The man standing behind me in the security line in the Toronto's Pearson airport had it right. "Remember when air travel used to be fun?" he asked. Sure I did: more than 20 years ago.
Over the past two decades, increasingly invasive security and longer lines have made the process of getting through airports and onto an airplane ever more unpleasant. Most people understand the need for the security and, on the whole, security officers both in Canada and across the border perform their tasks with civility.
But that doesn't mean that taking off your shoes, belt and jacket, emptying your pockets and removing your laptop from your carry-on luggage is a pleasant experience. Nor is shuffling along in a crocodile line for upwards of 45 minutes. And that's just the start of your journey.
Airline travel used to have a feeling of luxury. Not anymore. Today, most journeys by plane are equivalent to a trip on a bus with wings and that may be unflattering to coach travel.
The worst aspect of air travel, though, has to be its unpredictability: the chances the plane will leave late, you'll miss your connection and arrive without your bags. U.S. statistics show "mishandled baggage" is a relatively rare phenomenon, with the carrier with the worst record reporting only nine incidents per 1,000 passengers. If you travel regularly, though, particularly on connecting flights, the incidence seems far higher.
You know you're in for a difficult flight when it gets to 30 minutes before takeoff and there's no sight of your plane at the gate. That's what happened to me last week on the way to a skiing vacation that took me to Salt Lake City by way of Denver with 50 minutes to make the official connection. I have learned my lesson, 50 minutes is not long enough.
The Air Canada Embraer jet took off almost exactly 50 minutes late. About halfway into the 31/2-hour flight, the cabin crew announced the ground crew had neglected to empty the sanitation tank and asked if passengers would kindly refrain from using the bathroom. The inflight entertainment packed up about the same time.
What happened next is not so much about air travel as about how the highly sophisticated computerized systems upon which we have all come to rely can prove peculiarly obtuse when thrown the smallest of wrinkles.
There were five of us on the outbound flight to Denver who were travelling on to Salt Lake City. We all missed our connection to Air Canada's partner flight on United Airlines. The Air Canada representative booked three of us on the next Delta flight.
When we got to the Delta gate, there was no record of our transfer. The Air Canada computer terminal showed we had been transferred. The Delta computer didn't pick it up. After much walking from the Air Canada/United terminal to Delta, the problem was solved by the issuing of a paper ticket. By that time, I was bumped onto the next Delta flight.
Air Canada and Delta both assured me my bags would be in Salt Lake City before me. Of course, on arrival in Salt Lake City, there was no sign of them and the Delta airline baggage specialist couldn't find them anywhere in the system.
Now I am on a skiing vacation without skis or ski clothes. Given that Air Canada/United couldn't transfer my ticket to Delta, I suspect it is extremely unlikely my bags would be transferred.
Throughout the evening, the online tracking system for lost baggage at Delta had no record of my bags. A very helpful Delta representative, however, whom I reached by phone, found one bag had made it on United to Salt Lake City. Then a United representative confirmed both bags had been delivered at 4:51 p.m., exactly the time I had arrived in the airport on the Delta flight.
If the Delta baggage specialist at the airport had been able to trace the bags on the United system, there would have been no problem. I could have picked up my bags there and then, but rarely, it seems, is anything so simple. Air Canada and United are part of one system: Star Alliance. Delta is part of Skyteam linked to KLM and Air France. At the airport level, it seems, the two don't mesh easily.
To get my bags quickly, I took the local shuttle bus to pick them at the airport next morning and was skiing before lunchtime.
I flew back to Winnipeg through Chicago with a layover of more than two hours. I arrived on time with my bags with the feeling that with just a little work on systems, baggage might go missing less often and air travel might be just that little bit more pleasant.
Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.