At one of the departure gates at Laguardia Airport, a middle-aged man in a gray business suit and tie towers over a small boy of 10 or so wearing a striped shirt and jeans. The man’s right hand is on the boy’s left shoulder. He’s speaking, ostensibly to the boy, in an affected manner, as if he’s being recorded for a school video. He keeps sweeping his left arm across some distant horizon. Remember when flying was a hassle, good for little more than watercooler fodder between traveling salesmen? A necessary nuisance for folks reuniting with loved ones or jetsetting on transcontinental adventures? Welcome to the airport of the future, little Billy–and the future is now! Modern technology, no longer limited to your home and business office, is disrupting the way the airport experience is delivered to today’s busy traveler.
Tired of those exhausted, inefficient poor folks pouring coffee lackadaisically then walking away for 20 minutes before returning to take your order, while you keep checking your wrist/phone/clock to make sure boarding hasn’t started? No? Too young to remember? (Tussles Billy’s hair, laughs.) Ugh. Probably vertical-catnapping in the kitchen after closing their eyes for a moment to daydream about that one half day off from their night shift at the ShopRite express checkout. Meanwhile, your steak and eggs are nowhere to be seen.
Luckily, young man, these awful experiences are going the way of the dinosaurs. You and your friends are growing up a in a world where what you want–and need–is a click away. Observe. (Walks up to an abandoned bagel and coffee shop counter.) Go ahead, Billy, try it out. You and your digital native chums are better at this than old fogies like me. (The boy looks confused. He shrugs and swipes the screen, indifferently. Nothing happens…the older man smiles.) Again, Billy…(The boy touches the screen, again without success. The man chuckles, his face reddening.) Sometimes we old men have a sweet touch with these. Let me give it the old college try. (The man runs his hand across the screen. Vexed, he presses his fingers into the screen with increasing pressure…He grunts and this goes on for about a minute. Finally, the screen lights up, flickering to life.) There, we are, Billy. How awesome is that? A shiny screen, just like your beloved iPad!
Now let’s see here. What would you like today? Sweet or savory? (The boy shrugs.) I’m not really hungr…(the man cuts him off) That’s great, Billy, something light it is… We’ll get you a soup, salad, and half a turkey wrap. Keeping it simple, I love it! (The man types and swipes, with evident irritation, navigates through several menus, cancelling the order once or twice, starting and stopping…Meanwhile, a line forms behind the man and the kid. At two other tablet ordering terminals, exasperated-looking travelers are first flicking, then pressing hard, then punching the tablets.)
There, we go, Billy, order complete! Now off it goes to the order captain…Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Why can’t the order captain be a computer…that human girl behind the counter is like a hand-crank elevator in a smart elevator bank?’ Soon, Billy, soon! But for now, you just have to suffer through this prehistoric ritual. Now let’s pass the time at one of the fun new Interactive Seat Stations. The older man leads the boy to a couple of open seats at a table dominated by iPads and wires. Bored men and women sit staring at their tablets while a large screen TV blares above them. Some jam their laptops up against the tablets and simultaneously peruse their phones. Go, ahead, Billy. Do whatever it is you kids do these days. Check those stocks, play a game of Solitaire, and, ahem, if you sneak in some skin sites, I won’t go snitchin’ to Mom and Dad (winks puckishly). The boy winces uncomfortably, strokes the tablet disinterestedly.
Meanwhile, a young girl comes out of the kitchen and calls out numbers from the counter. The older man gets up, rushes over to the counter, yelling his order number. The busy girl gets busy fielding questions and complaints from confused travelers. The older man examines his order finding it’s wrong. The boy got a portabello wrap and kombucha while the man’s bison burger is actually an alfalfa sproud spinach sandwich. He runs back to the counter protesting but the girl’s already busy triaging other customer complaints. Sorry, Sir, you’re just going to have to reenter your order at the terminal.
The man returns, barely able to suppress his irritation. He grabs Billy’s shoulder, his grip a few shades too strong. Sure, there are bugs in the system, Billy…we call those bugs humans! He laughs, regaining his composure. Now dig into that fungus wrap, Billy! He shoves the wrap into Billy’s hands. How awesome was it ordering with a few swipes of your fingers? The man bites wolfishly into his own alfalfa sprout sandwich, pretending to relish the edible flowers. For several minutes, they sit in silence, the boy appearing somewhat restless, eyes searching the airport lounge anxiously, the man lost in thought, forcing a smile every time his eyes meet the boy’s.
Well, Billy, I’ve been doing a lot of talking. But what do you think? After all, YOU are the future, Billy. You are one of our most precious natural resources. Is the future great or what? Before the boy can answer, a man and woman in TSA uniforms appear behind the man. The guy taps the man on the shoulder while the woman stands next to Billy, protectively.
Sir, did you meet this child at Gate 4 and bring him here to Gate 39? The man looks panicked. His eyes scan the perimeter for a moment, as if contemplating a run, then settle on the male TSA officer’s quizzical gaze. Ah, officers, I was just giving young Billy here a little glimpse of the wonderful Tomorrowland we’re all lucky enough to witness in our lifetime. The officers exchange glances, skeptically, then look over at the boy, who seems to be shaking his head ever so slightly. Alright, Sir, you’re going to have to come with us.
The TSA officers wait while the man stands up. Desperately, he tries to lunge out of their path but the woman quickly apprehends him, twisting his arm. Another TSA agent comes over and takes the boy by the shoulder. It’s alright now, Son, we’ll have you back to your parents in a minute.
The man ceases to struggle as he’s cuffed and led away. He looks back at the boy, who’s watching, terrified. Remember me, Billy! Remember our time together!
My name’s not Billy, asshole! It’s Alex! the boy, emboldened by the buffering presence of a large TSA agent calls back.
A crowd, now gathered in a semicircle behind the boy, starts to clap, first slowly, then cascading into full sustained applause. No one was sure who started the chant, but seconds later hundreds of people were chanting TSA, TSA, TSA!