Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Terminal

So you know that remark I made a few months back about how I thought that my heretofore bad luck in the travel department might be changing? I, um, take it back.

I’ve just returned from two lovely weeks of vacation in the US, and while the trip itself was everything I had hoped it would be, the travel to and from was anything but. Now, as I have stated in the past, I have this thing with horrific airport scenarios. I miss my flight, my luggage disappears for days on end, weather leaves me sleeping on a bench in a deserted terminal.... One would think that such nightmares would leave me stronger, wiser—much in the way of a seasoned war general. By all rights, I should be the General Patton of air travel.

Alas, no. Not only do I seem to attract highly regrettable travel mishaps, but my subconscious stubbornly refuses to learn from its mistakes, thus leading to multiple repeats of said travel mishaps. Let’s take the example of G. and my return flight from San Diego to Paris on August 21, which set a new record in my already outstanding history of trips that could best be summed up by an emphatic “Oh, fuuuuuuuuuuuu....”

Let me first say that in hindsight, we were kind of asking for it. Our two-week holiday was actually composed of two separate round-trip tickets: one from Paris to Boston, where we spent the first few days, and the other from Boston to San Diego, where we spent the rest. Both legs involved a layover: Reykjavik for the first, Houston for the second. And yes, I realize that I once said I would never go to Iceland, but can’t the occasional blatant lie be considered a péché mignon? Anyway, at least I now know that the cold, cratered surface of the moon is not limited to the moon itself.

Now, in the case of our return flight, we had to do all of that again, only in reverse and all in the same day. That is to say, San Diego to Dallas (no, not Houston this time, just for a wee bit of extra fun); Dallas to Boston; Boston to Reykjavik; Reykjavik to Paris. And as if that weren’t enough, the next morning G. was due back at the airport bright and early in order to fly to Crete for an additional week with his family. Got all that? Do you think we were already screwed even before heading to the airport?

Up at the crack (and I mean the CRACK) of dawn, we got to San Diego Lindbergh Field more or less on time, checked in, paid the $25 x 2 baggage fee (damn you, American Airlines!) and thought we were all set. No one was in the security line and we still had a good 30 minutes prior to boarding. Sensing the all-too-familiar lump of separation anxiety rising in my throat, I thought that a quick coffee with my parents before flying back to my home halfway around the world would be perfectly reasonable. *Wry smile*

Coffee consumed, we returned to the security line, which now had the equivalent of three airplanes worth of people waiting in it. And by the time that my foggy brain realized just how much trouble we were in, it was too late. Why? Because as I always manage to forget, major US airlines aren’t nice. They don’t want to hear your excuses; it’s not their problem. Either you are at the gate RIGHT when it opens, or you’re up that well-known creek without a paddle. And as we were at the gate 10 minutes after it opened, that was the end for us. (Little matter that there was a good quarter of an hour remaining before the indicated departure time and the plane was parked. Right. There.)

And here is where I clamber onto my pro-European soap box and say that with all due respect, this policy is bullsh*t. In all of my travels, which are never any better organized in Europe than they are in the US, not once have I been faced with a closed gate 15 minutes early and a smug airline rep telling me that she has been paging me repeatedly for the last half hour (riiiiiight) and that now it is just too damn bad. Never. And don’t you dare go citing tight schedules and TSA regulations because I’m not buying it. Iceland Air lets people still board freaking 10 minutes after its official departure time and do you know what comes of it? Nothing, nothing at all (score one for Iceland).

But this wasn’t Iceland Air we were dealing with, but American f-ing Airlines. And from that moment, G. and I were faced with two possibilities:
  • Worst case scenario: we remain “stuck” in the US, unable to find room on any other flights because everything is booked, pay an absolute fortune in new ticket fees, hotels, absent days from work, etc., and G. misses out on a week of vacation with his family in Crete, to which he had been looking forward for months and months. And I bear the guilt of it forever.
  • Best case scenario: we catch a magical string of standby flights and make it to Boston just in time to catch the original flight to Paris as planned; G. goes to Crete; I am cleared of all charges.
So there we were, standing white-faced and panic-stricken before a closed gate. In AA’s defense, the representative did take pity on me once she had accepted the fact that I had not intentionally caused us to “miss” the flight (or maybe she was just embarrassed by my sobbing like a little girl). As such, she was willing to give the two of us stand-by tickets for the next one to Dallas and from there to Boston, which if all went well, would theoretically still allow us to make the connecting Paris flight by the skin of our collective Franco-American teeth. But that depended on there being enough room on both standby flights and on both flights being totally on time. Meanwhile, our bags had left without us (remind me again about those TSA regulations...?). As to where they would land, no one knew for sure. Boston if we were lucky, Dallas if we weren’t (just ask JFK).

As it turned out, the first standby to Dallas was full, so we had to wait for the second. The second one let us on, but the Boston leg announced forty-five minutes of delay, thus immediately killing any and all chances of making the Paris connection. We did all we could to avoid despair: called Iceland Air (closed), tried to buy new tickets (sold out), interrogated various airline reps (95% unhelpful), prayed. A LOT.

And you know what? While the first three strategies yielded nothing, that last one did. In the end, we made it onto the Boston standby; the pilot somehow got us to the gate only 8 minutes late and not 45; our bags really had arrived on an earlier flight and were simply waiting for us to grab them in the baggage claim area; we caught an airport shuttle to the international terminal almost immediately, and by racing down the hallway we made it to the Paris check-in just minutes before it closed, where the rep at the counter murmured under her breath, “Just in time.” We gave her our bags, ran through security and MADE THE FLIGHT. Sinking into our seats and breathing the biggest sigh of relief of our lives, we immediately bought two glasses of wine and toasted to real-life miracles. Now if that wasn’t a personal intervention by God Himself, I’ll eat my hat. I’ll eat everyone’s hats. It was actually quite humbling, because as holy priorities go, I’m sure we weren’t anywhere near the top.

Lesson learned: when in the US, NEVER %#@! AROUND WITH BOARDING TIMES. G. was so traumatized by the experience that he actually took a taxi to the airport the next morning for his Crete flight just to play it safe (G. never takes taxis)! He texted me later to say that he was in fact early for the flight and didn’t know how to deal with it. And I am back to my Paris life, so thankful to even be here that I will say nothing about next week’s scheduled public sector strikes. I mean, I could be sleeping on a bench in the Dallas/Boston/Lunar airport right now, waiting for a miracle. But the miracle came right when we needed it the most, as miracles tend to do. No air travel for this girl until December, and even then I think I’ll show up to the airport a full day early. That is if I can even find an acceptable airline. Between AA’s shenanigans, Continental’s frequent last-minute cancellations and United’s well-known penchant for breaking guitars, what’s an expat to do?

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