Saturday, November 27, 2010

Looking for Silver Linings in Our Travel Misadventures

I like to fly, but for the life of me I'm beginning to wonder why.  I will fight for the window seat so I can watch as a skyline disappears or appears, and I love the view up above cloud cover as I speed along to some destination or other.  However, to experience those moments of beauty and wonder, one must endure the most inconvenient things.  Body scanning being probably the least of them for me.  Somebody wants to see me naked, then more power to them, you could not pay me to do that.   Our trip to Pittsburgh and back was a prime example of why air travel is not the glamourous means of transportation I would like to make it.

First, after having hauled ourselves up at 3 AM, I began to get worried as I drove into Mueller International Airport, having had to turn my fog lights on.  And, sure enough, the little commuter plane we were on to Chicago could not take off because of low visibility.  By the time the fog burned off enough to allow us off the runway, it was a forgone conclusion we would miss our connection.  Particularly since we were flying to one of the nation's largest airports where I am not particularly familiar with the layout (I generally fly into Midway), and we landed in Concourse A and were supposed to be at D.  Long story short, they had re-booked us to get on a flight that would have landed us in Pittsburgh at 9:30 at night.  My realtor was waiting patiently to take me to the house, but I knew she had something going on that night, so I was motivated to get us there earlier.  After a bit of whining and some extra money, a very awesome and accommodating United agent got us on a 1:00 flight that would get us into Pittsburgh with a little light left in the day.  I wondered what the odds were of my luggage making it, but she reassured me several times it would be coming with us.  I nearly had tears in my eyes, she was so helpful.  She must be used to odd behavior because she didn't seem overly disconcerted by my reaction to her simply being nice.  Part and parcel of dealing with a customer base that has to haul themselves out of bed at an obscene hour with very little sleep, I guess.

Eventually, we made it.  My Realtor sweetly and without complaint picked me up to take me to the house that I was set to buy in less than two days regardless of what  I thought of it (more on that later).  So, I could conclude that All's Well That End's Well.  But, wait, there's always the flight home.

At first, that seemed to be going smoothly.  The weather in the 'Burgh that day was unseasonably warm, a little overcast, but very conducive to flying.  No worries there.  We got to airport extremely early so we could avoid rush hour traffic, went through the new airport body scanning security checkpoint with no worries or delays, and sat leisurely at the airport TGIFriday's to toast our new house (well, I had the beverage, Marissa celebrated with a piece of Reese's peanut butter pie).  Then we wandered into a Pittsburgh sports shop, and I cajoled Marissa into not complaining while I bought a Sidney Crosby t-shirt.  Finally, we wandered down to the assigned gate, which was loading a plane bound for Toronto, not Chicago.  We looked at one another and worry began to set in.  They finally flashed our plane's info on the screen, and it was a half hour late.  Worry began to seriously gnaw at us.  Here we go, another connection in jeopardy.  Next they moved our gate.  We picked up our stuff, trudged down to the end of aisle, only to be told that the flight had now been canceled and we had to go back to the original gate to be re-ticketed.  So, the group of us trudged back and stood in line, waiting for what seemed forever for someone to come over to help us.  Eventually, four people came over and helped one after another unhappy traveler, the worst of which was the poor young girl in line ahead of us, who was in tears to the point where a friend, who was supposed to be taking another flight, left her queue to come be with her.  Marissa and I wondered what her story was.  We'll never know, but whatever it was, I hope she eventually made it to where she was going and that everything is okay.

Finally, it was our turn at bat.  The first thing the agent said to us was, "You know it's going to be tomorrow, right?"  No.  I didn't.  How was I supposed to know that?  I swallowed the impulse to respond that my ability as a clairvoyant was hampered inside an airport and simply responded, "No."  I could see the people on either side of me being difficult.  Word had gotten through the line that the cancellation was due to severe thunderstorms in Chicago.  Being a butt, I figured, wasn't going to get me anywhere, this was beyond their control and they were simply trying their best to help us work around it.  Asinine behavior certainly wasn't helping the man to my left who had only managed to put his agent on the defensive.   So, I listened patiently to the agent assisting us as she explained that the Austin airport doesn't have late night flights, so the best she could do would be to get us on an early morning flight connecting either into Chicago or Dulles.  Marissa popped up at that point and chose Dulles, explaining she had enough of Chicago airports (there are other adventures I could relate...).  Here's where eavesdropping on the guy next to me really paid off:  I knew the airline wouldn't pony up for hotel accommodations for weather-related delays, but I also knew I wasn't going to let us camp out in the airport over night - I've got a whale of a story about that I'll tell you sometime - so, I very calmly and politely asked if there was a hotel in walking distance.  My agent explained there was, but it was a Hyatt and very expensive.  She told me where to go downstairs to find a reasonable hotel with a shuttle service and arranged to have our bag pulled.  The man next to me was only getting told that United wouldn't pay for a hotel for him - he was on his own in terms of trying to figure something out.  I thanked my agent profusely, she smiled and apologized profusely, I sincerely replied that it wasn't her fault and left the jerk next to me still trying to get it sorted out.  Yes!  Nice guys don't always finish last!

We got a ride to the Crafton Red Roof Inn, certainly a different hotel experience than the Doubletree we'd been staying in downtown, but it was clean, the woman at the desk was very nice, and I managed a few hours sleep.  That's about all I could have asked for at that point.

The next morning, I put on the only clean shirt I had left:  my new Sidney Crosby t-shirt, and we caught the first shuttle of the day back to the airport.  He had to pick up two different hotels, and the second stop took a long time to get everyone loaded, so Marissa and I looked nervously at one another once more.  Would we make the flight?  Worse still, where Monday the airport had not been particularly busy, Tuesday was a whole other situation.  The holiday traffic began.  The place was hopping with elderly people needing assistance, young mothers with babies in one arm, and a lot of baby stuff in the other and everything in-between.   We opted for the "alternate" security checkpoint again, thinking it would be faster, even though that was where the new body scanner technology resides.  I don't listen to conservative media, so I don't what the Teabags have to say about it, but Progressives are all over body scanning technology as a bad and ineffective invasion of our privacy.  I can tell you that, when you're scrambling to make your flight, none of that matters - you just want to get through the cluster that is post-911 security as quickly as possible.  And, I have to say, the Pittsburgh TSA staff was working at optimum speed.  They were less laid back and cheerful than they had been twelve hours before, but they were zipping us through the process, and I really commend them for the work they were doing.  We made our gate with about ten minutes to spare.

Then came Dulles.  I had never flown into there before, always having landed at Reagan when I flew into DC in the past.  That place is HUGE.  I mean really huge.  I think it's nice, they had some beautiful artwork on the walls that I glimpsed as we hurried past, but once again we had to make a connection from Point A to Point D in less than an hour, having no idea where to go and how to get there really, being jammed in with a mass of humanity all trying to do the same thing.  And it was hot.  We hoofed what we estimate to be over a mile as fast as we could, both sweating and tired by the time we made it, just in time to begin boarding.  But, my being nice the night before paid off again I think in that we had been booked into the bulkhead seats, sitting next to a lovely older man who was flying into Austin to spend the holiday with his daughter in Dripping Springs.  So, we stretched out, allowed the kind gentleman to share snacks with us, and I watched Despicable Me on a tiny airplane monitor while Marissa tried to study, realizing that these were premium seats that generally cost more.  All they cost me was a little politeness.

I wasn't happy exactly when we landed in Austin finally, more than 18 hours behind schedule, but it could have been a lot worse I realized.  We were back on the ground in one piece, our luggage made it with us, and we had a house and the Steelers 35-3 win to show for it.

The next day I woke up with a sore throat, thinking three hours of constant screaming at the referees who called the Steeler game had finally caught up to me.  Within a few hours at work, I realized it was something more when my back started to ache, and I began feeling as though an elephant were sitting on my head.  My boss called it correctly when she said I been exposed to the Giant Petri Dish in the Sky.  That mass of humanity left me with a wicked cold.  My grand plans to pack a large part of the house over the four day holiday have been delayed.  I can barely sit up for a prolonged period.  I forced myself to get up and get out to Harry Potter yesterday, mainly because we had already bought the tickets.  I was lucky that no one sat next to us, so I wasn't spreading germs any more than necessary, but just the sheer energy it took to sit through the movie forced me to concentrate just on the movie itself and not to dwell on the fact that I was now sitting through the second Harry Potter movie without our family's biggest fan.  I didn't even think about it until the end.  And maybe there was some grand plan at work, and all of that hassle and illness was meant to protect me from the sorrow that surely would have engulfed me otherwise.  Who knows.  But, let's go with that, why don't we?  There has to be a silver lining in there somewhere...

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