Sunday, February 21, 2010

Before your flight, don't forget to check reality

Today began a strike of some 4,000 pilots at Lufthansa—the airline where most of us spring breakers booked our trip—grounding all flights until midnight on Thursday—our day of departure.

To say the least, the news struck me as an inconvenient surprise. To say the most, it seemed as though I had become the victim of an international conspiracy to trap me in the same three claustrophobic cities in Michigan. I mean, come on: this is my first trip abroad, my first opportunity to wield a passport with a shiny new visa stamped inside, and frankly, the most interesting excursion I will have gone on since family vacation at the Wisconsin Dells in '98. And just when I finally get the opportunity to leave the country and taste a little culture, 4,000 German pilots strike me down. Only the airline I'm flying on, only the week that I'm flying.

Okay, maybe I'm being a little dramatic. Lufthansa has already guaranteed to reroute international travelers through other airlines during the strike. UNISEL is already hammering the kinks out for our group's trip. And I was even contacted this weekend by the online booking site I used, ensuring that I would have a seat on some flight some time this Thursday. So what's the big deal?

Basically, it's a much-needed reality check for a novice traveler like me. Because I bought my ticket online in much the same way that I buy—well—everything else online, I expected the process to be foolproof. I pay the money, I go to Russia. But surprise! International travel is subject to the same political and economic pressures as anything else. A labor union in Germany agreed quite naturally that its members deserve job security, and suddenly my $900 plane ticket reverts to so much paper and ink (or so many bytes on a web server, as it were).

All of us will certainly find a way to Petersburg on Thursday, but not because international travel is invincible. It's a fragile system that works only when all parties agree to cooperate, and there is necessarily some risk involved. But notwithstanding labor conditions, weather, and a whole host of other factors, I'll be in a Russia by the end of the week. Woah.

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