the best, do you see anything?
Have you ever participated in group sex?
Should people be free to sell their organs?
Does someone you know deserve a good beating?
Are achievement tests biased in favor of white people?
Do you have personal experience of a terminated pregnancy?
Have you ever begged for your life?
Have you ever lied for money?
Does capital punishment make you feel safer?
Does suffering redeem us?
Should people be examined more frequently?
Do you enjoy games of chance?
Do unpleasant thoughts seem to stay with you?
Do you ever see yourself dead?
“Sa-a-aay,” said a passenger at a starboard window just aft of the wing, while his seatmate pointed out that certain questions were repeated in ways that could not possibly be attributed to typographical error.
Is there anyone you trust?
Do we ever get over things?
When you’re alone, is anyone there?
Is there anyone you trust?
Perhaps most disturbing was that no two questionnaires asked the same questions, and the confusion this inspired was particularly intense in business class, where several of the passengers appeared to know something about these matters.
“I don’t know if I ever heard of this technique,” said a marketing executive from Minneapolis to the systems analyst sitting next to her. “Pupil dilation, blink rates, galvanic skin response, but this one, frankly I don’t know what to tell you.” Besides, she asked, unless you repeated certain questions in a variety of ways, how would you know if the respondents were answering truthfully?
The systems guy shrugged and extracted a pencil from his pocket protector. Since all the questions were of the closed-ended, yes-or-no sort, he was finished in no time; then he tucked the form into his seat-pocket and resumed working on the Mensa puzzles toward the back of his in-flight magazine.
Other passengers, however, proved unable to respond to the questionnaires so casually. The information being elicited was nobody’s business, one of these protested, and when the passenger adjacent to him pointed out that the questionnaires were anonymous, strangely, this seemed to agitate him even further. It was outrageous, he said, and apparently that was all the adjacent aisle-seat needed to hear, for now she, too, refused to cooperate with the process, so that before anyone knew how it happened between a quarter and a third of Flight 1155 were implacably opposed to answering the questions. Nor was there any discernible pattern to this resistance. Men and women, husbands and wives, young and old, all differed randomly on the question of the questions, and no one was budging. If anything, the truculence of the resistors tended to decide the undecided, for now they, too, split along broken lines, and there matters stood, and so did the plane, which had come to a lurching and inexplicable halt.
“Uh, this is your captain?” It was the pilot, his name reduced by the public address system to a cluster of garbled fricatives, and it was at this point, most of the passengers agreed later on, that things passed from the merely unusual.
“Well, you’ve all got your questionnaires by now and just as soon’s as we’ve got ‘em filled out and collected, we’ll be putting this puppy in the air. Just let our flight attendants know if you need a pencil, and let me take this opportunity to thank every one of you for your cooperation. It means a lot. We’ll be starting our approach just as soon’s we get clearance.”
An oddly strangled silence followed this announcement, comparable perhaps to a sudden drop in cabin pressure, not a termination of sound but of the capacity to hear it. A refusal to integrate? An arrest of function? In any case people couldn’t believe their ears. “What did he say? We’re not taking off?” Then somewhere aft a woman was heard to laugh out loud. “This is the end!” she hooted, “This is perfect!”
She was a middle seat, just forward of the aft restrooms. She glanced impatiently at her wristwatch, then hunted furiously through her purse for a pen. “Now I know how it feels to be a hostage,” she muttered.
Her general attitude, however, was scrupulously sardonic. Several passengers in her vicinity, who had been adamantly opposed to the questionnaires until then, now found themselves inspired by her example, observing that by adopting an appropriately affronted tone it was possible to comply with the airline’s demands without any appreciable loss of dignity. Elsewhere aboard Flight 1155, some former objectors felt swayed toward compliance by an enhanced appreciation of the situation’s gravity.
Still, spontaneous conversions like these were rare, and there was little doubt both fore and aft that things were growing tense. Not that anyone wanted to argue — “Why buy trouble?” reasonable people asked — but knowing they were divided, people would be caught glancing corner-eyed at one another, as if a time might come when these same likenesses might have to be reconstructed by police sketch-artists. They couldn’t talk to each other about anything else of course since any attempt to change the subject would have seemed suspicious, but discussing the situation only seemed to heighten their collective helplessness, and attempts at indifference lapsed inevitably to a damply enveloping sense of disruption. Without exception, everyone felt a profound resentment that after hours of halting progress toward departure, after repeated delays and prolonged confinement with its sickening sense of arrested motion, that now on this final downslope to takeoff this anticlimactic and arbitrary lapse should occur when suddenly absolutely nothing happened.
“What are we doing here?” people asked. “What are we sitting here for?” For most of Flight 1155 these were the moment’s questions. Soon, though, the situation would become more complicated, so it might be useful to pause here for a moment to describe how things stood as precisely as possible.
First, had the passengers been polled just then, it would have been found that no one explicitly favored the questionnaires on any grounds whatsoever. Rather they seemed of a piece with the absurdity of modern air travel in general, coming with the territory as it were, like a cost of entry, with the additional qualification in this particular instance that they appeared to be of no utility at all. Most of the passengers could only assume the questionnaires had something to do with that tangled web of innovations referred to euphemistically as “the new realities of air travel.”
In business class, there was a fragile consensus that, in the interests of security, people nowadays had to expect this sort of thing, since it seemed unlikely that an airline would take such outrageous liberties unless they were necessary. Yet even among sophisticated travelers like these, no one could suggest how questions of such insolence could have anything to do with customer satisfaction, and upon examining the proposition more carefully, all agreed that none of it made any sense. Air travel was not what it used to be, that was clear enough, but after that it was obvious that no one really knew anything.
Copyright © 2020 by Bill Teitelbaum