About a year ago, I recounted a somewhat unusual version of my summer ritual: failing to fly out of the Southeast.
I call it a ritual because I fly in and out of RDU about once a month, year round, and during the summer months I’ve grown to expect that getting to RDU from SFO or OAK will be fraught with delays and headaches, and getting back home from RDU will be a hellish combination of delays, missed connections, exciting round-the-world trips for my baggage, and spontaneous weekends with my friends in the southeast. So often do I get stuck at IAD that I keep all the phone numbers I have for my friends Bruce and Kathy in Alexandria on speed dial on both my work and personal mobile phones (because you never know which one will have a dying battery). I also keep United, Avis, and Hilton’s numbers on speed-dial, to help with all those emergency rearrangements. So a few weeks ago, when Kathy visited us out west, I warned her that at the end of my trip this week, I might be calling her.
The red-eye long haul out here on Sunday night was fine, the Monday-morning connection in Dulles was several hours late (gee, that’s a surprise), it took forever for my bag to appear at RDU (gee that’s a surprise), and Avis was a complete mess (gee, that’s a surprise), so I had to spend over an hour queuing at the Preferred tend outside in the heat to get a decent car (while the hoi polloi were getting quick service in the short, air-conditioned indoor non-preferred building), but the real troubles began on Friday, when I tried to get back home to SFO.
I got up in the middle of the night for nothing. I’d had a feeling all along that I wouldn’t get home on Friday, starting with my warning to Kathy a few weeks ago, and I wish there had been some way to take advantage of that insight to save myself all the trouble of pretending I’d be flying home on time.
My 6:20 flight was supposed to board at 6am, and sure enough at 6am they had us queue up for boarding. Twenty minutes go by and still no sign of an agent ready to scan us in, so I take a seat. Nothing happens for a long time, so I check the monitors to be sure we’re still departing from gate 21A and then sit back down. They announce our flight is being delayed by paperwork (huh?) and start boarding the 7:20 Washington flight, and eventually tell us our flight is going to be another hour at least. It’s 7am, and my connection to San Francisco is at 8:30, so I know I’m doomed, and sure enough they’re announcing that we’re unlikely to make our connections, and there’s only two people working all of United, so we’re better off calling the 800 number to take care of rebookings, etc. I call the 1K desk instead and find out I can be rebooked in the next IAD-SFO flight but definitely not upgraded, and meanwhile my RDU-IAD flight’s delay of another hour is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking, because it’s in fact more uncertain than that.
Meanwhile, connections out of IAD are also likely to be a big mess, because all the intense storms in the midwest mean that 500 flights yesterday were canceled out of O’Hare alone, and an awful lot of travelers are all screwed up, and basically the entire nation’s air system is a total mess today because none of the metal is where it belongs for today’s flights.
The prospect of waiting indefinitely for a flight that will probably miss my rebooked flight, and then I’ll be stuck in Dulles for god knows how long waiting for the NEXT flight, which may or may not have a seat for me (let alone a decent one), and before you know it I’ll have spent my entire day in airports and probably still won’t be home. None of this seems fun. So I ask about better options, like say tomorrow. The 6:20am? No thanks, not again… I had her rebook me on an 2:48-15:57 RDU-IAD, 17:25-19:50 IAD-SFO itinerary tomorrow (Saturday), which does have room for me in first.
Still not free, though–because I’ve already checked in, I have to be “unchecked in,” which requires speaking with an agent. I see that my gate agents are boarding two different flights and have a line of about 40 IAD passengers waiting to speak with them, so I slip to the head of the line to ask about that. When I’m told I have to go back out to the ticketing and bag-check desk to do that, I’m glad that I didn’t wait politely in the big line with everybody else, and while I schlepp back to ticketing, I call Sue to make sure she can put up with me for another day. There I take my place at the head of the first/1K line but still have to wait about ten minutes, during which I call Avis to book another car. Finally one of the two beleaguered ticket counter agents approaches me. He “unchecks me in” (there has got to be a better way of expressing that thought, but apparently nobody at United has come up with it yet) and agrees to get my checked bag unchecked also. However, he looks pained as he tells me what I’d gathered already: that things are a total mess there right now and it will probably be a while before somebody can get it back to the terminal for me.
I head down to the bag claim area, take a seat, plug in my now-dead phone, and get comfortable. After about half an hour, Mr. Beleaguered appears and asks to see my bag claim ticket again, marches away, eventually returns, says something barely comprehensible about a radio not working and that he’ll go back upstairs and use the phone to see what he can do. Another half hour passes and finally the “bags coming” alarm goes off, but only three bags (none mine) clunk onto the belt before it stops again. I finally decide to speak with someone at the baggage desk but find the desk unstaffed. After calling “excuse me!” out into the oblivion a few times, I notice that there are a few bags lurking behind the desk. One is mine. Seeing nobody to stop me and no reason not to help myself, I do so, and schlepp out to the Avis bus.
I get to Avis and am rewarded for my top-tier status with three blessings. I’ve gotten a ghastly American car (1), and it reaks of an ashtray (2). I decide to deal with it but am stopped at the exit gate. Because I don’t have a contract. Because they hadn’t bothered to put one in the car (3)! So now I have to U-turn back into the lot, return it to its parking spot, and get the contract. At this point I decide that since I have to go to the booth anyway, there’s no reason to put up with an ashtray on wheels, so I haul my bags back out, schlepp to the booth, and am offered (oh, joy) the very same Pontiac G6 I had rejected on Monday morning for being a big-ass American car for knuckle-draggers (its seat puts my knees at my chin, my butt on the floor, and my eyes somewhere around the bottom of the windows, and there’s just no way I’m going to drive anything like that). Next he tries to offer me an even bigger Pontiac, and I ask for a third time for “anything Asian–anything at all.” He says he doesn’t have anything in my reserved size or bigger, and I tell him something smaller would be just fine if it’s Asian–say, a Hyundai Sonata, which is what I’d turned in three hours earlier, so I know he probably has one. He says his only Sonata has 33,000 miles on it. I have no idea why that could possibly matter to me, so I tell him I don’t care, that will be just fine, thank you so very much for all your extra help, sir. With a look that seems to combine pity and confusion, he hands me keys and a contract.
I drive back to my friend Sue’s house where I’ve been staying the week instead of spending yet another week in a hotel, retrieve the key from the dogfood bin, and here I am. I’ve been up over five hours, I’ve gone spectacularly nowhere, I’m still not napping in an airplane seat, so I decide to go back to bed, and later I put in some work time with the laptop while Sue’s rat terriers bounce all over me. Besides being a software colleague, Sue’s a dog trainer and breeder, and one spectacular benefit of staying with her has been getting all the fur fixes I can stand. Trust me, road-warrior-wannabes, you might think the hotel scene is glamorous and fun, but after you’ve been at it for ten years, you’ll leap at kind offers from friends, and friends with sweet dogs are even better.
The troubles continue Saturday.
Both airports were relatively quiet, and things seemed to be going like clockwork until I boarded in Dulles. That’s when thunderstorms hit, causing a cascading mess of ground stops, metered pushbacks, and ramp and pushback crews not being allowed to go out and play in the lightning. I’m sure glad I held out for an itinerary with room for me in Business, because I sat in that seat an extra three hours at Dulles, with a glass of wine of course.
For the first time in ages, I decided to listen to channel 9 (the cockpit radio), and it was fascinating to hear all the frustrated pilots and ground metering agents trying not to get testy with each other.
As a United bigot, I’m pleased to say that the United pilots were all comporting themselves with noticeably more class than the other airlines, perhaps because they know that they have some frequent-flyer-geek passengers listening in. Note to other airlines: you might not be putting your pilots’ radio behavior on the air for your passengers to hear, but United is, and you might want to suggest that they display the same courtesy you expect your flight agents to display. (And for that matter, some of you airlines might want to talk to your flight attendants about courtesy…)
While I’m on the subject of United vs. other airlines, here’s why I’m a United bigot. One big reason is that United Economy Plus seating means I can bring my kneecaps and both hips with me onboard when I travel. With those other airlines, coach seating means I need to check them. But the bigger reason is one that I’ve heard repeated many times by many others: stuff goes wrong in air travel–it just does–and what sets an airline apart is how they handle the problems. United has consistently demonstrated humanity and professionalism in this regard, and when I say this I’m referring not to some monolithic corporate values but rather the individual employees I’ve encountered, one after another. Many a United employee has knocked me out by going way beyond what I would have expected to take care of me. So take today’s story in that context: yes, it was a pain, but it wasn’t United’s fault, and I’m pretty sure that on some other airline (a few in particular), my story would have been much more exasperating. Now, as a 1K (platinum butt) I undoubtedly get somewhat better service than any old passenger, but I’ve never seen any United employees treating any passengers or folks from competing airlines with less respect than they deserved, and I’ve usually seen them displaying considerably more. I wish I could say the same of other airlines.
The flight itself was humdrum, service was fine, there were a few good movies, and I got my bag promptly at the other end (another reason to like SFO). Unfortunately, I waited quite a while for the parking shuttle van, but fortunately I got the driver I’d had on the way in, a sweet Peruvian guy who’s trying hard to learn conversational English, and doing pretty well–he’s certainly way ahead of my Spanish and probably even my German and Norwegian. I bought my car back for the usual extortionary fee and then headed into messy traffic, finally arriving home around midnight, fourteen hours after I’d left Sue’s house for the second time.
Grand total, 19 hours to go cross-country. Oy.