At first, it’s a faint, indiscernible drone.
Edging closer, the sound morphs into a low-pitched rumble — like a distant jet engine — yet it doesn’t fade.
Closer still and the ground begins to shake, small shockwaves reverberating through the earth into your body.
Finally, you turn the corner, and there she stands, in all her indescribable glory: Niagara Falls, a massive wonder of the world that renders anyone speechless with a pulse as over 3,000 tons — TONS — of water thunder over her cliffs every second.
Every sense is instantly overwhelmed: stunning visuals, trembling legs, and deafening roar meld with stimulating natural fragrances, and, most exhilarating, the taste of the falls as she completely envelops you in her legendary mist.
Experiencing such a monumental and incredibly humbling spectacle up-close-and-personal is truly an adventure not to be missed.
My recent trip to the Falls will never be forgotten, although I was never supposed to be there in the first place.
My family and I were scheduled to fly home from Canada, but due to numerous airline delays and cancellations — just one of tens of thousands this summer alone — we had to find an alternative way back.
Here is my “saga,” along with observations about the airlines (bad), US Customs (worse), and American airport security (downright scary).
After an amazing vacation in Canada — one of the world’s most underrated gems — we were to fly home from Montreal. A two-hour layover turned into six, which was delayed another hour until the flight was eventually cancelled.
But here’s the kicker: no announcement was made, and no airline representative arrived to inform passengers of the cancellation. I discovered the cancellation only because of an automated text message.
But what of the people napping, charging their phones (or had them on silent), or who simply didn’t check their devices? They quickly found themselves out of luck.
Quickly flagging down an employee at another gate, I learned that the place to make alternative plans was quite a distance away. Hightailing it there, I was second in line, yet it took us over an hour to book different flights.
For those late to the party — and there were many, as the line stretched down the corridor — their wait was incomprehensibly long.
After being booked on flights to Toronto and Philadelphia, we spent the night in a hotel, courtesy of our airline, although apparently that wasn’t the case for everyone with canceled flights.
Upon arrival in Toronto, an airline representative guaranteed that the flight was a “go”: plane and crew were there. Yet just before boarding, the flight was canceled without explanation, baffling even the pilots.
Stunningly, we were told they could book us on another flight — in two days.
Fed up with cancellations and already a day behind, we left.
Just as in Montreal, that required us to wait to be escorted back to Customs and Immigration for exit processing.
After another hour, we finally got an Uber for the 90-minute ride to Niagara Falls, during which I booked a rental car at Buffalo International Airport.
But to get from A to B, we had to walk across the famous Rainbow Bridge connecting Canada and the United States, luggage in tow. After clearing Customs and taking a 45-minute taxi ride to Buffalo, we drove our rental car seven hours through the night.
All that because the airlines couldn’t get their act together to properly schedule and staff flights.
Truth be told, despite all the headaches, walking across the border to America — to “home” — with Niagara Falls as a backdrop, ranks as one of the most extraordinary experiences imaginable. The grandeur was so breathtaking, and the events to get there so unpredictable, that the trek quickly became the memory of a lifetime.
Until we hit Customs, where the intoxicating pride-of-country one feels when stepping back onto American soil came crashing back to Earth. Instead of a smile and friendly welcome, the agent immediately sneered that we should have already had our passports out and ready.
When we promptly displayed them, and pushed them through the hole in the plexiglass, we were told we had to reach in even further to give them to the agent. Really?
First, our passports were ready in my pocket, instantly accessible.
Second, no one was behind us in line, so why the rush?
Third, if an agent doesn’t want to make an effort to pick up the passports, then at least be courteous about it. But … nope. Obviously, agents are trained to ask specific questions looking for anomalies and red flags, as they should. But it is absolutely unacceptable to be rude.
In that job, you’re not entitled to a “bad day,” since agents are, by definition, ambassadors for America. They are the first point of contact for Americans and foreign visitors alike, and, as such, represent our country and each one of us.
There should be a statutory requirement for all Customs officials to smile and say “Welcome home” to residents, and “Welcome to America” to non-citizens, rather than reinforcing the perception among many that Americans are impolite.
We can, and must, do better.
Plenty of headwinds
Traveling internationally exposes many of the flaws in our airport security procedures.
Leaving Philadelphia, no liquids came out of our bag—s. Why not?
And why the different procedures at different US airports? Shouldn’t all protocols be standardized?
The TSA continues to fly in the opposite direction of common sense, given that it still does not aggressively profile, nor require TSA-Preferred passengers to remove belts, jackets, shoes and laptops, nor mandate shoe removal for children and the elderly.
Additionally, it banned lighters for appearances only (later calling it “security theater”), and even tried to allow knives back onto planes.
Oh, and it barked up the wrong tree by eschewing “pointy-eared” dogs in favor of droopy-eared canines for passenger screening at airports because they are more image-friendly.
Finally, we have the unmitigated disaster known as the airline industry.
Yes, we know.
The thousands upon thousands of cancellations are due to weather and computer glitches.
Do they really think people are that dumb? Sure, both are contributing factors, but the problem is much deeper.
Let’s not forget that we are the people who bailed out the airlines during the pandemic with $54 billion. A major point of that staggering sum was to keep employees on the payroll so that when busier travel resumed, it would be a relatively seamless transition.
Seamless? It’s been pure hell.
Truth is, the money should never have been deployed in that fashion. Instead, the smarter way would have been to subsidize seats, where the government bought every other row and middle seat to allow social distancing, which would have mitigated anxiety about flying (thus increasing passengers), and kept more employees working.
Instead, many airline personnel were offered lucrative early retirement packages (which substantially decreased staffing levels), people who now must be re-certified to return to work, causing more delays and cancellations.
If our money was spent to avoid airline disruptions when the pandemic eased, what the heck happened, since it’s been, and remains, total chaos?
People’s lives have been turned upside down by the airlines, but little to nothing has improved.
Why not? What happened to all that funding? Why haven’t the airlines been held more accountable?
Many feel that they haven’t kept up their end of the bargain, yet it’s salt in the wound as passengers get nickel-dimed while stock prices soar.
I am the last person to favor additional government regulations on damn near anything, but in the case of the airlines — and how they continue to take advantage of those who keep them afloat — it may be time to take another look at intervention.
There is too much at stake not to at least consider it.
It’s time the airlines stop running their operations on what seems like a wing and a prayer. No one wants to see them crash and burn economically, but it’s high time that the American consumer gets a much-needed tailwind.
Otherwise, it will continue to be a very turbulent ride.
Chris Freind is a columnist and commentator whose column usually appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at CF@FFZMedia.com Follow him on Twitter @chrisfreind.