My wife and I were scheduled to see the new Balanchine work at the New York City ballet last Thursday. We never made it, and the story of why not says a little about general conditions in the country.
It reflects the national hypochondria induced by television on virtually all subjects - not excluding weather. It provides another case to document the notorious inadequacy of the airlines.
The starting point was a blizzard of undiscriminating television warnings about the worst blizzard in history. Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the screen was filled with horror scenes of winter on the rampage in New England, the Middle Atlantic states and all across the Midwest. Dolorous voices told woeful tales of homes evacuated, cars abandoned on highways and streets, raging seas, and planes that never got off the ground.
My experience gave me no great confidence in the television reports, and my doubts were fortified by clear, bright weather in Washington Thursday morning. So I had my demon secretary, Elizabeth Pozen, start calling the airlines for reservations. She could not get through to Eastern, which runs the convenient hourly shuttle between New York and Washington, but she did reach American Airlines, which also provides several flights a day.
American told her that all its planes were solidly booked until 8 p.m. The airline wouldn't even put us in the waiting list for earlier flights. My secretary then said she could not get through to Eastern, but would like some information about the shuttle. American told her that Eastern had canceled all shuttle planes from that day.
I reported the news to my wife, who herself called Eastern. After several long waits she was able to get through. Eastern claimed that shuttle service as down in the morning, but would resume at 2 in the afternoon. My wife relayed American's story that Eastern had canceled the shuttle for the whole day. The woman at Eastern became very angry - more at my wife for telling the story than at American for starting it.
To make sure I called Martha Duffey, an editor at Time magazine in New York, with whom we were going to the ballet. Martha said she would talk to the Times travel people, and put me on hold. After a few a minutes she came back with the report that LaGuardia Airport in New York was due to open for operations at noon. The Eastern shuttle was supposed to begin shortly thereafter. But delays were certain, and the Time travel people were skeptical about our chances for reaching New York.
At my request Martha agreed to keep in touch with the Time travel people for the next couple of hours. I arranged to call her around 1 p.m. for a final report from the experts on shuttle conditions. I called at the appointed hour. The Time travel people still had no certain word. Their best advice was to put off the trip until the next day. So we canceled.
In fact, we probably could have made the trip with some long waits and delays, and it's certainly not a big deal. We'll get up to New York some other time, and we-ll go to the ballet.
But the unreliability of airline information is something all of us experience all the time. As a constant traveler, I repeatedly find that planes are delayed or canceled without warning. The personnel who man the desks or the telephone systems are given programed non-answers designed to acquit them of responsibility and discourage questions. If Frank Borman of Eastern and his fellow executives could improve that part of the service, they would do themselves a lot more good than all they can achieve by advertising.
As to the television, I am in the news business, and I know how hard it is to get things right and how strong the pressure is to emphasize what is unusual and unpleasant. Most of the cures I have heard proposed are far worse than the disease, and I know of no good answer except developing more skill and responsibility among journalists, editors and producers. But I suppose all of us ought to be aware, and ought to make a discount, for the built-in tendency of television and the press to exaggerate the bad features of any scene. Failure to make the discount, particularly in the daily reporting of economic statistics, has already induced a mild state of national hypochondria.