Travel Is For the Birds: Let's All Just Stay Put This Christmas

Thousands of canceled flights and endless dreary delays awaited Americans who attempted to travel by passenger jet during this never-ending arctic monster storm, proving once again that none of us have any common sense at all. Why do we bother? Because we have been brainwashed to accept daylong episodes of prison-style abuse, as long as we eventually land somewhere else.

Today's average flight delay at New York City airports is five hours. And that's after the hours it takes to get to the airport on treacherous roads or deadly trains, after surviving the gauntlet of the security lines.

Those who endure soon realize the real problem is the airplane itself. Airplanes, it turns out, don't really function in wintertime.

Veterans of the nation's travel wars can feel a sense a victory over the smallest thing, because even a failure can be positive if you believe in Travel Karma. You know about Travel Karma, even if you call it something else. It's when we accept a small disaster as psychic insurance against larger disasters.

For example, say you're standing at the Starbucks with your gate in view and everything seemingly going your way. The taxi showed up. The security line was short, because a special new line opened just as you walked up, and for the price of having your hands slathered with anti-terrorism poison, you got to keep your shoes on!

And then it happens, some split-second screwup, very hot coffee splashing over your hands and some lady's 500-lb. carry-on dropped on your foot. It's still a holiday miracle because there's no coffee on your clothes. And because the flight has just been delayed—a delay that would've allowed ample time to sit and enjoy your coffee and cardboard cup of instant oatmeal rather than try to balance all this crap with your one free hand—there's time to go to the restroom and hold your scorched fingers under the cold water in the 15-second bursts allowed by the faucet's red robot eye.

You squeeze into the tiny airplane seat and watch the lights of your hometown fade away, because the sun has yet to rise, because you have intentionally agreed to a pre-dawn departure. When the friendly stewardess offers a beverage, your defenses are down. They already got me at the Starbucks, you say to yourself, and you smile and ask for orange juice. "Ice or no ice?" No ice, please! Let's fill that cup with nothing but orange juice.

And of course she dumps it in your lap. What can be done? You can't just get up and strangle a flight attendant, not with your crotch drenched in orange juice. People would think you have a bladder issue! And so you mumble something polite when she apologizes, and you sit there in a pool of cold orange juice for the next hour, because what are you going to do, jump out of the plane?

When the next flight is delayed, and canceled, and re-scheduled with an "equipment change" that means you no longer have your assigned seat, the psychological limits of Travel Karma have been reached. You realize the smartest thing is to rent a car and drive the hell home, never to travel again. Then the counter agent blesses you with an emergency row seat, and you're so grateful that you're hardly even bothered by the giant baby man next to you, with his sneakered feet somehow kicking your newspaper as he watches cartoons and eats potato chips out of ziploc bags for the entire four-hour flight.

Thanksgiving wounds still fester in our hearts, yet the Travel-Industrial Complex demands that we must go through this again, "for Christmas."

Have we learned nothing from the story of the Nativity, when travel delays and hotel mixups caused the Baby Jesus to be born in a dirty AirBnB sublet full of vermin and actual farm animals? If the biblical accounts of Christ's birth teach us anything, it is this: Don't leave home for Christmas.

[Ken Layne covers the travel industry and related issues in his American Journal. Illustration by Jim Cooke.]