Capitalism Trapped Me in the Phoenix Airport

The American Airlines closure has been called a bad omen for holiday travel, which it is—but it’s also a symptom of something deeper.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
Capitalism trapped me in the Phoenix Airport
Photo by Teh Eng Koon via Getty Images

My boyfriend and I were mulling over how to kill the evening before our Halloween redeye when the email popped up on his phone. “Oh shit,” he said. “Our flight just got canceled.” I called the American Airlines customer service hotline as we speed-walked down Scottsdale, Arizona’s stunningly beige Main Street and was immediately placed on a callback list with a wait time of “more than four hours.” In fairness to American Airlines, this was true: I got the call four hours and nineteen minutes later, precisely as we reached the front of the physical American Airlines customer service line in the Phoenix airport. A robo-voice thanked me for my patience, then promptly put me on hold again. I hung up. 


From October 29 until November 1, American Airlines canceled more than 2,300 flights across the country, including mine, due to bad weather at its Dallas hub and, more importantly, serious staffing issues. The same weekend, Southwest Airlines canceled around 1,800 flights for the same reasons. These mass cancellations are being touted as a harbinger of shitty holiday travel, which is probably true. But they’re also glaring examples of what happens when industry giants with basically zero competition—like American and Southwest—get to fuck over consumers and workers with impunity.

Everything in the Air Travel Extended Universe already sucks at baseline. A typical trip to the airport involves shoelessness, $16 cocktails, and the humiliating powerplay of deciding when to stand up and get in line to board the plane. Having a flight canceled or delayed adds the secret sauce of personal crisis to an already unpleasant experience. And getting a flight delayed en masse means that not only are you in personal crisis—you’re surrounded by people in personal crisis, getting ready to pass on their anxiety to workers rendered powerless by the scale of the problem. Delays and cancellations create, in technical terms, a “bad vibe” in the terminal. 


Why is this bad vibe allowed to run rampant through our nation’s airports? Because four giant companies (United, American, Southwest, and Delta) control the vast majority of air travel. They’re able to upcharge at will, hike up ticket prices, halt service to smaller airports, and generally suck ass without worrying about people flying elsewhere. In fact, they make more money when we’re miserable. According to Vox, “airlines collected $8.6 billion in baggage and change fees in 2019, six times the $1.4 billion they collected in 2007.” 

One of the most painful aspects of the canceled flight experience is that, at first, you still have the illusion of control. When we first stepped in line, gossip snaked through the queue as people traded tidbits of information about what was happening. By hour three, most people were sitting on the floor or on top of their suitcases, silent and deflated. As we inched forward, I asked my boyfriend if I should tell the person behind the American Airlines counter that we needed to get on a flight ASAP because “my sister is about to give birth.” (I don’t have a sister.) Morale was abysmal. By the time we actually got to the counter (again, the exact same time I got my automated callback), we were willing to take whatever American had available just to get out of the airport and away from the looping airport soundtrack of Phoenix government officials alternately welcoming us to sunny Arizona and wishing us safe travels. 


What American Airlines was willing to give us were vouchers, for one night in a hotel, a taxi ride to and from the airport, and two $12 meal credits—baller alert! We discovered the actual value of these slips of paper as soon as we left the airport. Our taxi driver, who had told us on our ride over that he’d been driving in Phoenix for 18 years, pretended not to know what an airline voucher was. Our hotel’s restaurants were closed by the time we checked in, so we couldn’t get a midnight dinner with our food vouchers. And our hotel voucher was good for the night, but we had to go back to the airport after a noon check-out to re-up for night two.

On our second day at the airport, the lines were shorter—although we did wait long enough for me to attend a full work meeting on Google Hangouts. Experiencing an airport line in front of my colleagues was marginally better than experiencing the airport line raw. For our troubles, we were booked into a different hotel in a different town, which meant we had to go back to Hotel One, get our luggage, and ferry it to Hotel Two while trying to spend as little actual money as possible. The whole ordeal took another three hours. 

Almost everyone we spoke to over the course of two delay days, American Airlines employee or otherwise, was professional and relatively sympathetic. They were also visibly stressed out by the influx of displaced, tired people brandishing slips of paper or QR codes. That stress, accumulated over time, is how American Airlines found itself in this situation in the first place. Overworked airline employees on COVID leave left last weekend’s airplanes short-staffed, which turned a regional weather event (high winds in Texas) into a national holdup. And why should anyone rush back from PTO to a job that places them at the forefront of enforcing in-flight COVID safety measures or shifts the burden of managing and maintaining complex schedules directly onto their plate while they simultaneously fly a fucking airplane? 

For me, it wasn’t all bad. I got to post a picture of myself sitting by a pool on my Instagram story (suffering is not a part of my personal brand) and watch Godzilla vs. Kong on a small screen next to a guy in a Supreme shirt. I returned home to my apartment in Brooklyn two days later than planned and two days of work behind, my Tuesday consumed by a pair of flights that (thank GOD) went as planned. A week later, I’m mostly caught up on work and generally recovered from the nightmarish experience of staying in a room that has Showtime access but not HGTV. 

In short, my canceled-flight experience was the textbook definition of a First World Problem—which is the entire point. The health and happiness of consumers and workers seems to be irrelevant in a capitalist economy whose industries are largely dominated by a few big companies that make the most money when they choke out competition on both sides of the equation.