I was going to have something special for you on this final week and final day of the year. I spent much of my Christmas vacation in Atlanta theorycrafting Standard for Grand Prix Oakland—which I plan to attend—and evaluating the various 2015 draft formats for my planned year-end article. Those topics might even have raspberry swirled into something one of my conservatory professors would call a mélange. 

As it turns out, I have something completely different.

Someone stole the time I had to do those things, along with everything else I need to do to support my fun time. Someone named United Airlines. It could be any airline, though. I just happen to live in Denver, a United hub, so they’re my “home team” for better or worse. An airline stole my article so you get one about them instead.

Airlines are the new post office.

Everyone hates the post office. Hating the post office is such a shibboleth that it’s gauche to mention it. “Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns!” But who even goes to the post office anymore? Two Thousand Fifteen was the year of the airline frustration status update. I think this phenomenon is sufficiently nascent that I can point to it without an innovative ironic affectation.

Think about it. Both provide a basic service that society needs. As technology has advanced, we need plane travel more and paper mail less, but both can be described as public utilities. The post office used to be how we communicated and transacted business across the country. Now we just hop on a plane. Some day we’ll have fully functional virtual travel and planes will be cast off like books of stamps.

People increasingly need to fly to participate in our society. Flying is expensive, so the growing necessity to play the airplane game stratifies society further into haves and have nots. If you can’t fly, do you matter? Oh right, all lives matter. Q.E.D.

Thus the emergence of Spirit Airlines, followed by Frontier Airlines’ decision to shift to that business model as well. They are to airlines what pay-day lenders are to banks. Either businesses prey on the disadvantaged and their societally-imposed drive to participate—How dare a poor person have a cell phone? Don’t they know they’re poor?—or businesses provide a necessary service to an underserved market at a price point that supports the increased risk—Student loans have higher interest rates than mortgages because youth is by definition unproven, and the young suffer for it.  Both choices reflect endemic inequalities.

Point is, people today need access to air travel, like they needed a post office in the dark ages. There’s a fine scholarly work, The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, that delves into the history of private postal services, both before and after the advent of government post offices. It’s short and fun and full of innovative ironic affectation. Go read it. Airlines have a similar history, although the “black market” for air travel is legal and overt—the private jet.

Economic theory tells us that industries that are both necessary for society and expensive to develop don’t respond to market forces like customer satisfaction. What are you going to do, not fly? How do you do that? Stay home? Drive? Rent a private jet? The solution, such as it may be, is to create government-supported monopolies that can operate efficiently enough to make the necessary service affordable, without the need to compete and grow as capitalism demands. That’s what everyone did for post offices, and what most countries outside the U.S. have done for airlines too. With recent consolidation of the major airlines, we’re effectively headed to the same place, although with a geographically segmented oligopoly rather than a government-sanctioned monopoly.

The only real difference is that the airlines are trying to profit off this mess.

Like many this holiday season, I got hit with the dreaded flight cancelation on Monday when I was supposed to return to Denver, get back to work, sleep in my own bed, and jam some Magic games and thoughts. Because the holiday season is the moment when we need air travel most of all, it is the time we are most susceptible to getting fucked. When you need something, the seller doesn’t need to be nice. They just need to be there, on their own terms, and you’ll eventually say “fine” to whatever deal they offer. Say, for example, fly home on Wednesday instead of Monday because all planes are so overbooked that a single canceled flight topples the pyramid and you simply cannot fly before Wednesday. Unless you can afford a private jet.

Or you can tell the airlines to shove it and drive. Which is what I did. After United canceled my flight and stranded me in Atlanta two days longer than I was willing to accept, I quickly determined that no other airline had the capacity, to say nothing of the desire, to help me out. It was 7:30pm on Monday. So I called a company that actually wants to persuade me to give them money—Enterprise Rent-a-Car—and by 8:30pm I was on the road from Atlanta to Denver, airport to airport, where I could drop off their car, pick up my car, and go home.

By 5:30pm (two timezones west, so effectively 7:30pm in counting time) on Tuesday, I sat on my couch in Denver and ate a sandwich. Atlanta to Denver is almost 1,500 road miles, which is to say that I’m crazy and also supernaturally gifted at 23-hour continuous solo road trips. I recognize my rare web of privilege that let me do this—from the mere fact I feel safe traveling alone at all hours through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado, to my ability to concentrate on driving in often-challenging conditions for an entire day while also being able to entertain myself sufficiently to tolerate it, push through, stay awake, and survive, all while not racking up a huge bill.

Basically, I had the ability to opt out of the airline bullshit, and I did. Most people can’t do that, for every possible reason you can list. Everyone else get stuck living in an airport for days at a time, sitting on hold with airline customer service phone lines that vomit contempt, left to seek solace by counting the likes and I-wish-I-could-dislikes on their airline frustration status updates.

When the airline cancels your flight, you need to speak to someone. The “helpful” web apps that airlines offer to book flights don’t work for finding same-day options. You need to talk to someone to fix that mess. So of course the airlines make you talk to a computer that sometimes recognizes what you say. If you persevere through that and the subsequent hours on hold waiting for a real person to pick up the phone, you get someone who isn’t given enough power to actually help you and therefore cannot afford to care. Even the supervisors are powerless—they exist solely to end the call once you realize you aren’t getting any help.

There’s a word for this—Kafkaesque. It means, basically, that one is sent to the bowels of hell through dehumanizing bureaucratic intestines, digested, and spit out as a beetle. Or something like that. As I said, airlines are the new post office.

During my excruciating 23-hour drive across America, I had a lot of time to listen to music and think. In the darkest hours—literally and figuratively—as I drove across Missouri hours before dawn, dodging the ice piled up on the sides of the highway, I chose to turn off the music. Instead, I called United Airlines. I wanted to let them know I wasn’t going to try to reschedule my flight, both so I could get reimbursed for the ticket and so I wouldn’t take up space on the standby list that could go to poor souls actually standing by at the airport. I knew I’d be on hold, so why not be on hold when I’m already in hell? I dialed them up, put it on speakerphone, and set the phone in the passenger seat. This was around 3:00am.

At 6:00am, right as I arrived in Kansas City, on the western edge of Missouri, and just when I needed to actually focus on navigating highway intersections, I heard a faint “hello” emanate from the passenger seat. Seriously. In the middle of the night it took three hours to get a living person employed by United. Imagine trying to call them during “normal business hours” when sane people do this sort of thing.

What did I get for the three hours I was on hold? A one-minute “jingle”—I use that term loosely—endlessly repeated Ad Nauseam. As I listened to this hideous sound clip over 150 times, I slowly recognized it as some sort of mutated variation on a famous part of the classic work Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, which happens to be United’s theme song. The hold music is not remotely recognizable as Rhapsody in Blue on quick listen, but I’m pretty sure it is a slowed-down and transformed version. Maybe I got this impression from the mildly hallucinatory state it induced in me as I struggled to drive and stay awake. I’m not going to investigate. But regardless, it was obvious that United Airlines paid someone—probably a team of someones—to create this monstrosity specifically to be hold music. It does not sound good.

Only a soulless corporation with no accountability to its customers would pay people to write hideous hold music, potentially as a hidden in-joke based on their theme song, and possibly as subliminal brainwashing. A government entity would probably not bother to exert that much effort, especially when the goal in no way resembles pleasure for anyone forced to listen. I don’t know what hold music the post office uses, or would use, but I bet it is music written by someone for another purpose. In other words, something designed to be heard and enjoyed. The post office isn’t trying to profit for its shareholders. I’m not exactly sure how United’s hold music helps them increase profits—subliminal brainwashing sounds like a plausible motivation—but they sure didn’t hire people to write it to decrease profits.

Eventually the person from United said they would reimburse me. Before I could get a confirmation number to prove this, the call dropped. I have not called back.

Happy New year!

Carrie O’Hara is Editor-in-Chief of Hipsters of the Coast.

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