America’s favorite destination: The airport

Whenever a delay at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport adds a few aggravating hours to a flight to the other side of the continent or across an ocean, I think of my ancestors who traveled to the Pacific Northwest after the Civil War. Their journey took months, so who am I to whine about a few lost hours?

That perspective may not provide much solace to the thousands of Americans who have had holiday flights canceled this week or who have slept in airports for multiple nights wondering if their vacation plans are kaput. Bad weather, a shortage of federal air traffic controllers, airlines with ambitious schedules that may be beyond their capacity, a surge in post-pandemic travel — those factors have combined to create chaos at East Coast airports that have rippled through the country all the way to Sea-Tac.

Fifty years ago, traveling by jet was still an expensive, rarely used travel option for many people and, 150 years ago, the idea that a human being could be whisked through the air from one distant place to another in a matter of hours was magical thinking. Hot air balloons were then the cutting-edge flight technology.

Now, though, we buy airline tickets for a specific date and time and assume we will be able to board an airplane at that exact hour and land somewhere far away pretty much when a friend or relative or limousine driver will be there to pick us up . Most of the time, things go according to schedule, which is a bit miraculous, given the complexity of it all.

When the system fails, as it has in the last few days, it is frustrating and infuriating, but should it be a surprise? Our modern expectations may be set too high. The good news: At least at an airport no one needs to go on a buffalo hunt to find food or gather firewood to keep warm while waiting out the delay.

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