Thursday, August 09, 2007

Not Home Yet

Note: This was written around 11am on Wednesday 8 August in Boston Logan International Airport.

I am not home yet. I have lost track of how long I've been traveling. I think about a day and a half. As I write this I am sitting in Logan airport in Boston, listening to Armin van Buuren's A State of Trance (Episode 306) so I don't have to listen to the airport radio which seems to be a tame assortment of pop hits from the 80s and 90s, interspersed with condescending reminders about how difficult it can be to recognize your luggage.

The trip started off fairly well. We took a cab to the airport, leaving at 10am Tuesday morning, Beijing time. There was traffic, but we made it in plenty of time and I was able to check in. I had a little bit of time in the gate. I purchased two tomato and mozzarella sandwiches from Starbucks, which turned out to be a very wise move. I might have starved on the flight without the extra food. I also purchased a Fuwa (friendly) T-shirt. It's orange and has Ying Ying, the smiling Tibetan antelope on it.

I boarded the plane and then was informed that there was an air traffic hold in Beijing, which meant we had to spend an hour on the tarmac before taking off. On the one hand, it's not that big a deal. The flight was already scheduled for 13 hours, so an additional hour is only a 7.7% increase in airplane time. On the other hand, the flight was already scheduled for 13 hours, so an additional hour was the last thing I needed.

The flight itself was fine. The food was edible, and I snacked on sandwiches so I wasn't hungry. I slept much of the time. I was quite tired, since I had only slept a few hours the night before. The plane arrived at JFK about 45 minutes late. Customs and immigration were fairly smooth, but my bag was one of the last ones off the plane, so it took a little while. It looked like I was going to make my connection, even though things were a little tight.

Then things started to go badly. I went to re-check my luggage on the other side of customs. They wouldn't take my bags, saying that my connection was too tight. (My plane to Boston was leaving in 45 minutes.) The Air China person said I should take my luggage to American Airlines, the carrier I was taking to Boston, and check in there with my luggage. I asked if this was really a good idea, and I was assured that it was. Ok. So I took my cart up an elevator over to the "air tram" shuttle and went from terminal 1 to terminal 9. I wheeled myself to the American counter where I had to wait in a fairly long line. At this point I had pretty much given up any hope of making my Boston flight, as the journey to the American desk took a while. While I was in line I was amused by a young dad and his three-year-old son. They were wearing matching brown converse sneakers, which I thought was quite cool. The dad was bi-lingual; French and English. I got to listen to some French and didn't understand too much. Doesn't bode well for my upcoming trip to Paris. I could understand words and a few phrases, but not too much beyond that.

Eventually I made it to the American Airlines counter where I explained my plight. The person at the counter was friendly and sympathetic, but she couldn't do anything for me since the original ticket was issued by Air China, and thus it was Air China's responsibility to to re-book me. She couldn't understand why Air China would send me to American, and she cheerfully hinted that the Air China person might not have known what she was talking about.

So I then did the journey in reverse, taking the Air Tram from terminal 9 back to terminal 1. Terminals 1-9 are in a loop. But because of how the tram is set up, I had to go the long way again. I.e., I visited terminals 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3,and 2 on the way to 1. So the trek was again a long one. I did get to look at many planes painted in different colors as I traversed the airport, and I listened to many different languages as other travelers got on and off the tram.

Back at terminal 1, I head to the Air China counter. Uh-oh. There is no Air China counter. Their last flight has checked in, and the Air China counter has turned into an Aeroflot counter. A disheveled Russian dude is thoroughly uninterested in my situation. So then I wander from counter to counter, trying to find someone who knows how to contact Air China. Most counter people were spectacularly unhelpful, although two people at the Air France counter at least seemed to care. They suggested that maybe I could find someone down at the baggage claim, perhaps at an Air China luggage desk. This was a good idea, but it seems that Air China doesn't have a luggage desk.

Before continuing my tale, an interlude about elevators and a plea to other travelers. I was pushing around (and around and around) a cart loaded with bags that were too heavy to carry far. I could carry them for a ways -- like from the curb to the check-in counter. But I wasn't prepared for this JFK Odyssey. So I was stuck using the cart. I had to change levels often, which means taking elevators. JFK is replete with escalators. There's no need to take an elevator if you don't have to. Nevertheless, lots of people without carts or strollers were taking the elevators, meaning that on a few occasions there was actually a line for the elevator or I couldn't fit my cart in the elevator because it was filled with people. People who should have been taking the escalators. The escalators are faster than elevators, and I'd think that for most they're much more fun. So please get your ass out of the elevator and take an escalator. It won't kill you.

Anyway, at this point I'm starting to wonder what to do. There is no number to call on my ticket. Directory assistance does not have a number for Air China. I tried calling Doreen. She should have just landed in Newark (we were traveling separately), and perhaps she would have some good ideas. She didn't answer her cell phone. I looked for some general information or a help desk and didn't see one. Finally I found some airport official luggage dude or something who said I should go to Lufthansa, since they handle Air China when Air China wasn't around. I thanked the man for his help, and wondered why this information was kept secret. A small sign somewhere pointing lost Air China travelers to Lufthansa might not be a bad idea, no?

So I found the ticket counter for Lufthansa and found an extremely helpful person. I think her name is Lisette Reyes. She understood the situation instantly and knew just what to do. She started re-booking me and called an Air China representative. We tried many permutations, but it didn't seem that there was any way to get me to Bar Harbor or Bangor that day. But there was a 6:00am flight to Boston out of LaGuardia which would then get me to Bar Harbor at 9:15am. Perfect.

Then the Air China person arrived. She really didn't want me to take that flight. She tried to convince me that it would be more convenient to wait at JFK and take a later flight to Boston that would have me in Bar Harbor at 3:15. I explained that actually I didn't think this was convenient. She disagreed. I explained that I thought I would be a better judge of what would be convenient for me than her. The she said that there is no way to get to LaGuardia from JFK that early. Really? There's not a single form of transportation running at 4am in New York? Finally she agreed, and I got a seat on the 6:00am flight out of LGA. Note to anyone from Lufthansa reading this: Lisette Reyes should be employee of the month or the year or should get a big raise. She rocks. Note to anyone from Air China who might be reading this: I'm not impressed with your staff at JFK.

Air China put me up in a Ramada Inn right next to JFK. The Ramada was an odd place. It was huge -- perhaps 300 rooms -- and so far as I can tell its clientele is exclusively stranded passengers and flight attendants. This gave the hotel a rather unsettled feel. But it was free, so it was fine. I had a meal voucher with which I got a pretty good veggie burger and enjoyed it while watching the Mets game in the bar area with a cold beer. Not exactly what I had in mind for my first meal back in the US, but things could have been worse.

I went to sleep pretty early and got a 3:15am wake-up call. I didn't have any clean shirts. But then I remembered by Fuwa purchase in the Beijing airport! So I showered, packed, put on my Ying Ying shirt and got a 4am cab to LGA. It was a humid morning and was drizzling a little. It was kinda hot in the airport and I worked up a bit of a sweat hauling my heavy bags to the check-in counter. I noted on the scale at the check-in counter that my large backpack was around 50 pounds. (In part this is because I was hauling a lot of documents and papers for Doreen.)

Slightly sticky and warm, I went through security. I didn't set the alarm off, but I was nevertheless selected for additional screening. I assumed the Christ-like position and readied myself to be wanded. Nope. I was going to be subjected to a pat-down search. Great. It was a struggle, but I maintained my composure while the TSA man pressed my nice new cotton shirt against my warm back and chest. When he was done, I peeled the shirt off my skin, restoring a slightly refreshing layer of air between me and my clothes. I put on my shoes and headed to my gate.

We boarded a little before 6:00 am. I noticed that it was raining harder outside. Then I noticed lightning. Uh-oh. Then more lightning and then thunder and then rain smacking noisily against the side of the plane. We stayed at the gate. Then they had people from the 7:00am shuttle start to board our plane. At 7:15 the storm had mostly passed by, and we pushed back. But then there was a ground control hold because of weather in Boston. So we waited. And waited.

As if to mock me, there was a long feature on Chattanooga in the USAir magazine. It was filled with enthusiastic, peppy prose about how wonderful the city is. Needless to say, there were several mentions of the stupid aquarium. I lived in Chattanooga from 1991 to 1993. Although I have some good memories, much bitterness remains, especially toward the aquarium. Everyone in the city was thrilled about the aquarium, which opened in 1992. It was a point of civic pride and evidence of a city on the rise. For me, a large building filled with fish did nothing to improve my quality of life.

While I was reading about Chattanooga they turned up the air conditioning full blast. The result was a full-scale fog machine effect. The air was so humid that water condensed into fog in the air ducts. It was pretty cool -- definitely appropriate for the music I was listening to. The lightning outside also contributed to a slightly psychedelic effect. Some of the businessmen sitting around me looked slightly confused and or annoyed. I enjoyed it.

But I didn't enjoy hearing that our flight was canceled. We rolled back to the gate and sullenly filed off. It was now around 8:00am and I had spent two hours in the plane. I was re-booked on the 8:00am flight, which was delayed and was going to leave around 8:50? Why was it delayed? Because the plane hadn't arrived from Boston yet. I was stupefied. Why not take the plane that we were sitting on to Boston? It seemed perfectly fine. It was poised to go to Boston before. Why make everyone get off and then wait for another plane to go to Boston? But I thought it best not to bring this up, so I dutifully accepted my re-re-booking for the 8:00 flight.

The flight actually left the gate around 9:20, and we then spent at least a half hour on the ground before taking off. There was some fog in the plane, but not as much as before. I read the New York Times, which was mostly depressing news about people dying in Iraq and Newark. I also read a short item which said that Thai police officers who are caught breaking rules are going to be made to wear a pink Hello Kitty armband as a punishment. The Thai police spokesman said that Hello Kitty is fun, but that it would embarrass the macho police officers who would have to wear it, and so it would be an effective deterrent. The world is an interesting place, eh? I wonder if parents will start making their girls who misbehave wear Thai policeman armbands. Personally, I'd much rather dress up like Hello Kitty than a Thai policeman.

As noted above, I am now in Boston in the midst of a three and a half layover. I believe that the airplane destined for Bar Harbor has just pulled up at the gate. With any luck, I will be in Maine in a little more than an hour.

Update: One more frustration. When I first got off the plane in Boston I went to see if I could get on an earlier flight to Bar Harbor. There was a flight (that had been delayed) that was leaving in around half an hour. They wouldn't let me take the flight. There were seats available, but they said that my luggage wouldn't make it. I said that I'd pick my luggage up later if it was on a subsequent flight. They wouldn't do it because apparently I had to travel with my luggage on the flight. Fine. So I spent three hours in Boston. When I finally arrived, I had a slight panic attack, because I didn't see my luggage get off the plane. Turns out the my luggage did make it on the earlier flight, and hence I could have avoided sitting in Boston for three hours. Arg.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Ahh... Gotta love air travel, eh?! I have similar stories, but none involving such long delays, thank goodness. My luggage has made it to Bar Harbor before I did, though. And I've been "specially selected" before boarding. I didn't get patted down, but it was in between semesters, and I had to figure out how to re-pack my overstuffed carry-on bags in 30 seconds or less, or the plane might leave without me.

I swore I would never fly again after college, but I'm going out to California for a weekend in 2 weeks. I think it's been 2 years since I've flown. At least I won't have much luggage to worry about.