Davos

Davos

Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 30 1997 3:30 AM

Davos

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       Dispatch From Davos, er, Dulles:
       The talk in the corridors is of the latest employment cost data that has been issued from the U.S. Department of Labor. Seems that the American economy is sturdily on its path of steady growth, with only moderate wage and other inflationary pressures. Is this good news for Europe, which at last seems to be shaking off its economic doldrums and will be competing in the same raw- and semiprocessed-materials markets?
       Two professors trade notes on the vagaries of international publishing. "How can I check on the accuracy of translation when my book is being translated into 14 languages, including Korean?" one complains.
       I wonder to my companion, the young and lovely scion of a Canadian steel-making family, if I really brought the right thing to wear to the black-tie Saturday-night gala.
       No, we are not gathered in the halls of the World Economic Forum's conference center in Davos, Switzerland, where the world's politico-socioeconomic elite meets to eat and be edified and enriched. We are standing in the jetway to the 5:50 p.m. United flight to Zurich, which has just redocked at its gate at Dulles. We have just spent more than an hour on the runway while the heat in the cabin gradually climbed and--it seemed to me, anyway--a faint burning odor mingled with the scent of nervous humans. Finally it gets so hot that even the captain notices. We return to the gate, where we are told we may "temporarily" disembark to catch a breath of fresh air while they correct the problem. No one should stray beyond the jetway. On second thought--this after a half hour or so of milling about in the narrow and now quite chilly tube that leads to the plane--maybe we should go back inside the terminal. We will all be given a $5 chit to get a "snack" before re-enplaning.
       Fortunately my friend, Kim Johnson, whom I met in a frozen bus parking lot at 5 a.m. when returning from Davos two years ago, is a first-class traveler. So we repair to the flossy lounge reserved for the favored, where we mingle with a group of people who are waiting on United flights to London and Paris--which, by coincidence (we trust), have similarly been delayed by mechanical problems (the night is clear; the wind is low; weather is not a factor). The London people are sprung relatively soon. The Paris people are jubilant when, at 9:30 p.m. or so, they are told that their 6:30 p.m. flight is ready for boarding. They would not be so pleased if they knew that two hours later, they would still be sitting, unfed, on the runway.
       We nibble delicately at the hors d'oeuvres and sample the wine. This is only partly because an enormously fat man--the seat mate of my unfortunate first-class friend--has scarfed down, virtually in one gulp, all of the shrimp, salmon, and chicken sandwiches plus a bowlful of Godiva chocolates. We want to save room for the rather nice "early" dinner we have already selected during our runway wait.
       Meanwhile I learn from the American Petroleum Institute's Charlie DiBona that the global computing/communications revolution, the theme of this year's World Economic Forum, is revolutionizing even the oil-gathering business. New sonar techniques--plus the profits that accrued to the industry from OPEC's 1970s greed (which coincidentally also put the Davos conference on the map)--have made it possible to gather enormous quantities of data on oil deposits. So much data--sounding ships in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, have to use forklifts to unload the taped findings of just a few days of data gathering--that it would be impossible to analyze without the help of today's supercomputers. So effective are these techniques that the world's proven petroleum reserves--40 years' worth--are now larger than at any time since the dawn of the oil age. This is good news for the oil industry. It is probably not so pleasing to the worriers about greenhouse gases and global warming, but they have their own summits elsewhere.
       Shortly before 10:30 p.m. we wander by our gate and notice people boarding our plane. We rush to reclaim our seats. Alas, we have missed the latest bulletin; our flight has been cancelled. We wait for news of our options. Finally we are told that the Paris flight is still on the runway, delayed for unspecified but trivial mechanical reasons. (We wonder darkly if it has not been kept waiting on the off chance that it could serve as a backstop to our flight.) If we wish, we can sandwich into the remaining seats, be deposited in Paris sometime tomorrow, and hope to catch a flight later in the day from there to Zurich. Or we can reclaim our bags, go to an airport hotel, and wait on the (admittedly small) chance they might get our plane up and running in the morning. We have no faith in the Paris flight. We are encouraged to rebook into the remaining seats on tomorrow night's 5:50 p.m. flight. Many apologies. The folks at United are indeed remarkably friendly. They are very good at apologizing. We suspect they have had lots of practice.
       We search the ranks of our Davos-bound group for a rigorous free-market economist who can remind us of the many blessings that airline deregulation has bestowed on the American consumer. No one steps forward. I stagger down the corridor, lugging my laptop, which has swelled in weight to 50 pounds, no doubt from the heat, looking for a pay phone to call my husband. I find one that tells me it will not honor my AT&T credit card because it is reserved for Bell Atlantic cardholders. Of course, it does not take change. I try to recall the many blessings that telephone deregulation has bestowed on the American consumer. I am too tired. We set off in search of our luggage.
       Ten hours after setting off for Davos, I am back in my own bed.

Slate Washington Editor Jodie T. Allen is filing from Davos, Switzerland, where she is attending the World Economic Forum, an international meeting of leaders from business, government, academia, and the media.