Friday, March 13, 2009

It Matters Who's Late

Half The Fun of Travel is Getting There!

Rant alert! As always, I warn everyone before I rant. 

• Part 1
I'm Late, You're Late, We're All Late!
I had an important meeting yesterday and it ran late. Nothing I could do about it. As such it was clear I would not make it to the Savannah airport in time to make my 5:55 pm flight. This was a triple bummer because I had carefully arranged my flight to link up with my daughter who was traveling home from college for spring break. I called the airline and, for once, I hoped to hear that my flight would be late, alas they reported everything was on time. So I called my daughter and told her to go without me.

I then called US Airways again to determine my options. I found out I could pay a little over a thousand dollars more and fly to Charlotte, overnight it on my dime at an airport hotel, and fly on to Phoenix in the morning. I did not like that option. My other option was that I could pay about $200, overnight it in Savannah, and leave in the morning. That sounded better. I booked a flight for the next day and reserved a hotel at the airport.

Just as we arrived at the airport off ramp (about 6 PM) I get a call from my daughter at the gate telling me that, "hey dad there is still no plane here".

We dash past the hotel and go to the airport. There I meet "ponytail pulled way too tight" counter lady. After I tell her my daughter is at the gate and I know full well that there is still no plane there, she admits "yeah it is just touching down now".  I ask to be reinstated on my old itinerary. Ponytail takes great pains to remind me that I am late and that I have already cancelled my flight.  I press the point. "I know I'm late, but so are you and it was your folks that told me the flight was on time" or I would never have cancelled.

Ponytail gives me that special "my but aren't we a pain in the ass" sigh. I quickly evaluate my options. Option one: smile endearingly. Option two: reach across the counter and commit an involuntary manslaughter. This is the difference between the young and the old traveler - old ones smile.

Ponytail ever so slowly puts me back on the original flights. Of course I am now out of first class and in middle seats. I am also $200 poorer. I have really paid for my lateness.

I wish it ended there but like the Ginsu knife - "but wait there's more"....

I now have precious little time to get through security and as I arrive at the TSA X-ray I find I am behind Mr. "I'm taking everything I own on this trip". First, he discusses the pros and cons of the 3-1-1 fluid ban with the Savannah TSA agent (who, like all Savannah TSA agents is unfailingly polite and nice), he then asks about his laptop computer, "do I still have to take this thing out?", TSA smiles and answers yes. He then unearths his CPAP sleep apnea breathing machine. Then he moves on to the "do I still have to take off my shoes?" question. 

I am back to considering my smile or kill option. I'm getting much closer to "kill". I finally get past him as he gets tagged for a bag check. 

I break into a dead run for the gate. Of course, Gate 14 is one of Savannah's new gates and it is as far as you can go in Savannah's terminal and it is halfway to Hilton Head Island.

I get to the gate and board with the last three people getting on the plane. I take one of the 4 empty Exit Row seats (that Ponytail assured me were all full). After we take off my daughter and I are reunited for our short hop to Charlotte. It was all worth it.

• Part 2
They are Late Again.
So we get to Charlotte and briskly make our way to our gate to catch our flight to Phoenix. On the flight board our flight displays on time. At the gate it is posted for a 2 hour delay. So our score now is Roadboy is late once, US Airways is late twice. The difference? I had to pay an extra $200 because for my tardiness. The airline is accountable to no one.

Finally, with a twist in irony, we are all called to board under a banner proclaiming that US Airways is "2008's Most On-time Airline". As they are making the usual "old, infirm and families with small children" speach, a little short guy with a fancy wired earbud, and peculiar two tone blond hair, not found anywhere in nature, arrives at the counter. Blondie whispers something to the counter people. I notice he makes a very rapid beeline oughta there. The gate agent musters up her most somber voice and announces that "US Airways regrets to announce that flight 311 to Phoenix is cancelled due to mechanical problems".

This, of course, results in a mass sprint of all passengers for the service desk. These days anyone who travels much knows that airlines have zero excess capacity. They also know that airlines almost never rebook stranded passengers on other airlines. The airlines now simply find you another flight, even if it is days later, on their own airline. Frequently, it will be re-routed through two or three extra stops. The only thing you can be assured of is that someday, somehow, you will eventually get to your intended destination.

So only the first few to reach the counter will actually get a seat out the next day.  The slow and the infrequent fliers will get screwed. This is truly a moment only Darwin could have loved proving that only the strong survive.

Meanwhile, I know it is actually faster to take care of re-bookings at the nearby club lounge so my daughter and I go there. Perhaps a coincidence we note that tonight, of all nights, the lounge has chosen to close a full 10 minutes early. My cynical side says that this is precisely where blondie was headed when he left the counter. They were warned to batten down the hatches.

I now go for the second best option - the Chairman's phone line. I get us rebooked by phone. Now we just need our hotel voucher. So we ask the closest counter person if we have any other options to get the hotel voucher. Counter person says "oh yeah, just go get your luggage and then go up to the main ticket counter".

That sounds like a winner to me, so we go through security, pick up my daughter's suitcase, and then go to the main ticket counter. 

Now Charlotte is not a small airport. It is a hub for US Airways. It serves hundreds of domestic and international routes. So one might expect that an airline with 75 counter positions might have a few ticket agents on duty 24 hours a day.

Not so, mon frere. 

Charlotte Douglas Airport closes promptly at 10 pm. This is the middle of the Bible Belt. They name parkways after Billy Graham. They are in bed by 10 pm.  To me, however, in the world of 24 hour travel, 10 pm seems pretty early.

So we decide to go back into the terminal to get the vouchers. We now find that TSA also closes promptly at 10 pm. Clearly, Charlotte is a town where no one stays up to watch Craig Ferguson.

So after a few precious moments with the only US Airways staff left that can be found - the Baggage Services staff -  we get to witness disappearing baggage service agents trick.

You know when my sister and I were kids every time she got scared she'd just pull the bed covers over her head cause "the monsters can't see me!"

Well the baggage counter all subscribe to the same strategy and they run through an open door to "hide" in plain sight in the their little back room. They don't close the door, so we can hear everything they say. We hear "I ain't goin out there", and "I can't make them a voucher", and "they shoulda done what they were told".

Now a parade of Flight 311 passengers are streaming in all telling the baggage agents (that are not hiding in plain sight) that they were also told the same thing. Luckily for all of us "dude-in-charge" arrives. He's paunchy, he's tired, and when he gets there all of the counter people huddle with Dude.

They contend that in a fair world they shouldn't have to make vouchers for us. We should just have to sleep in the baggage claim area. Dude looks at them with blank dull eyes that quietly say "I can't believe this crap". 

Dude is a wise man. A man burned out far beyond his years. He simply walks to the counter and with maybe 10 keystrokes prints out vouchers to the luxurious Charlotte Airport Ramada Inn and we all go to the curb to wait for a shuttle. Of course there are 130 others waiting for the shuttle as well. Since the loop to the Ramada takes it's single shuttle 20 minutes, with each shuttle holding 10, this will require 13 shuttle trips. New math tells us that only 30 lucky Ramada guests will actually reach the hotel each hour. The process will take four hours.  So we position ourselves strategically and get on shuttle number 3.

It is now coming up on 1 am. I eagerly await my anticipated 4 hours of sleep.

In the grand scheme of things all of these travel events are really mere annoyances. We will simply get home a day late. 

My daughter reminds me that "you know we'll laugh about this someday".

She's probably right.

Roadboy's Travels © 2009