Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Patron Saint of Travelers

When I first started to travel the first valuable lesson I learned was the quixotic notion that I was invincible and immune to the Machiavellian efforts of others would shelter me in the bosom of the virgin mother was but a myth.

I believed in the fallacy of my own immortality and the St. Christoper, I carry would ensure I would be sheltered from the high minded political aspirations of others. Nor did I give any credence to the notion of the spoken word would in any way prevent me from rising beyond the humble beginnings of a middle class upbringing. Where my faith was not placed in a higher being but the justice of righteousness. And the misguided belief of what is holy and good is wrapped in the veil of being right.

It starts like this.

I'm in east Texas. Winter storm Cleaon is promising to bring to bear the full measure of mother natures emboldened fury across the southern portion of the US before turning north across the mid Atlantic states.

The job I am on has been stretched out until Friday. So I know I will be stuck in the big D for the weekend. I know this because of years of travel during the winter. That and the full knowledge the least little bit of weather will shut down Dallas for days.

So on Wednesday I make the all to familiar call to my wife. She is neither surprised nor is she shocked. She doesn't like it, but she has become resigned to the whimsical changes in my schedule. This is not to say she likes it. More like she is accepting of the changing tides of my chosen profession.

But that night after work a small silver lining begins to break. An acquiescent to the gods. But with the proviso I will have to wait until morning for the final verdict.

Later that morning I get the call I am free to proceed to the nearest airport and make my way home. After I have attended to my personal hygiene needs, my bag packed I take my rented chariot and turn it in a westerly direction and while en route to the airport, I call travel and am rewarded with changing my ticket for no cost for today instead of tomorrow.

I am emboldened and at the same time happy I will have the rare opportunity to call my wife and announce I will be returning to home and hearth a day earlier instead of days later. I was expecting joy and happiness. But instead I am met with skepticism and the deadpan delivery of "call me when you are on the plane".

2 and a half hours later my rented chariot has been returned and I am on the bus to terminal B. My app for American Airlines informs me I am still on time. The weather report tells me the hour of Armageddon will not begin until after I leave. I am comforted knowing I will escape the clutches of mother nature unharmed and unscathed. My month long vacation will begin a full day ahead of when it was supposed to.

My giddiness lasts for about 8 minutes. This is because it is the time required to move from the rental car facility to the terminal. During that 8 minute trip my departure slides a full hour.

My proverbial blue sky outlook begins to be overshadowed by the dark clouds I see a building on my horizon and with it the knowledge I have entered a game of chicken with mother nature and the airlines.

Allow me to digress for a moment. When your mode of transportation is a metal tube with aluminum wings you enter into an agreement that leaves you both powerless and defenseless. You surrender your immediate future and your ability to move freely into the hands of air traffic control and to the bureaucratic machinations of an industry whose notions will only be in agreement with yours for only as long as it meets their needs and goals. The second your paths become dissected your needs run a distant last place to theirs. And rightfully so.

The government workers and the airline industry are charged with keeping you and your fellow passengers safe. It would serve little purpose for them to allow an airplane to take off or land when the conditions for safe passage means you will die at a rapid and uncontrolled descent back to mother earth. So for this I am grateful they watch over us.

On the other hand when you begin the delay process, you the passenger would like to have at your disposal some working knowledge of how long your delay will last. And you have to be satisfied with knowing there are at times when they simply don't know.

But in this case when I arrived at the gate and began asking for details of my delay the gate agents were neither interested nor were they engaged in providing help.

Their day was beginning to come apart at the seams. And not only were they dealing with hundreds of delays and cancellations that affected hundreds of people, but they also were just trying to get through their shift so they could go home.

My flight was supposed to take off at 7pm now its delayed until 8. Then it went to 8:30 then 9 and after that it went became apparent I was headed to being cancelled.

Now you have to understand when you begin to play chicken with mother nature and the airlines you must figure out where the line is at where the decision to stick it out diverges with the decision to seek out shelter for the night. In this case I drew the line at 10:30.

I drew this line because after that the ability to acquire a room for the night would become rather difficult if not impossible. Having never spent the night in an airport before I didn't want this to become the night where my cherry was popped.

But it held steady and thanks to one of my fellow passengers who was tracking our inbound plane, which was originating from Amarillo I held firm. Planes were taking off so the airport was still functioning. And even though the temperature had descended below the freezing mark and the rain outside had begun to accumulate mass and making the transition from a liquid to a solid I still held to my belief at the end of this travel day I would lay my head down on my own pillow and in my own bed.

Then several things began to happen, which began to alter my views of getting home.

First the flight to Knoxville was coming back to the terminal for the second time. The first time it came back was because it had run out of the time they were allowed to stay on the runway. And the second time was due to a passenger who just could not take it any longer and demanded to deplane.

As I was to learn there is a law in place that if passengers deplane twice then the plane is cancelled.

The second item was the Little Rock plane returned to the terminal because of deteriorating weather.

And the final event was on our plane. After all 17 passengers boarded the flight and the attendant didn't close the door right away. Instead the pilot got off and back on twice and the gate agent and the crew held 3 discussions which involved a lot of finger pointing and the shaking of heads.

I knew we were doomed. And as it turns out I was right because the pilot lost the battle of who was going to inform us we were not going anywhere.

Allow me another digression for a moment.

During the 7 hour odyssey of waiting for some kind of word or indication, I approached the counter a handful of times. Each time my inquiries were met with either a complete lack of interest or they suddenly had better things to do than to seek out an answer to my questions.

In the end myself and 2 others became the primary point of information for the other less traveled passengers. I didn't mind and I'm sure they didn't either. But the point here is the gate agents should have been much more cooperative in their interactions with passengers.

I did have an opportunity to speak with an AA manager. I know he was a manager because he wore a green neon vest. A large man whose collared button down shirt, khaki pants and brown patent leather shoes fingered him in a station above those who worked the gates. Even without the neon vest I would have pegged him for a guy whose station in life had settled in middle management.

My conversation with him was to be the highlight of my evening.

"Excuse me, sir, might I have a word"? I asked.

"Sure. What can I do for you". He answered.

"I'm on the flight to Rapid City. And I know you guys are busy but you know I have asked several times for updates for our flight, but your gate agents aren't really all that helpful."

He exhaled loudly and briefly looked down at his shoes for what I can only imagine was guidance. Then he looked up and over to the counter where 3 of his agents were engaged in various conversations with frustrated passengers.

Before he could speak, I continued on.

"I'm not just your run of the mill passengers. I am actually a 1k flier with Delta. So you know I get it. But I have to tell you I've been at this gate for 6 hours and not once has anyone made an announcement about the status of our flight. It would be nice if your gate agents took a moment or two and made us aware of the disposition of our flight. As it is myself and a couple of others are providing all of the updates for the everyone else." I said.

He sat back against the driver's seat and ran his port like digits through his pointy close cropped haircut. Then he crossed his arms against his chest and settled his beleaguered gaze on me.

"I have to tell you your service to your passengers leaves a lot to be desired. If this were a Delta flight we would be a lot better informed than we are now." I said.

He dropped his hands to the steering wheel and then with his left hand disengaged the brake. With his right hand, he turned the key and started his cart. His gaze turns from me to the carpeted floor in front of him.

And as he started to pull away, he looked at me for a long time the thoughts of his response running across his eyes. And as he started to pull away, he said to me "I'm sorry to hear that sir. You make sure and enjoy your next flight on Delta." And then he drove away robbing me of a snarky response and  leaving me without a well placed rebuke.

And as he pulled away, I couldn't help but laugh. It was a good line.

But my night was not finished. Now that my flight was canceled I had to find and then get to a hotel for the night.

Pulling out my trusty smart phone I made a reservation to a hotel 12 miles from the airport. Now all I needed to do was find a ride to the hotel.

I called the hotel and asked for a ride. But they had not a shuttle past 10pm. It was now well after midnight, so I was left without am trying to find a cab willing to drive in the freezing rain and on ice covered roads.

When I left the gate, I made my way to a cab stand only to find there were no cabs. But I did find 6 others who not only were looking for a cab, but had actually called one for themselves. The first time I called the dispatcher she said it was going to take an hour. But after talking to my fellow stranded passengers I found they had been waiting for an hour already. So I called back and after a few times of going back and forth, we were moved to the head of the line.

10 minutes later 2 cabs appeared to take us to different hotels. I was now the qualified hero of my new friends.

And 40 minutes after that I was at my hotel.

Before I left AA I was told I was on the 12:20 flight tomorrow. I figured it would take me the same 40 minutes to get back to the airport so I set my alarm for 9am and went to bed.

At 8:30 I got a text message from wife telling me that the flight was cancelled. So I turned off my alarm and went back to sleep.

12:30 I got up and checked the evening flight which was also canceled and after making a call to travel I found out I was booked on the 7pm flight the next day.

So here I sit in the Presidential suite in the Holiday Inn writing this account and enjoying a nice bottle of red wine. I don't know if tomorrow I will find myself ascending to 30,000 feet and winging my way home or spending another night comfortably ensconced in my room. Either way the past 24 hours have been a good reminder of why air travel is such a joy.

But in the end, I'm glad the Patron Saint of Travelers is looking out for me.

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