Posted by: wrmcnutt | April 3, 2009

Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Whoever came up with the idea that business travel is glamorous was a liar.  I have to fly on business probably five or six times a year, and the experience varies from mildly unpleasant to a slice of transporational hell.

My recent trip from San Antonio to Knoxville, TN was of the latter kind.  I made a mistake; I chose to book my return flight on Continental Airlines instead of my standby, US Airways.  This routed me through Houston, Texas on the first leg of my journey, rather than Charlotte, North Carolina, which is the norm for me.  The irony of this will become clear as we proceed, but keep this in mind.  I changed my routine because Continental had a flight scheduled to get into Knoxville around 7:00 PM.  The earliest US Airways could get me there was 10:00 PM.

Apparently, someone at Continental saw a cloud over Houston or something, and my trip went to hell.  Now, mind you, weather delays are unavoidable in air travel, but how the airline handles the fallout is where the success or epic failure occurs.  Which outcome resulted is left as an exercise for the reader.   To continue:  All of the Continetal flights heading into Houston ran and hid under a bed somewhere.  No Continental flights were landing at Houston, which means that no aircraft were available to come to San Antonio to pick us up.  I can tell you this because I was able to find out afterwards what happened.  No information was forthcoming from the Continental representatives at the gate.  All I knew at the time was that the online schedule for my flight said “On Time.”  And the digital readout over the gate said “On Time.”  Only the slide-in manual letters behind the agent’s head said “Delayed.”  Turned out that no one had bothered to update those high-tech databases.  Only the people who had made through security and were standing near the gate got accurate information.

Problem – I’m in a bar with internet access and a comfortable chair.  But the bar is filling up as the hundreds of people delayed start to stack up in the terminal.  And my layover in Houston is only an hour long.  Am I going to be able to get home to Knoxville, or will I be stuck in the airport in Houston?  The only guy who knows is at the head of that very, very long line at the gate.  There were two, count them, two clerks to deal with the over 200 folks from my flight who need to find out if they are going to  make their connections.  But the line is getting longer, and my flight could take off at any minute. I need to find out about my connection.

So, clear my tab, pick up my gear, and get at the back of the monumental line.  That is being served by two clerks.  Two of them.  I stood there.  And I stood there.  And I stood there.  For an hour and a half I stood there, inching forward as people gradually got their affairs sorted out and went to the bar.  And sat in my chair.  But I digress.  When I eventually got to the front of the line, the clerk was a real Girl Scout.  Courtesy, Kind, Obedient, Cheeful, and, for al l I know, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.  But I’ll take those last four points on faith.  Anyway, the Girl Scout booked me on an alternate, later flight from Houston to Knoxville in case I missed my first connection.  This was likely, as my connection flight was going to leave Houston in ten minutes.  But, in the meantime, my flight TO Houston has finally arrived.  Somewhere in Continental’s inventory, and aircraft has gather it’s courage enough to defy the cloud over Houston and has rolled into San Antonio only two and a half hours late.  Have you ever stood rigth at the gate and watched passenger’s deplaning?  It’s like watching a clown car.  Every time you think that they are done, twenty more come pouring out.

It took an unbelievably long time to turn the aircraft around logistically.  It had to be refueled, re-staffed, and cleaned.  Is that really a ninety-minute job?  At this point, my first connecting flight to Knoxville has departed, an hour or so to go, and I’m still stuck here at the gate in San Antonio.  But, at long last, we are invited to board.  I’m near the head of the line, I board early, get my gear in the overhead, sit down, and bread out my MP3 Player.  (Ipods are a tool of the Devil.)  Twenty minutes later, most of my fellow passengers settled in, we hear an announcement.  “This is your Captain speaking.  The flight ban on Houston has been lifted, and we have a space in the take-off queue.  Unfortunately, all of the flights into Houston have to be seqenced in, and we will not have a spot in the landing queue for four and a half hours.  This is subject to change, but you are invited to deplane and relax in the terminal until our landing slot comes up.”

A large groan resounded within the cabin, and we all speculated on what to do.  Well, deplaning is optional, but  . . . the only people who can help us decide what to do about our connections (again) are out in the terminal.  We are advised to leave our carry-on’s on board, though, because we could take off at any time.  I’m a veteran of air travel by this time.  I should have known better.  One of the first rules of air travel is: “Never let your luggage out of your hands unless you absolutely have to.”  So off we go to stand in line to talk to the same two over-worked gate agents.  Again.  The floor of the Houston International Airport Terminal D is made of institutional tile over two-foot thick concrete slabs reinforced with ½” thick steel rebar.  I don’t know what the flexibility rating on that stuff is, but I know that it’s harder, and stiffer than my feet.  Again, I stood in line for about ninety minutes to get told that my best bet for getting home tonight was to go on to Houston and hope that my second connecting flight was delayed as much as this one had been.  I still ad a two-hour wait before we could take off, so I decided to get some work done.  On my laptop.  Which I had left w. the rest of my carry-on gear.  On the plane.  The plane that had been secured.

It probably took me 15 minutes to talk myself back onto the plane to retrieve my gear, but that still left me more than an hour to get some work done.  Never let your luggage out of your hands.  Still, at this point, I had no more trouble with this leg of the flight.  The only problem now was that the MP3 player , cell phone, and laptop were both all running low on power.  Very low.  I know, back when Dad was running this rat race, he carried a hard back book, and hoped he didn’t get to the end of it before the trip was over.  But Dad was a rugged sodbuster of the old airways.  I’m used to a cushy, urban airway with laptops and musical entertainment.  My MP3 player also plays cartoons.  It’s taken me more three and a half hours to get where I’m going, but I finally arrived in Houston to mixed news:  I hed not missed my flight.  Like everything else on Continentals network, it had been delayed.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that it had been delayed monumentally. Not only did I have plenty of time to make my flight, I had over two hours to kill waiting on it.

The good news – I scored a power outlet in a terminal that was not designed with the modern traveler in mind. There was a restaurant nearby, but I couldnt leave, lest I lose my power outlet.  But at that point, I’d  reached a point in the evening where entertainmetn was way more important than beer.  So I settled in for a couple of hours of keyboarding.  Once I relaxed the smell hit.  Word to the wise:  Terminal B of the Houston International airport smells like an old YMCA locker room.  That somebody farts in every fifteen minutes.  Once I’d waited that out, the nightmare ended.  My connection Knoxville took off, and I landed at roughly 1:00 in the morning, five hours after my original arrival time.

The worst part of the whole evening was that I had no one to scream at.  The Continental Airlines personnel whose necks were close enough to actually place my hands around were clearly having a worse day that I was.  They remained courteous, professional, and quick with any information that they had, and were clearly doing everything they could to help me resolve my problems and get me home. 

The world is constructed such that the people who cause our misery are well isolated from the consquences of their decisions.  The people who designed an air transport system that could not stand the stress of having a hub under a raincloud will never answer to my fury.

And whoever came up with the idea that business travel is glamorous was a liar. 

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  1. This sounds remarkably similar to our attempts to get home from Scotland last year. Darn those hovering clouds.

  2. Yeah yeah, I remember a certain business trip that involved 900 thread count sheets and a bar that knows how to make a gibson. I think he makes these hardships up. Just kidding sweetie 🙂

  3. I’m sorry Bill, but this was just the laugh I needed on a rainy Monday morning. *grin*

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