Friday, October 23, 2009

Vacation Part the Third: Getting Home, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Fly Steerage

So. We drove back to my friend's house in pouring rain at the end of the weekend, unloaded the car, put away all the extra beer, and napped. After a night spent doing laundry and petting a couple of touchy but lovable weiner dogs it was time for me to head back home. My friend lives minutes from the airport, so I breezed in and waited in line, chatting with the other passengers.

I may have mentioned before that my sister works for the airline. This is convenient, but not quite as effective as saying "I'm with the band", or "I'm IN the band," or "Despite my uncultured appearance I am actually a member of MI-5 and in addition to wearing a bitchin' sidearm, I can tell you that you are under arrest." No, flying 'non-revenue' works like this. You pick your flights, and you call to find out 'how they look'. Are they full? No? Okay, then you 'get listed' on the flight. Then you call the 800 number five times or so between the time you 'get listed' and the time you 'show up' to make sure there are still empty seats on that flight. If there aren't , you can roll the dice, or pick another flight.

When I called the night before my flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia had 'Sixteen open seats, with five non-revenues listed' including myself. Sounded good. Then I had them check my flight from Philadelphia to Williamsport, which had been fine as frog's hair for five days. The news was not encouraging. "Oh, I'm afraid that flight is full," my helpful agent said. I paused to reflect on how it could be, with the Little League World Series being over and no impending apocalypse that anyone could point to, that so many people had the inclination to fly to Williamsport, Pennsylvania at dinner time on a Tuesday. I changed my final leg to Elmira. I live smack in between so it didn't much matter. "Okay, so you are listed on Flight XX, operated by Air Wisconsin (huh?), departing XX and arriving XX at Elmira Regional Airport." I am still too confounded by the Air Wisconsin thing to hear anything else she tells me.

So I check in. And I breeze off into the terminal with all the sunshiny confidence of a person who has not noticed that their ticket has no zone or seat assignment printed on it. Security is a quick matter thanks to my paranoid and slavish attention to the rules, my slip on shoes, and the fact that my 3-1-1 bag is clutched in my hand when I get to the X-ray machine. I wait a few minutes, unperturbed by the rather large number of people at the gate. When they start calling zones I look at my ticket and realize I don't have one. I show it to the gate agent.

" You have no zone, dalin, because te flight is full." she says, and I detect a lilt of an island I fervently wish I was sitting on with my toes dug into the sand. I find a seat at the gate with a dejected-looking gentleman who informs me he's been at the airport for five hours already. He explains that the first flight of the day to Philadelphia was cancelled.


This means that all of the people with tickets they actually PAID FOR have to be bumped into later flights. Take away a handful who had to make connections and were booked on other airlines. That leaves, oh, a hundred or so people who just got tucked in line ahead of me in terms of actual human plane-boarding viability. I settle in for the long haul. After being informed I can try again for the next flight in less than an hour I trudge with my wheely-bag which must not ever be out of my sight the quarter mile to Starbucks and order the only tall Vanilla Latte that my budget allows. The barista has the cheerfulness of someone who is already home. I tamp down despair and trudge/wheel back to C25 to await my fate. I have already been told that flight two is full as well; my island friend added helpfully that 'Te flow of flights changes all the time, darlin', you can neveh tell what will happen." I flop in a chair and make my first of many calls home to inform that the plans they are a changin'.

Flight two begins boarding, and I stand hopefully just to the left of the little check-in stand, concentrating on looking interested and ready but not desperate and pathetic. It mostly works, although I have to give a hard look to the last four people to board. Just as I was told it looked like there were open seats they came, suit jackets flapping, computer bag bouncing against an expensive trouser-clad hip, clutching a folded and spindled boarding pass. A tense moment passes while the gate agents discuss another non-revenue passenger they thought was coming who was apparently of higher priority than me. "Maybe she's stuck at security," they muse aloud. I try not to hate them. Finally the woman turns to me as if seeing me for the first time and says, "Well, there is one seat left in First Class if you are willing to pay for the upgrade and I suggest you take it because" and I don't hear anything she says after that, having hypnotized myself with the dove hologram on my Visa card I am waving at her. The only hitch is that I have to check my bag. I explain that my final destination is still a big question so I'll have to check it to Philadelphia only and then see. She tells me that the ONLY REASON I can actually do that is because I'm flying First Class. Well, whoo hoo. I sprint down the jetway and savor those seconds of boarding the plane, glancing back to coach with its tiny seats and squirmy babies and little plastic cups and one tiny bathroom all the way in the back, and take my seat in row four. I resist the urge to throw double hand signs like I'm at a Motley Crue show. My seatmate, mercifully separated from casual hip contact by a seemingly useless leather console, never even acknowledges my existence. I decide its better to simply put on my headphones and peruse the Sky Mall. They come around with a basket (an actual basket!) of cookies and granola bars. The flight is peaceful, civilized, and brief.

In Philadelphia I wait at the bottom of the jetway while a young man specifically comes up the stairs on the outside and hands me MY BAG. I exhibit a degree of gratitude I'm assuming most regular First Class passengers don't bother with and steel myself for The Hike.

Philadelphia Airport is a really nice, recently remodeled, and insanely organized airport. Take a look in the front of the magazine next time you fly. Unlike Atlanta, which is all linear and ninety degree angles and trains and alphabetical order, PHL was clearly laid out by someone with anger issues and strong prescriptions. If you are headed for some sort of, I believe the polite term is 'Jerkwater outpost', you have to leave from 'F' Terminal. I'll let you ruminate on the propriety of that alphabetical designation. This involves hiking halfway through the main terminal, following haphazardly placed signs, to an escalator that leads to an area of the airport where you suddenly worry you aren't supposed to be. From there, you board a bus that threads among the planes and luggage tugs and various un-identifiable pieces of whatever and then deposits you in 'F'. I make the final ascent to my gate and present my boarding pass for Elmira. There is frowning and typing.

"This flight is full," the gate agent tells me. I start reeling off cities within three hours of home.
"Ithaca?" I ask, hopefully. "Maybe," he says. Then, "There are open seats on the flight to Williamsport," indicating my original flight. I go for it. "Here, he says, I'll keep you listed on this flight and give you a boarding pass for Williamsport and if it doesn't work out over there come back here and we'll try," I thank him and head to the other end of 'F'. My sister meets me. We chat. She gives me another book to read, something I hope isn't an omen. She talks to the gate agent for the Williamsport flight and his news is good. There are seats. And again, who the hell is going to Williamsport on a Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, our plane, my plane, is unloading passengers from wherever. I figure in a few minutes we will board and be on our way and please please please, I will be on this plane. I don't notice a gray panel van approaching from my right. I watch with the other passengers as two men get out, take out big orange ladders, and set them up on either side of the left propeller.

Which they begin to take apart.

I watch for a while and decide I'm better off facing the other way. The gate agent continues to give updates, explaining that there will be a 'short' delay. Her mimed conversation through the window to the guys outside suggest short may be 'tomorrow'. I concentrate on breathing normally. A guy who 'knows about this stuff' stands at the window, arms folded, declaring that our flight will be cancelled. The natives begin to get restless. A nicely dressed and heavily pregnant woman appears at our gate, and something about her eyes suggests she is a heartbeat away from a meltdown. She is clutching a Continental Airlines boarding pass and explains that she 'Just needs to get home' and blah blah blah I am struggling to be compassionate while worrying that she is going to take my seat. She is banished to the ticketing counter. She leaves. We wait. I turn around briefly to see one of the mechanics handing down pieces of the 'fender' or whatever it is that goes behind the propeller. Pregnant lady comes back with a shiny new boarding pass. Idly, I watch a security dog and handler go by, noticing that the dog has a photo ID clipped to his orange harness. Just as I am overcome with the temptation to turn back around and try to interpret what is happening there is a hasty folding of ladders, a quickly flashed 'OK' from outside, and boarding begins. I still have to stand to the side while everyone else boards. She waves me through, and ten steps out the door she calls, "Miss?" I briefly consider just running. "This says you need to show (something something)" my ears are ringing at this, now hour 10 of travel, and I don't catch it.
She frowns and types. I look out the door and the flight attendant is shifting from foot to foot at the bottom of the stairs. "Oh, never mind, they just didn't change (something something), go ahead." I run before she changes her mind. A young man in a yellow vest takes my bag. It is the last one to be chucked in the trunk or whatever. I board, sinking gratefully into my seat at the back. The things you do to save a hundred bucks.


Unfinished Rambler said...

Best line: "I'll let you ruminate on the propriety of that alphabetical designation." Hmmmm. F? I'm not sure where you're going with that, lady. ;)

Kathy said...

And this is why if you're not going to write more for the blog, will you write a god damned book already so you can at least make your millions somehow? You are the best writer I know, living or dead. Nice work, Kim. Nice work.

Lisa @ Boondock Ramblings said...


Margo said...

flapping jackets, men with orange ladders, well dressed heavily pregnant woman, and dogs with photo IDs? Random fenders? Even for air travel this is horrifying :)

Debor said...

I second what Kathy said. I have just found your blog, and I can't wait for each new post. Your writing is superb!

Shieldmaiden96 said...

Kathy: I want to do both; write more on the blog AND exploit my talents for filthy lucre. I'm working on exactly how and will report back when I figure it out!
If I'm the best writer you know, you need to get out more.
Seriously, thank you.

Lisa: are you still high from being able to grocery shop?

Margo: It all seems like a Fellini movie to me too; I live in the mountains and don't get away much.

Debor: Thanks for the vote of confidence! Folks like you inspire me to be less shiftless. (Shiftmore? I'm not sure what the word is for 'less shiftless'.)

Tricia said...

Wow - I can relate having taken flights with 2 or more changes to save a buck when younger but these days I just don't go if I can't get a convenient and cheap ticket! :)

Nice story though - wondering about the dog with the ID badge, since all dogs of a breed tend to look pretty damn similar thinking it would be easy to replace the dog with another of the same breed! LOL

Jocelyn said...

"Fracksticks." The best cuss ever.

I will never again even pretend that I've had a bad airline experience. Compared to you, I have nothing.

Celestial Charms said...

Having travelled non-rev for the past 17 years...I can totally relate to much of what your wrote, only I couldn't express it nearly as clearly, and humourously as you did.
Have a Happy Thanksgiving!