Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Carry me back to old Virginny

Saturday, Brigid and I were scheduled to fly back to Charlottesville, while Jon and the other kids stay on in Buffalo for a few more days.  I'm usually a lucky traveler but I had a bad feeling about this trip, which went wrong from the moment I failed to check in online because of computer problems.  Still, we got a phone call three hours before departure, saying that our flight was on time.

From the United Airlines counter at BUF, extended a long disorganized line.  I found the self check-in kiosk, which was occupied by a woman, and after standing behind her for a minute, I left the line to try a different kiosk, only to discover that it was out of order.  Meanwhile, other people had taken my place behind the woman at the kiosk.  Which would have been fine, if the woman at the kiosk had had any idea what she was doing, but she didn't, and kept staring at the screen with a furrowed brow, and then looking over her shoulder in a hopeful way as if she expected a genii to appear and help her.  She repeated the brow furrow/hopeful look several times but--can you believe it?-- no genii appeared!  And here's the thing:  she had already printed her boarding passes.  I could see them in her hand.  What else did she need to do?

Meanwhile, I had unwittingly become a guide for other travelers who kept asking me what line they should stand in.  As if I knew!   The confused woman finally gave up and wandered off uncertainly, and the line moved faster after that. The notice board still listed our flight as being on time.

We found our gate and spent several minutes hunting for the "Coffee Beanery" where we were served indifferent lattes and a tasteless muffin.  A woman came up after us and ordered.  I'm sure you are all familiar with the way that coffee shops work--order at one counter, then step to the side and wait for your drink, which is handed to you a little further down.  So this woman orders her coffee and then plants herself right in front of the coffee delivery counter, despite the fact that there are four people ahead of her, waiting.  The two people ahead of Brigid and me got their coffees, and mine and Brigid's coffees were announced and this woman is all, "HEY!  WHERE'S MY COFFEE?"  Geez, lady, calm down.  It only takes a tiny bit of awareness to notice that YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY CUSTOMER.

So we sit down at our gate, and there's no plane waiting, and there's no plane, no plane, no plane, till I'm like, "Gee, we ought to be boarding by now," so I go over to the notice board and see that our flight is delayed, with no information as when we might expect it.  But another passenger, who's on the phone with someone outside the airport, tells me that our flight hasn't even left Chicago yet, and that it isn't expected here until after 1:00pm (we were supposed to depart at 10:30am).  This is tragic because it means we will miss our connecting flight in Washington, and because our dog sitters have been told we'd be home by 2:00pm and not to bother with the dogs in the afternoon.

Long story short, we got booked onto a later flight from Dulles to C'ville, after standing in a long line which terminated in a United Airlines employee with a face like a woodchuck.  This could have turned into a rant about poor customer service at airports, but everyone was helpful. One guy did get impatient with a passenger, but I could hardly blame him since she appeared to be making unreasonable demands and continued to paw at him from her wheelchair long after her turn was over. We found out that the source of the delay was flash floods in Chicago.

The flight from Buffalo to Washington was uneventful, except for a sick-making landing in which we hurtled toward the ground at a reckless speed, hovered over the runway for ages before finally touching down, and then racing down the runway as if we were experiencing a brake failure.  I thought it was just my anxiety telling me that the plane seemed out of control until I heard the guy in front of me say, "Gee, he seems to be having trouble stopping the plane."  Now you are expecting me to tell you that we crashed into something, but we didn't and slowed down eventually and taxied decorously past enormous jets, all hooked up to their gates like piglets nursing on a sow.

Our new flight wasn't scheduled to leave for three and a half hours but at least Dulles has a Five Guys, and we were starving, having thrown our muffin away in Buffalo.  Dulles has more amusements than Buffalo and far superior food.  We wandered through the gleaming "B" concourse, window shopping, and I admired all the jets from different countries.  It's one of my geeky hobbies to gawk at the airplane graphics for different airlines.  Saudi Arabia Air's planes are particularly dashing.

Bored with shopping, we headed back to the far end of "A" concourse where our gate was.  You've probably noticed that major airports always fly their small regional flights from Siberian terminals far removed from the glamorous area from where the international flights take off.  As we proceeded to the nether regions of "A" concourse, the ceiling got lower, the air conditioning less cool, the general atmosphere decidedly dank, the passengers not as well-dressed. The airline employees have accents and their uniforms are not as smart as those who work upstairs.  No more shining walls of glass with beautifully painted jets suckling at the mother port.  Instead, you squint through small windows at various ugly duckling aircraft.  It's the Island of Misfit Toys down there.

We sat at gate A5, which is where a United Airlines employee told us to go, and commenced waiting.  And waiting.  It is a law of the universe that if you are flying home to Charlottesville, you will see someone you know or recognize.  I didn't see anyone I knew at our gate, but I figured we were just early.   We watched people arriving from the even-more nether regions of gates A1-4.  Many of them were sprinting.  One man was bellowing for a missing six year old.  Finally, it was almost time for us to board, and I became increasingly concerned about the lack of familiar-looking people at our gate.  No one near us looked like they were from Charlottesville.  I checked the notice board and discovered that we had been waiting at the wrong gate for two hours.  The flight to C'ville left from gate A1--A1 F to be exact--in the most Siberian section of the airport, where the ceiling was even lower than it was at gate A5, the air even more dank and poorly cooled.  There were no seats available, but at least these people looked right, and almost immediately I spotted one of the ushers from our church.  It appeared that every flight leaving from this part of the airport was delayed.

A young family came sprinting up to the next gate, gasping for breath and asking if the flight to Albany had boarded yet.  It hadn't because it was delayed, and it was funny to watch the play of expressions on their faces as their emotions changed from relief at not having missed their flight to annoyance at having run for nothing to anger at having not been informed of their flight's status, to laughter at the ridiculousness of the situation.  The rest of the Albany people greeted this family with joy and I heard someone ask if anyone was interested in a game of poker.  Fun people, those Albany folks.

Meanwhile, my group was told that while our plane was here, we were not allowed on it yet, because it was too hot inside the cabin.  It was now nearly 6:00pm and we had been sitting around at airports since 08:30.  I could not focus on my book--An Accidental Man by Iris Murdoch--I could not do anything but inwardly moan about how uncomfortable I was.

At last we were allowed to board and walked across the baking tarmac to our teeny tiny prop plane.  Hot is a subjective term and I thought that when we were told our plane was hot, they meant moderately uncomfortable, but it turns out that when they said "hot" they meant it.  It's so unoriginal to draw comparisons to Hell, but if Dante had been on that plane he would have realized there is a tenth circle he didn't know about.  The cabin door was shut and it was like, "bake for twenty minutes until done."  The flight attendant told us it had been 115 degrees in some other place she'd been to that day, and--because this was a plane full of Charlottesville people--someone had to speak up and say that it had been 55 degrees yesterday in London, and someone else volunteered that it had been 61 degrees in Stuttgart.

It's only a twenty minute flight from Washington to Charlottesville, but those were possibly the most uncomfortable twenty minutes of my life, with the exception of childbirth.  I wasn't even sweating because I had had nothing to drink all day but two cups of coffee, hours earlier.  The flight attendant did serve water--it was hot and tasted like it had been dipped up from the bottom of a rusty oil drum--but I drank it greedily.

Charlottesville at last!  Unfortunately, the Stuttgart and London people were sitting at the front of the plane and had made friends with each other.  One of them was also a pilot and nothing would suit them but informing our pilot of this immediately.  They even flew the same type of plane!  Our pilot was all, "Hey that's cool," and then there was an interminable exchange of remarks while the rest of us roasted and had secret thoughts about storming the door.  Finally, we were allowed off the plane--it was an icy 86 degrees outside.  After that, there was just a $40 cab ride, and we were home.


  1. I used to pilot those tiny turboprops (tinier, even, if you can believe it) from the A gates in my previous career. I once held a plane from boarding because of the heat; the cabin was 125 degrees when I picked up the plane. The a/c doesn't really work until the airplane is airborne, it just blows hot air around. I think it was a slightly less dangerous 110 when we finally boarded. Everybody was irate about boarding late, but then they were irate about having boarded, but being hot. You just can't win.

  2. Your commentary about flying and and out of Charlottesville is spot on - I love it!

  3. all hooked up to their gates like piglets nursing on a sow.

    *dies laughing*

    So true, so apt.

    We were waiting for a connecting flight in Detroit a few weeks ago. Delay, delay, delay. Suddenly, the flight information disappeared from the chichi LCD screen displaying flight information and ads for destinations which were not Detroit . . . and the gate attendant also evaporated into thin air.

    A frequent business traveler realized what was up and it was a stampede for the nearest customer service counter.

    I can understand delays and cancellations, but at least tell people what's up, y'know? Especially if those people have just walked a mile (no joke) with a 4yo who is terrified of the people movers and escalators.

  4. Ah, modern airline travel. There is little modern about it.

  5. I've had EXACTLY that same experience so many times!