I’ve always been in awe of the commercial airline industry. When you consider the number of things that can go wrong vis a vis the number of successful flights each day, it is truly a testament to the best of human resourcefulness and responsibility. As a matter of fact, in the United States in recent years, air travel has never demonstrated a safer flying record. Yes, there are delays and cancellations. But who would prefer risking a flight on a plane with a compromised hydraulic system or flying into the vortex of hazardous thunderstorms rather than being alive and a few hours late? Unfortunately, the glory of air travel in the U.S. seems to end abruptly within the parameters of those technical and safety considerations. A recent round- trip through Hawaii’s Lihue airport in Kauai is a case in point.

Upon arriving at the airport in Lihue, I was taken by the simplicity of the open air, down-home ambience of the terminal. The rain was gone and the billowing clouds gave way to luminescent late day light. Musing to myself, I thought: "This is paradise". Meanwhile, the baggage proceeded along the ramp as I anticipated the next leg of the trip. Conveniently, I didn’t bother to take much notice of the rows of luggage that were already lined up adjacent to the carousel with no apparent takers.

As air travelers have become increasingly aware of the probability of lost baggage, there is a certain sense of muted dread that accompanies the sudden cessation of movement of the carousel...suggesting: ‘that’s it, your baggage didn’t make it.’ It takes a few minutes to really digest and understand how quickly a trip to Shangri-la can turn into a living hell. But a look at the three-score or more other luggageless losers lined up at the baggage claim window and suddenly it all makes sense: You’re out of luck! [Somehow human beings manage to catapult almost a million pounds of metal, passengers and plastic 35,000 feet into the air, cross the great oceans without a hitch, yet damage and lose one’s luggage with equally astounding regularity.]

Rather than see the carousel half-full, I was determined to make the best of it. Perhaps the rain had distracted the handlers back in Maui and our bags might be on the next flight? Seemed plausible...but wait. Determining exactly when and where the next flight in Lihue had originated from and where it might have picked up the missing suitcases, duffle bags, and general paraphernalia was not to be as simple a task as it might seem. The arrival information indicated that there was a flight from Honolulu in a couple of hours. Hmmmmm, I pondered. Could this flight have gone through Maui on its way to Lihue, picking up my, and half a plane load of other increasingly stressed passengers’ luggage, thereby ending the ordeal in a reasonable amount of time, and allowing us to proceed with the rest of our dwindling holiday hours? But as the line at the baggage claim window kept growing to the tune of our simmering frustration, it became obvious there was no way I was likely to get any heads up on where this flight from Honolulu was traversing on its way to Lihue. Lo’ and behold, out of the corner of my eye I noticed an ‘Information’ kiosk, which I approached with wide-eyed naivete. "Can you tell me where the flight from Honolulu is coming from,?" I plaintively inquired. "Honolulu," the gal in the Kiosk replied. "Yes but......," I pleaded, explaining in no uncertain terms, that I needed more information.

"That’s all the information I have," she self-assuredly barked, concomitantly implying that was all the information I was going to get. Noticing a rather sophisticated telephone just inches from her finger tapping hand I suggested she call Aloha Airlines and settle once and for all where this flight was coming from, pleading my case that if, in fact, it was going through Maui, I might have a fair chance of securing my luggage on the next flight in. "No, I can’t do that," she asserted, directing me to the baggage claim window, where the line was now at least an hour deep. "Excuse me," I complained. "Isn’t this the ‘information’ kiosk. Isn’t that what it says right here? How about a little relevant information ma’am?"

At this juncture in the exchange I could see there was no hope of getting any info from the ‘information’ kiosk. We would hope that employees at an airport would be prepped to deal in a reassuring, calming manner when dealing with a an understandably agitated passenger. Apparently such training was lost in the feelgood flow of the tropical trade winds. The point was punctuated when the information gal started pointing her long gelatinous nail at the end of her denunciatory index finger, straight at my helpless, weary, wrangled self, connoting that I was ‘out of line.’ When I objected to her finger-pointing point of non-information, she called security. I realized that rather than be sent to the Hawaiian Gulag somewhere on the basis of being an information risk, I had better collect myself and appeal to the security guard’s better nature. Fortunately, I was able to do so, but did notice the two of them scrutinizing me suspiciously for the rest of my stay at Lihue airport, as I sought only my luggage and some peace of mind.

Eventually I vaulted to the front of the baggage claim window and inquired in earnest about the flight information. The Honolulu flight was indeed routed through Maui, though Maui is well east of both Honolulu and Kauai. Why did it travel this circuitous route?... well, it’s kind of like "Don’t ask, don’t tell." Just say ‘Aloha’ and ‘Mahalo’ put your money down, and be on your ‘haolie’¹:way.

As it was, the luggage arrived on that flight... soaking wet...not surprising, I thought, remembering the baggage carts exposed to the driving rain on each side of the wagon as they awaited to be loaded on to the plane. We bee-lined out of the terminal to our rental car, made the half-hour trip to our seaside abode, and laid our wet clothes over whatever was available. It took two days for everything to dry out in the sultry Kauian air. I needed the time, as well, to calm down, cool out, and prepare for the return to Lihue airport.

To assault the reader with laborious detail concerning my wondrous encounters on our return trip from Lihue airport to San Francisco would be cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, I doubt anyone in their right and equilibrious mind would bother to read on beyond an indication of such mayhem. But to be brief, I can sum it up by saying that a lesser man than myself would surely have wilted or stroked out between the Hawaiian humidity, the scans, security, agricultural checkpoints, lack of any idea of where to go from one place to another, and no assistance whatsoever at any point in dealing with one’s luggage. Even after weighing it at the ‘check in’ counter, passengers must then drag their bags to another scanner that ultimately sends them (one hopes, again) to the appropriate aircraft.

After catching my breath and reaching the post-security area of the terminal, I was relieved to find a restaurant where I could replenish the diminished capacities that generally characterized my demoralized, dehydrated bio-degradable state of mind and body. But before I could even sit down, I noticed a curious thing on the terminal tele-screen that flashes arrival and departure information. Our flight, which clearly was ticketed to depart at 2:20 PM, was shown on the monitor as leaving in just 10 minutes at 12:50PM! Of course, I had already learned that ‘information’ was a compromised commodity at Lihue Airport and quickly understood that I must scurry it to the gate...a good one-third of a mile away to see for myself what was really going on.

I hastily scrambled for my cell phone, made an emergency call to my lady who was, not unexpectedly, shopping at the nearest gift store, and off we went, hot footing along to see for ourselves if our plane was, in fact, still on the ground. When we arrived at Gate 10, there was no one there but a lowly agent and, naturally, another scanner awaiting his next set of victims. Clearly (or not so in this case) something wasn’t making sense. Apparently they, whoever they are, never bothered to simply connect the flight number with the correct time of departure on their interminably inaccurate in-terminal computer. Without an apology, the agent muttered some excuse about daylight savings time (which Hawaii doesn’t even observe) and told us to come back in an hour.

At that point I didn’t believe for a moment that I would get the extra leg room seats they had promised us weeks before when we made the reservations. Being rather self-assured that I have not grown in height in the last 30 years, I can safely, if not comfortably, state that I have never been so mashed, smashed and sardined into an airplane seat in my life. Six-foot-two, in a modern coach seat, is an experience I wouldn’t wish on a canned slab of tuna. Despite the fact that there were several exit seats available with plenty of space for my needy knees, the flight attendants would not budge from the pre-boarding orders directing me to five hours of interminable spinal compression. And as if to let you know in no uncertain terms that money does buy happiness, a video at the end of the flight shows the new Premiere, Red Carpet and Business Class accommodations soon to be available with seats that recline into beds, along with a potpourri of digital gadgets and ‘on demand’ media...all for just a few score dozens of dollars more.

One must wonder if the execs who dream up these stratifications ever do have any contact with us sheep who support the bulk of these operations through our patronage and taxes to keep these technological wonders soaring across our greenhoused skies. A quick walk along the resplendent shores of the Kauai beachfront resort hotels suggests that these mega-men and women of the corpocracy haven’t a clue or a care about the plebeians who are corralled to their various destinations, with nary a chance to look askance at an agent or official, for fear of becoming a target for further investigation, warehousing, or whatever is in vogue these days, in this climate of frenzied ‘security.’

A couple of days after my return from the land of Aloha, as I lay in that early morning, pseudo-conscious state we are all familiar with, I noticed, as my eyes sought still more sleep, a vision of the deep blue undulating sea that had enveloped and mesmerized me during my brief encounter with Nirvana. For a matter of several minutes I could not dispel the modality of that vision. As anyone who stares endlessly at a slow moving object knows, the residual retinal impression can remain for some time. Upon further reflection on this ‘after image’ phenomenon, I began to understand something about the Hawaiian (and I imagine many) tropical experiences. In such an environment, this force majeure...the after glow of the oceanic and skyward perceptual planes, must explain some of the behavioral characteristics of the resident folk blessed with such immutable ambience. Unfortunately it appears to have adversely extended to some pivotal logistics...such as getting in and out of their airports...at least in Kauai.

The interminable sky, sea, and muted, but palpable antipathy toward us haolies all seems to come together at the entry and exit points to the island. Lihue Airport in Kauai, one of the most bucolic, and least cosmopolitan of them all, seems to be the perfect place to let us experience this confluence of hyper-leisurely sensibilitiies and passive aggressive resentment. The entire procedure, from arriving at your destination to returning your rented car, is fraught with an acute inattention to basic tourist etiquette. Helpfulness is apparently a concept stricken from the vocabulary and mind set of the personnel working the labyrinthian, cattle-ramp-like maze that ultimately leads (one hopes) to one’s hotel or home.

No place I’ve seen can compare with the luxuriating splendor of a Hawaiian vacation, at least once you get there and back with either your mind, body or soul somewhat intact. I’m still not sure which of these entities may have survived my return to the recently oil-slicked shores of the Bay Area. Perhaps it is my propensity towards precautionary skepticism that informs a wariness of endemic complacency and arrogance. I experienced a bit too much of that for comfort at Lihue airport. Based on the lack of coherence and concern for their patrons, I would question their readiness and ability to deal with a major-environmental disaster such as the recent spill in San Francisco bay. Then again, perhaps they have a reverence for wildlife that transcends that of their respect for human beings. Maybe they’re on to something. But they had best redirect their vigilant security now applied to potential ‘tourist terrorists,’ and focus on protecting the natural splendor that envelops the islands...lest they suffer an ecological catastrophe from which no one will recover, making my exasperating experience at Lihue Airport look like a walk on the beach.

Marc Twang

¹among Polynesian Hawaiians: a non-Polynesian, esp. a Caucasian.


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