As we, two older women, approached the United Airlines ticketing counter to check our bags and get our boarding passes, I was initially disoriented. Instead of the long lines I’m accustomed to, I saw only a handful of people, and I didn’t see any ticketing agents behind the counters. Had we come to the right place? Had I misread or failed to see the signs for ticketing as we walked from where we had dropped off our rental car?
I approached the automated kiosk and fumbled to get the piece of paper out of my purse that had the confirmation code to access my reservation. But as I did so, an airline staffer must have seen or sensed our confusion. Or maybe he was trained to spot old people who are technology-hesitant, who take too long to answer all the questions on the screen and thus slow down the whole system. He quickly pushed all the right buttons on the kiosk, efficiently wrapped our tags around the suitcases and took them to the conveyor belt, handed us the printed boarding passes and sent us on our way.
When we arrived at our gate later and I watched people board the plane, I realized why we had been almost the only ones at the ticketing counter earlier. Almost everyone (read: everyone younger) had their boarding pass on their phone, and they were young and strong enough to hoist their suitcases into the overhead racks. Being comfortable with technology and physically able, they can get through the airport in half the time it takes us older ones.
I’m sure I could learn how to get the boarding pass on my phone, but, because I didn’t grow up with technology, I don’t entirely trust it. What if I couldn’t get reception in the airport? Or my phone didn’t have enough charge? Or right when I was about to show my ticket to the security agent, the phone flashed to another screen, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back? A piece of paper never lets you down.
Once on the plane, technology failed me again. On the way to the airport, I had gotten an email from United saying that, if I wanted to order any food or alcoholic drinks on the plane, I needed to download an app first, that United wouldn’t take cash or even a credit card for a snack box or glass of wine. But I couldn’t figure out how to download the app from my phone, although it wasn’t a big deal not to be able to drink or eat on a two-hour flight. Yet I couldn’t help but be nostalgic for my early days of flying when a friendly and relaxed stewardess would deliver a steaming five-course meal in a compartmentalized aluminum tray, without any credit cards or apps being needed.
It’s not that flight attendants today aren’t friendly, but they are too busy and too gun-shy to be relaxed around customers who reportedly scream at them over mask mandates or for refusing to serve them another drink. I don’t blame the attendants for maintaining their professional distance.
Fortunately, toward the end of the trip, I was lucky enough to experience the pleasures of the non-technological world—the one where humans, even strangers, can interact for the benefit of each other. My friend and I were sitting in a somewhat empty gate of the airport, having lunch. Nearby an older man dressed in Indian robes was playing a sitar. In this cavernous space, the sound floated up to the ceiling and filled this almost empty hall with music that came from a different civilization, one that has lasted thousands of years. In this airport, one of the most impersonal places in the world, the music connected all of us who were listening.
As the musician packed up his sitar, I went over and thanked him, and he thanked me back. It was a small human exchange, but it restored me, if only for a short time until I was packed again into the confines of the impersonal airplane.