Happy travelers are all alike. Unhappy travelers tend to believe they are each unhappy in their own incomparable way.
I figured this out at Los Angeles International Airport last Friday, in the middle of a long and difficult post meridiem. I had learned that morning, along with the rest of the country, that there had been a shooting incident in one of the terminals there. These insane killings are always horrifying and heartbreaking; this time was particularly unsettling, because I was scheduled to take a flight from LAX that afternoon. It is unnerving, being that close in place and time to such an event.
I heard that the ongoing investigation was disrupting airport operations, but I confirmed that my flight would still be departing — albeit 50 minutes late — so I left for my flight giving myself what I hoped would be plenty of time to park my car at the location I had reserved, get to the terminal, and get through whatever unusual security procedures might be in place. What I didn’t realize until I arrived was that law enforcement officials had forbidden all traffic for several blocks around LAX. This meant that, for several more blocks around that perimeter, traffic was crawling chock-a-block.
It took well over an hour to get through that traffic to the parking garage I had selected, only to discover that, while one face of the building was on my side of the police barricades, the actual entrance to the garage was not. I spent another hour wending my way a few blocks to the only other garage I knew of — only to find it completely full. By now I knew I would be missing my flight, and I was starting to get anxious about even making it home. I began elaborately cursing the shooter, the FBI, and all the drivers around me (with my windows sealed tight, of course — I was upset but not crazy) and looking for opportunities to creep faster than my petty pace by cutting back and forth between lanes.
Before I let my exasperation grow too powerful, though, I telephoned my wife to explain the situation. After a healthy yet scathing vent of my frustrations, I was calm enough to be able to brainstorm with my wife, who suggested I call United Airlines right then about rescheduling. An extremely pleasant and helpful agent got me a seat on the next following flight, five hours later. I had to hope that five hours would be enough time to park and walk to LAX.
Fortunately, my wife then gave me the Google assist I needed; she got me the number for another parking place not far from where I was inching forward at the time. I called and the attendant there graciously assured me that there would be space for me. When I arrived 45 minutes later (meaning my average speed was 1.3 mph), the attendant quickly and courteously got me settled in. Then I began my hike to the airport.
All arriving and departing passengers had no choice but to walk, so I considered myself lucky, with my one rolling carry-on bag. I saw petite women struggling to maneuver with two huge bags at once, dads pushing carts stacked with suitcases with little children perched on top, and tour groups calling out in foreign languages to stay together in the crowds. Most people were orderly and considerate, but every couple of minutes in each direction someone would hustle by, overtaking the line and usually forcing other passengers to halt or to steer their baggage off the path.
When I reached the airport proper, I approached a representative who was advising a young couple; when they left, I asked the rep what was the quickest route to Terminal 7, and she gave me precise directions with a smile. At the terminal, I approached a United representative who was advising a young woman; when she left, I opened my mouth to speak, but a brusque businessman came up from behind me and demanded to know where he could purchase a ticket. The representative tactfully explained that the service desk behind her sold tickets, but that he could actually purchase them more quickly on his phone via United’s website. The man grunted and walked off. I then asked my question — where could I pick up my new boarding pass — but before the representative could answer, the businessman turned back to her and interrupted with a follow-up question. After she responded, I said to the rep, “Wow, he really doesn’t want me talking to you!” She smiled politely and gave me the information I needed.
Once I had my boarding pass in hand — with the help of yet another helpful and patient United agent, who was interrupted by yet another demanding and oblivious passenger — I went through security. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the TSA agent who inspected my boarding pass and ID. One of his colleagues had just been killed. In my mind, a little surliness would have been understandable, but he was efficient and very friendly when he waved me through to the x-ray machines. I pulled my carry-on to the long table there and took three plastic bins from the stack — one for my carry-on, one for my laptop, and one for my shoes and pocket items. While I was taking my laptop out of my carry-on, another passenger dumped his items into one of my three bins.
In the end, I made it to the gate with a couple of hours to spare, and enjoyed an uneventful flight home. Once I arrived, I marveled at the remarkably pleasant and helpful customer service I had received from everyone — the United phone agent, the parking attendant, the three representatives at the airport, and the TSA agent — even though some of them had obviously had very stressful days themselves, between the disruptions caused by the shootings and the unpleasant passengers caused by the disruptions. That no doubt required a substantial reserve of patience and goodwill.
It probably did not require an unusual amount of perceptiveness — between the shootings, the flight delays, and the road closures, you might think that anyone could have predicted a lot of stressed-out passengers and the need for extra measures of courtesy and understanding. Unfortunately, as some of my fellow passengers demonstrated, unhappy travelers are sometimes not capable of even that level of awareness.
Stress can isolate people. It can make people self-centered, narrow their perception, and limit their creativity and problem-solving abilities. This is a particular danger when a person is already separated from his peers, like a solo traveler. Or a worker saddled with sole responsibility for a project. Or a lone driver, cursing in his car. When I was in that last position, I called for help, regained my perspective, and found solutions to the problems that were causing the stress in the first place.
When you begin to feel that your problems are uniquely overwhelming — whether you are on the road or in the office — don’t give in to the natural urge to defensively focus on yourself. That is precisely the time you need to reach out to others. No one has to take every journey by himself, and sometimes the best way to find your way to your destination is to borrow someone else’s perspective.