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Paul Stoller Headshot

Delta Blues

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It almost summer and the peak season for travel agony is upon us. Most of us know of a travel horror story -- a tale that usually underscores the institutional insensitivity of the corporations that in large measure shape the quality of our comings and goings. Consider what happened to someone near and dear to me who had the recent misfortune of flying Delta Airlines from Philadelphia to Birmingham, Alabama -- a palpable tale of the Delta Blues.

After receiving a phone call informing her that her 87-year-old father was gravely ill, she scrambled to find a flight from Philadelphia to Birmingham. She managed to arrange a next day flight on Delta -- an exceedingly high fare due to the short notice brought on by a medical emergency.

She explained to the agent that her father was close to death. If her father dies, the agent told her, she might be able to extend her stay in Birmingham without a penalty. The agent also told her that bereavement fares might apply. No mention was made of special fares for an emergency flight to attend to a loved at the point of death. Distraught, she booked the flight to Birmingham with one stop in Atlanta.

Somehow her father lived through the night, which meant that she was anxious to get to Birmingham in time to say goodbye.

As fate would have it, her flight was delayed. When the flight finally boarded in Philadelphia, the passengers rushed to get seated. Like most travelers, they did not want to miss their connecting flights in Atlanta. In the mad rush to get seated, my friend bumped her head against the low bulkhead of the luggage bin. Her right eye swelled shut and her blood pressure spiked. Given her state, the crew moved her to the rear of the aircraft, her least favorite place to be on a jetliner. They wanted to keep her under observation. When she arrived in Atlanta, EMT personnel, worried about her blood pressure, wouldn't let her board the connecting flight to Birmingham. While under "observation" in Atlanta, her sister phoned to tell her that her father had died.

Emotionally depleted and physically compromised, she arrived in Birmingham late in the afternoon. In the days that followed she helped to make arrangements for the funeral, buried her father and returned home -- as originally scheduled. Those flights were also late -- another set of notes in the Delta Blues.

When she phoned about bereavement fares the next day she was told that they would not apply in her case because (1) her father was alive when she booked the ticket and (2) that his funeral hadn't a necessitated a ticket change. The agent expressed regret but said that those were the rules -- inflexible corporate policies that not only protect airlines from fraudulent claims and but also make it more difficult for people facing extraordinary travel circumstances to receive refunds or reduced rates.

Travelers, of course, have problems on other airlines. Indeed, travel difficulties are not uncommon these days. There are, of course, weather conditions that delay air traffic. In addition, airspace is so clogged with planes that traffic volume makes an on-time arrival something beyond expectation. If you complain about poor service, the airline folks will listen to you, but most of us don't expect much resolution. If you've dealt with the airlines, a phone company, a cable server, or a health insurance provider, you know that there is an impersonal corporate mentality that profits from sets of complex and irreversible rules. What can you do about it?

Planes are going to be late and crowded. Airfares are going to be high. If you have an emergency or a problem, don't expect much help from an airline, a credit card company or a cable provider. How can you fight a faceless, distant and resource-rich corporation whose low-level employees, the ones that deal with customer complaints -- read from scripts designed to discourage the consumer.

My friend hung up the phone. Although some of her frustration had been vented, she expected no resolution from the Delta and no relief from the Delta Blues. When dealing with service industries, you usually expect expect some measure of the Delta Blues unless, or course, you are extremely rich and can hire someone to settle your disputes, or, better yet, travel in the luxury of a private jet.

My friend's travel horror story is what anthropologists call a case study. We use examples from everyday life to bring into relief larger social trends, themes and issues. My friend's story, for example, suggests that our increasing lack of social and economic expectation from the "business guys" has led to a culture of cynicism. The planes and trains don't run on time. The economy is broken. Government is dysfunctional and the electoral process hasn't yet produced a remedy for our malaise. For whatever reason, voters seem to elect people hell bent on increasing the social and economic divide, which tends to make economic and social life much worse according to Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, both of whom have won the Nobel Prize in economics.

In the end my friend's story suggests a larger choice. We can embrace the metaphor of America-as-corporation and elect "business guys" like Mitt Romney, Scott Walker or Rick Scott or we can choose a more transparent and democratic path by voting for people like Barack Obama. The first choice is likely to increase the power of corporations and decrease their accountability. The second choice is no panacea. Even so, it would put the brakes on runaway corporatization and increase business accountability.

As for the Delta Blues, if Governor Romney gets elected we'll all be singing them each and everyday.