My Tale from the Atlanta Snowstorm

The government wasn't really the problem.

Looking at Cobb Parkway at I-285 in Atlanta, abandoned cars are piled up on the median of the ice-covered road after a winter snow storm slammed the city.

Airlines and truckers would hardly do a better job managing inclement weather than the government does.

By + More

As I was sitting here contemplating what to write, a flight attendant came on the public address system to tell us that we're all ready to depart except for one thing: The pilots aren't here. But we'll take off as soon as they arrive. It made me feel better to know we're not taking off without them.

I'm happy to take off whenever: I arrived in Atlanta on Tuesday just in time for the snowstorm.

Actually, it was rather hard to recognize this was a snowstorm, coming from the Northeast. There was a little bit of white stuff on the median stripes where no-one was driving, but other than that the roads looked clear to me. Nevertheless, it took me about four hours to drive 12 miles; I had to keep passing cars stuck in the "snow" and unable to get traction. I'm not sure why I was able to drive up the same "hills" that proved impassable to the local drivers – it must have been the superior tires on my low-end rental car.

I had one brush with the kind of scenes of freeway mayhem that have made national news. I was on one of the Interstates when I came around a bend to find a tractor-trailer spun around perpendicular to traffic, blocking three full lanes. Of course, it was actually a four-lane road, so I simply pulled over to the right-hand lane, which was completely open, and drove on, leaving behind everyone else, apparently scratching their heads trying to figure out what to do when their lanes were blocked. I decided at that point that it was probably better to get off the Interstate. I was fortunate.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Here on Flight 507, they're now passing out snacks including coffee. I guess they're figuring on it being a long night – and it's only two in the afternoon. I called my travel agent: She says the airline lists our departure in a half-hour. In my experience, that means "tomorrow."

I have a lot of experience. This is my third delay in Atlanta this year alone. The first time, they announced that if we all boarded fast enough, we could possibly take off before the flight attendant "timed out" – passed the limit for how many hours she could legally work in a day. So we all hurried. Literally the moment I handed the gate agent my boarding pass, the flight attendant stepped out of the gangway and announced she had timed out and no-one else could board. We had to wait an hour for a new flight attendant.

It's not just Atlanta, either. Shortly before Christmas, I flew to Erie, Pa., to visit my niece before she left for six months of study abroad in South America. We were delayed for an hour because the crew didn't show up. Then another hour because some of the passengers had brought too much luggage, and the airline couldn't figure out whether to throw off some of the luggage or some of the passengers. We finally took off, had an uneventful flight, began to descend through the thick wintry haze, dropped the landing gear – and then suddenly took off again in another direction. After a while, they told us they were taking us to Buffalo, because there had been a power surge at the Erie airport, knocking out the computerized landing system, just as we were about to touch down, so we had to go elsewhere. I don't know about the Erie airport, but I have a power strip at home on my computer that guards against those things.

[See a collection of political cartoons on airport security.]

So I know a lot about travel mishaps. And I usually find that, if you want to point fingers, there's plenty of blame to be spread around. There's a lot of finger-pointing going on in Atlanta right now. The mayor is busy pointing out that there were no traffic deaths on the city's streets – just backups on the Interstates, which are the governor's responsibility. The governor says he couldn't have done anything different because the weather service (you know, the federal government) didn't accurately forecast when the snowfall would begin. And, of course, someone in the government somewhere should have told all those truckers to use chains on their tires, but didn't; I'm not quite sure why none of these folks could do so unless the government ordered it.

The flight attendant collecting the trash says she's heard nothing further about a pilot – but reassures us that, "When we start using drones, we won't have this problem." That makes me feel better, too, because it will probably occur before this flight takes off.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

The airline could actually keep a few extra pilots or flight attendants around to avoid these delays, but that would reduce their profit margins. Of course, I wouldn't mind the increased fares and cuts in customer service if I could return the favor. For instance, they cancelled my flight earlier today because they couldn't get enough people here to work the planes and the gates. Sometimes, I'd like to tell the airline that I've encountered some work issues, too, and won't be using their services now after all but can put myself on one of their later flights, instead – but they think I should pay a change fee of $250 when that happens.

It's times like this that make me wonder about all those who complain about government. Yes, it's frustrating to watch politicians point fingers. But, really, would anyone prefer to have the airlines in charge of consumer protection? Or those truckers – who stranded countless people on the Interstate overnight because they couldn't apply snow chains unless the government tells them to do so – oversee highway safety?

But all's right on Flight 507. The first officer just arrived. The pilot says we'll be taking off as soon as he completes the paperwork. Darn government.