Quito, Ecuador

Quito and the
Cargo Cults in the Sky

Airline travel gets worse every year. On a trip to Quito, Ecuador, I find out why.

Above: El Panecillo, a monument to the Virgen de Quito as seen from Quito's historic district.

Don’t forget just this one thing.  Travel is about joy. Travel is - don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, joy.

Have you ever seen some poor sap running through the airport to catch his plane?  Well, that’s about to be me.  My flight was delayed four hours, but my layover is only three, which means I've missed my flight.

I am sitting in the very last row of the delayed airplane, but I've already mapped out a mad dash run to the international terminal - a master plan penned in cold sweat -  and as soon as I’m out the plane, I'm running faster than ever, dodging around people, no stops, no delays.  My airplane was delayed four hours, because, according to the flight attendant, the captain’s spare oxygen tank ran low, and a new one will need to be flown in from Salt Lake City.  “Totally ridiculous out-of-control  problems are happening every day,” she explains, “it’s the norm since Delta and Northwest flights started merging together this summer.”

So here I am running, and some business traveler, rolling a slate gray carry-on, makes a sudden turn, and I nearly knock right into the oaf.  But no looking back, Erik.  As the culture of air travel continues to change, I just have to evolve.

When I arrive at my gate, the door is closed. Huffing, puffing, I lean in to the gate table.  "flight's delayed a bit.  We'll begin boarding in five minutes."

Four guys at the gate are wearing dark business suits.  The one guy with dusty brown hair, waiting to put his two slate gray carry-ons through the X-ray, explains to the other guys that Quito (which he pronounces ‘Qweeto’), sucks, but there is a Papa Johns Pizza near the hotel.  And in the mall, a KFC too.

All but one of the guys has slate gray carry-ons. The short guy, his dual carry-ons are black.

 Quito Buildings at Night

Downtown Quito after night-time rains.

The lady at the gate creates two lines.  One is for general boarding, and the other is for elite boarding.  Then, she goes over to her speaker and announces that “all Diamond Platinum Elite Members" are welcome to board at this time.  This is the cue for the three business travelers with the slate dual carry-ons, who leave the short guy behind.  There is some sort of ceremony in their departure.  It seems the business travelers are making sure the short guy knows he is not Diamond Platinum.  When the Diamond Platinum travelers have disappeared down the jetway, the short guy appears visibly perturbed.  

After a few minutes, the lady at the gate announces that all ‘Platinum Medallion and Gold Medallion’ members may board.  Now, the short guy gets up and heads for the gate through the special line for Elite fliers.  Next, the lady at the gate announces that Silver Medallion fliers may board the airplane.  A jumble of business travelers march toward the gate entrance, each with their rolling carry-ons.

After welcoming families with small children and anybody that needs a little extra time boarding, which somehow now comes after Elite members, the lady at the gate welcomes general boarding.  That’s me.  I walk up to the gate, and, just for fun, I decide to walk through the elite line.

After September 11, traveling with large format camera equipment has taken on a whole new meaning.  I have forty-eight pounds of metal on my back, and that means, in almost every security check, I get stopped; I get pulled over.  Sometimes, I get to go to the special room around the corner.  And sometimes, this is the fun part, my camera bag fails the bomb test, in which all sorts of resources around the airport get diverted.

For all these years since after September 11, I have learned that air travel requires a zen patience.  My disposition has been the TSA agent’s dream.  I even try to make them laugh.  In Portland, Oregon, which wins almost every award for best airport every year, the TSA agents are the kind of person you would most likely divulge all your personal secrets to. They are really just good people, and I actually look forward to the confusion I cause them when I call ‘handcheck on film.’

The security process can be demeaning, and TSA agents sometimes appear not entirely human, but Is it possible that TSA agents have less to do with the deterioration of the flying experience than so many are claming?  Once through the security checkpoints, are TSA agents the ones responsible for the endless string of poor service and bad behavior travelers reguarly run into from airport to airport?

When the gate lady looks at me, she doesn’t quite compute on what to say to me.  Technically, I am the only general boarder in line, and also, technically, I’ve gone through the wrong line.  Although I feel no euphoria or enlightenment from having walked through the special Elite line, I realize I have achieved a small victory.  Just a tiny victory against modern airline travel.  A general boarder walking through the Elite line, imagine that.  If all pleasure travelers followed my path, perhaps we could create enough anarchy to take the industry back to the 1950’s, when pleasure travel was King.

Near Quito, Ecuador

Highlands near Quito

There is something about the rise of Elite status travel that has changed the very fabric of air travel altogether.  Elite status offers a sort of combined self-confidence, self-awareness and self-help to the airline industry’s most cherished target market - the super user.  And by dangling the gold watch of status, by enabling airport super users, the airlines are creating a weird sort of loyalty - a loyalty, that at times, appears to have a religious component to it.  Frequent flyers will regularly go on what they call ‘mileage runs’ - mad dash travel in order to accumulate miles to climb the ladder of their frequent flier program.

Frequent flyer commuities are growing everywhere.  At the popular forum, the ‘world’s most popular frequent flyer community,’ travelers talk in an approximation of English that revolves around a culture of maintaining or improving one’s air and hotel status.

I board the airplane alone, and I pass through first class.  There are those four business travelers, all sitting across from each other in the very front row seats of the airplane.  Behind them, every seat in first class is taken up.  Every first class passenger is sitting oddly upright and staring at me, as if upset by how long it is taking me to get back to coach.  But relax people, I’m on vacation.  I’m enjoying myself.  

I walk to my seat, at the very back of the airplane.  There are a total of 12 people traveling coach, which means I have a whole row to myself.  I push the armrests up and start to doze off.  I can’t help but to think about frequent flier programs in our cultural history.  The caste system of India doesn’t quite fit, because you are born with your caste, and you can never buy your way out of it.  The Mormons have special levels of Heaven.  The general boarders go to the Telestial heaven.  Lower elite status members go to Terrestrial Heaven, and Upper Elite Members, who fathered many children, will rule over an entire planet with their many wives and spirit children.  But in Scientology, you need to keep going through a series of audits, which require increasing levels of spending, in order to achieve the highest levels of enlightenment and euphoria.  That is sounding good for my theory.

Have you ever looked through Scientology pamphlets?  They have a corporate Successories design style to them - colors, charts, stylized depictions of put-together people in cartoonish settings accomplishing personal feats.  I wonder if there is something to the fact that Scientology pamphlets resemble frequent flyer elite status pamphlets?

To reach the highest level in Scientology, which is called Operating Thetan Level IV, you need to travel.  Specifically, you need to take a cruise on a Scientology-owned cruise ship, called The Freewinds.  To take this cruise, and complete this final level of spiritual enlightenment, you need to give the Church of Scientology 100,000 US dollars, the final check in a lifetime of frequent spirituality points.  It is the ultimate mileage run.

But one brand of religious practice seems most fitting of all. Have you ever heard of a cargo cult? It's when a traditional society with little or no interaction suddenly meets an advanced technological society, and believes that members of the advanced society are the deities of their traditional religion.

In World War II, cargo cults began to appear all over the Pacific, as traditional islanders were moved by the American servicemen who frequented the islands, often carrying technological cargo the islanders had never before laid their eyes on.

On the remote island of Tanna in the country of Vanuatu, people of the 'John Frum' cult still worship a man who, sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, would land on the island, apparently giving the islanders American gifts. According to members of the John Frum cult, John Frum would visit the island, promising them American merchandise in exchange for their worship of him.

Next time you see an elite status traveler eagerly awaiting his summoning through the magic gate, think about those John Frum cultists, eagerly awaiting that magic plane in the sky, and the promise of the gold watches it would bring.

Everywhere, people seem to be taking out their frustration on TSA agents, and they are certainly a convenient target.  But doesn't the nonsense really start after the security checkpoint? My theory about the decline of airline travel is that the rise of the frequent flyer class has changed the incentives of both airlines and frequent travelers.  One is dangling a gold watch to a select, but vital, segment.  The other, who is mesmorized by the addictive quality of levels, and lines, points and status and cargo, no longer acts as an honest check and balance to the further degredation of airline quality.  The frequent flyer, happy as a clam with his status, and unable to switch airlines at the hint of bad service, can no longer be counted on to keep the airlines in check.

When I awake, the plane has landed.

The next morning, my guide calls my room.  He says he’s ready to go.  I check out of my hotel, and meet Gabriel, who guns the engine, and off we go through Quito, which is pronounced as it’s spelled.  A majestic city high in the mountains.  Quito is everything you could imagine in a city - steep slopes adorned by apartments and homes, cobblestones, alleys, smoke, palm trees and cactuses, hummingbirds buzzing through the air.  Free hummingbirds, light, tiny, independent hummingbirds, free with joy.

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