Saturday, January 28, 2012

My Life on Delay

Picture it. Paducah, Kentucky. A small city airport. Instead of arriving two hours before my flight (as I’ve pretty much done since 9/11) I arrived just over an hour before take off. I expected people to already be going through security. I tried to stay calm and not let my later-than-usual-arrival bother me. Paducah airport employees are notorious for sending us through security early. I was already checked in and had paid for my bag so there was no reason to fear. Of course Paducah’s airport is so small that they aren’t equipped with the scanning equipment that would allow me to go green and scan my boarding pass on my iPhone. But I digress. I knew I was going to have to turn in the bag and get it tagged as well as get a boarding pass when we got there. Still, no real reason to worry. 

There was a severe thunderstorm heading into the area that evening, but I had checked the weather for my departure time out of Paducah, my departure time out of Chicago and my arrival time in NYC. Each flight seemed to be departing and arriving without major weather interference. Again, trying to maintain calm.

As I stood in the line to get my boarding pass and bag claim ticket, one of the TSA employees noticed my dad. She knew him. She came over to talk to us. Introductions were made. Blah, blah, blah. Then she asked me what flight I was on. A stupid question really considering Paducah was only connecting to Chicago. I told her I was flying to NYC through Chicago and she quickly blurted out, “It’s been delayed.” The words connected with my brain as I was looking at the smile on her face. It was almost as if she was finding some pleasure in this information. I know that she wasn’t, but I couldn’t let go of the feeling. I asked her why. She had no explanation to give me. I was standing there stunned and my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. Seriously, I could not believe that this flight was delayed. And not just delayed a few minutes. Delayed by a couple hours. 

When I finally made it to the front of the line the man I spoke to was very calm and reassuring. He was doing a great job at not letting the frustrations of the travelers get him down. Gold star! The reason for the delay: fog in Chicago. I had a connecting flight in Chicago that was to depart at 6pm. We were pushed from 2:49pm to 4:55pm for our departure. That meant I had no chance of making that connection. The 7pm out of Chicago was already sold out, but the 9pm still had seats. Great! I’m tentatively booked on the 9pm departing O’Hare at the time I was supposed to be arriving home in NYC. Beggars can’t be choosers. I wanted to get home. For no other reason than I just wanted to. 

So, at this point I was still on the 6pm flight in case the pilots decided when the plane arrived from Chicago that they were going to turn right around and fly back, but I was also tentatively booked on the 9pm in the event that we really were delayed. To delay or not to delay. That is the question. Give me some answers. 

As I sat in the airport with my parents I realized that I might be frustrated, but there was no reason to be angry. All of this was out of my control. There was nothing I could do but wait. If for some reason I couldn’t get out of Paducah that evening then I would go back to my parents’ house and spend the night. It really wasn’t that dire a situation. It was merely frustrating. I tried to let go.

Four fifteen and we’re going through security. I have to pause here for a moment of sincere tenderness. I bought my mom The Help before I had even read it myself based on recommendations of others. I then read it and of course loved it. She also loved it. We each saw the film version and I asked for it on DVD for Christmas. I have watched the DVD already, but wanted to take it with me to my parents’ house so that my mom and I could watch it together. I cried just like I have every time. Every time! I love it. Anyway, mom stood in front of me. We were facing each other with a light grip on each others upper arms. She said to me, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” When she started saying the words I joined her and we said them in unison. It reminded me of a time back in the late 90’s when I had taken a Greyhound Bus to Nashville, Tennessee for an extended stay at my parents’ house while I waited for the theatre where I worked to book a new show. At that point Wide Open Spaces by the Dixie Chicks was a hugely popular album; the title song a bonafide hit. When the time came for me to actually head back to NYC (two weeks later), she and dad drove me to Nashville. I went though the doors and started to climb the steps of the bus. Mom opened the door and said, “Check the oil,” a lyric from the song "Wide Open Spaces" about a girl getting ready to drive away and begin her own life. It puts a smile on my face any time I think about. The line from The Help now joins the ranks. I’m a sentimental fool. Any thoughts on where I get it?

So learning from each trip through security how to separate my belongings for the X-ray, I grabbed three tubs. One held my boots. One held my coat and scarf. One held my computer and iPhone. I sent my bag through by itself. At LaGuardia on the way to Kentucky they had to send it through a second time on its own, so I started there this time. Everything in its neat little line, feeding through the X-ray machine, I looked at the TSA agent and awaited her motion for me to walk through the metal detector. I beeped. I took off my bracelet and threw it into the tub with my boots which had yet to make it into the black box and the eye of the X-ray. I walked back through. I beeped. I removed my belt and threw it into the tub with my still waiting boots. I never beep. Ever. This was frustrating for me. The delay, the beeps, the frustration. I walked back through. No beep. Not this time. But something new. I got sent to the side for a pat down. A pat down! It was the woman who knew my dad. I’ve never had a pat down in my life. So there I was standing in my sock feet, jeans, no belt, no bracelet and my fading beeps in the air getting a pat down in Paducah, Kentucky. My parents stood just beyond the separating glass watching as I was checked for security issues.

Then the trouble I had taken to send everything through the X-ray so that it could all be examined easily hit a snag. For the second time in a row my Marc Jacobs bag had to be sent through again. The TSA agent asked if it was my bag. I answered affirmatively. She said she needed to open it. I nodded approval. She took out my coin purse, which had my Sugar lip moisturizer inside, and sent the bag through again. At that point I was thinking they might not let me take the Sugar on the plane. It is not inside a 1-quart bag and I guess it could be dangerous. I did get a pat down after all. I must look suspicious. The frustration continued to stew. Sugar lip moisturizer is not cheap. I was already thinking that I would have to control my anger if this Podunk airport wouldn’t let me take it on the plane when it got through security in NYC with no problem. 

Turns out it was the change purse and its contents that were throwing them off. I’m not sure what it looked like on the X-ray machine, but they deemed my bag okay after a second go through. They also didn’t take my Sugar. Crisis averted.
I waved a final goodbye to my parents, redressed myself then headed to the waiting area on that side of security. From one blue seat to another. Separated by glass walls. Sitting and waiting. 

Finally we started boarding the plane. Every one was onboard. The flight attendant had counted, people had changed seats, the flight attendant had counted again, seat belts had been fastened and the flight attendant spiel has been spieled. Then the door was closed and locked. It was at that point that our captain told us that Chicago has cleared us for a 5:30pm departure. Collective groans. See, we’re on the plane for a 5pm departure being told we’re going to be sitting in the closed plane for at least half-an-hour more before departure. In a codicil to the aforementioned announcement, we were told that our departure could be later. There was not only fog in Chicago, but due to the snow they’d received the day before they had limited runways in use. I was thinking that our small plane must be unimportant to the powers-that-be in the tower at O’Hare. 

As we sat their waiting to depart we were informed that due to the fog there was a chance we couldn’t land in Chicago. If this was the case we were going to divert our landing to Cleveland, Ohio. Another groan. Really? There we were trapped in this flying, tin tube, being told we might not even land where our connecting flights are departing. I started pondering why hadn’t the 5:30pm departure been told to us before the door locked us in? Why hadn’t the possibility of a Cleveland landing been disclosed to us? The frustration was building yet again, but then I remembered that all of this was out of my control. There was nothing I could do. I had to - HAD TO - roll with the punches. 

I pulled out my book and started to read. I already knew I was going to miss my 6pm connection to NYC in Chicago so I had been officially rebooked on the 9pm flight. I just had to sit and wait for the plane to roll and the wheels to lift off.

The flight was uneventful. We departed at 5:30pm and we landed in Chicago. No Cleveland. No Betty White. She’s hot in Cleveland, you know. Sigh of relief. Then we sat. On the plane. Waiting. Limited runways meant we landed far enough away from our gate to taxi for a while. Then we waited at the gate for the bags that were to be picked up curbside to be taken off the plane. The man next to me was frustrated. No, I would say angry. When the flight attendant announced the information about us waiting for the bags, my seat mate yelled, “Not everyone has a bag to pick up and some of us have tight connections.” His voice was as arched as my uplifted eyebrows. I’m not sure if it was his yelling or if the arrival of the bag cart coincided with it, but the doors opened almost immediately. We began to exit. I let him off in front of me. I had no where to be. My layover was now 2.5 hours. I was stuck. From one blue seat in a waiting area in Kentucky to a blue seat in a waiting area in Illinois. My ass was tired of those blue seats. I was tired. The waiting sucked.

Gate B8 was my departure gate out of O’Hare. I found its waiting area to be empty and inviting. The gate agents were nice enough. The man was a little snippy, but I’ve been that too at the end of a long day of work. I’m sure the weather knocking out flights didn’t help any agent’s disposition that day. The woman was funny with a sense of humor I recognized as my own. I asked her for an aisle and she obliged with one that put me closer to the front than my already assigned window seat. I thanked her. She told me my request had been an easy one. 

I chose a seat from all the empties and sat. I people watched. I smiled at cute guys. I bemoaned to myself how many of them were straight. I played Hanging With Friends on my iPhone and sent texts. Ah, the ways of passing time while waiting in an airport. 

Soon enough the female gate agent with the sense of humor made the announcement that our gate had changed. Not a big deal. We moved from B8 to B9. Neighboring gates. I made my way to B9 and sat in yet another chair. 

People started to filter into the gate area. I happened to look up at the television screen that was showing our flight number and indicating the names of people eligible for upgrades, etc., when I noticed it said we were delayed to 9:20pm. My heart sank. First flight delayed by 2.5 hours. Missed connection. Second flight delayed by 20 minutes. What could I do? Nothing but wait. I couldn’t allow myself anger. It would have been stupid. I was at the mercy of someone else and the weather. It was out of my control.

The television screen then changed from 9:20pm to a delay of 10pm. That now meant a 2am arrival in NYC. I rolled my eyes. I became droll as I passed on the information to asking passengers. The reason on the screen said: Operations. What did that mean? It didn’t say weather. It didn’t say fog. Operations? Is that mechanical? The arriving flight that would then be restocked and take us to NYC had not arrived yet. I heard a gate agent tell someone else that prized piece of information. Okay, so maybe that was what “Operations” meant. 

Finally the flight arrived. I watched the people deplane. They looked okay. No one looked thankful to just be on the ground. I always check for that as an indication that maybe the flight was turbulent or something. 

More people began arriving in the gate area for the 9pm departure. Reactions were mixed as they discovered the flight’s delay to 10pm. Most just sat to wait. Some wanted to rebook for the morning and go to a hotel. I’m not kidding. It was delayed an hour and a group of seven people contemplated going back to their hotel. Come on! I couldn’t keep the stupid thoughts about them from scrolling across my brain. 

There we were, the passengers and the flight crew, sitting, waiting for our moment to board. It came as a shock to all of us when the voice of the gate agent--the one I had overheard tell of the arriving plane’s lateness--boomed over the speaker that he was sorry to inform those of us on United flight 762 to LaGuardia that our flight had been cancelled. Cancelled! No explanation. Nothing. Just cancelled. Please go to Customer Service. I was defeated. People ran to the Customer Service desk. The line was ridiculously long. It seems more than one flight had been cancelled. I don’t understand what the delay of “Operations” meant and I don’t understand why they didn’t tell us the reason for the cancellation. The frustration was boiling up. I knew I would be doing nothing but hurting myself if I got angry though. I guess that’s growth.

I joined the line and began my wait. Waiting had been the theme of the day. I had packed at my parents’ house and waited to leave for the airport. I had waited for the delayed boarding and departure in Paducah. I had waited through the layover time in Chicago and those delays. Now I was waiting in a cancellation line. My life was existing on delay.

I overheard the man behind me in line talking to an agent on the phone. He was rebooking his flight without the need of talking to one of the very-much-in-the-distance Customer Service people. As his voiced silenced I turned to him. I asked him who he was speaking to. He had called his travel agent. He informed me that the 6am and 7am flights were already full, but there were seats still available on the 6:20am flight. I looked at my place in line and the number of people in front of me. I had no illusions that there would be seats left on that flight by the time I made it to the front of the line. 

I pulled out my iPhone and opened an email from United. I accessed the Contact Us section and called the number. Three minutes later I had an agent on the phone, happy and willing to help rebook me on a flight the next morning. The 6:20am still had seats and in less than five minutes I was on it. I exited the line and went straight to a kiosk where I checked in for that flight and printed my boarding pass. See ya later, suckers waiting for an agent. It’s funny how almost all of us had smartphones, but everyone wasn’t smart enough to use them. Glad my ears perked up to the man’s conversation behind me. Unintentional eaves dropping can pay off sometimes.

Now to get a room. The shittiest part of the entire delayed/cancelled flight day was the fact that it is United’s policy NOT to pay for hotel rooms when flights have been cancelled. I heard the United employee extolling this information to us mention that they do not pay for reasons of weather, but I didn’t hear him mention “Operations.” I would still like to know what the hell “Operations” meant. Anyway, he gave us vouchers for a discount. A discount.

I couldn’t help but think about the industry in which I work--theatre. When Hurricane Irene blew through NYC and shut down our subway system and caused the cancellation of all Broadway and off-Broadway shows for the weekend, the question of refunds was moot. A cancelled show equals automatic refund. That’s just how it is. The show didn’t go on; we can’t keep your money. In the case of a cancelled flight, they keep our money because they rebook us on another flight. I get that. However, United gave us nothing for the inconvenience. They got my money for the flight and then I had to pay extra to spend the night somewhere other than in the airport. I realize that no one can control the weather, but all the theatre owners the weekend of Irene lost money. United lost nothing and the Hilton made bank. There’s something to be said for being connected to the airport. That’s right, there’s a Hilton connected to the airport. Conspiracy theory. 

For $99 I got a room at the Hilton. It was connected by an underground tunnel to the airport. There was no shuttle, no waiting outside. I recognized many people from that cancellation line in the two lines at the Hilton. Yes, the Hilton made bank that night from all of us stranded flyers whom United wouldn’t pay for. I guess the Hilton was going to make bank no matter who paid for the room. I just wish their gain hadn’t been my bank account’s loss.

I was tired when I got to my cute little room on the third floor. I had been sitting and waiting and waiting and sitting and flying and waiting and sitting and standing and grabbing a Clif Bar to eat and waiting and sitting for hours. I mean the day was over. I didn’t even take the time to pick up something for dinner in the sports bar that I could clearly see from the elevator bank. No. I just wanted to get to the room. I called the front desk and requested a wake up call for 4:30am then got into bed with my book.

Thankfully the Hilton staff provided a tooth brush and tooth paste for me for the next morning. All of my toiletries, clean underwear and fresh clothes were packed in a bag that I had checked. I didn’t even know where that bag was other than somewhere inside O’Hare. I didn’t even know when it would get to NYC the next day as I was booked on the 9pm flight that had been cancelled. I was assured by the same man who told me United wouldn’t pay for my room that United had ways we didn’t even know about for getting people’s bags to their destination. Wow, United can’t pay for the rooms of stranded passengers, but they can do magic where your checked bags are concerned. They eased my mind. NOT!

The ringing phone at 4:30am the next morning was too jarring. It was too early. It was too much. I just wanted to get showered, get on that plane and get back home to my life and my routines.

I showered and redressed in the clothes I had chosen to travel home in the night before. I had no deodorant as it was in the checked bag. Thankfully, the shirt I was wearing for the second day in a row didn’t stink and I smelled fresh from the shower. I got dressed, put my iPhone and book back in my Marc Jacobs bag, did an eyeball sweep of the room and headed out the door by 5am. 

I found my terminal easily enough, but the line of people waiting for security that greeted me was something I hadn’t prepared for. I guess I should have had the forethought that there would be many people flying out that morning due to the cancellations from the night before. I was concerned. I wondered if I would make it to the security checkpoint before my flight was to start boarding at 5:50am. Thankfully, what I couldn’t see was that the line branched into several smaller lines once beyond the podiums where two women checked ID’s and boarding passes. 

I began to breathe easier. I could see my departure gate. It was directly through security. No left turn, no right turn, just a straight walk to plant my butt on another blue seat.

So I’d learned what I should do with all of my items that had to scan through X-ray. I used one tub for boots, belt and bracelet. I used one tub for coat and scarf. I used one tub for computer, iPhone and coin purse (removed from my Marc Jacobs bag in the hope that this time the bag would only be sent through once), and then I let the MJ ride flat by itself. Everything was moving forward. No hang-ups. I turned to the TSA agent who indicated I needed to remove my sweater. I couldn’t stop myself from saying, “Seriously?” I knew I didn’t need to draw attention to myself to activate suspicion and another pat down. I was just confused. I had paid attention each time I had had to go through security on this trip. I had made mental notes and purposeful changes so that I could get it right and make my walk through security smooth and easy. The day before in Paducah, where they patted me down, I didn’t have to remove the sweater. I was wearing the exact outfit in the exact way. The sweater wasn’t even buttoned. It was fully open and would have blown in the wind had there been one. My frustration was rigid in my body language. I dropped my license and I nearly ripped my boarding pass in half, but I got the damn sweater off and threw it on the belt and let it go through X-ray.

When the TSA agent called my through I did not beep. I also did not make eye contact with her. She told me to have a nice day. A sentiment not lost on me when people wish me well when they know I’m irritated at them. Again, I made no eye contact. I redressed myself and walked to my gate.

Boarding started. I was in the fourth group of regular flyers. After all premium members and armed forces people and those traveling with children and those needing assistance and those who had not been last-minute-my-flight-was-cancelled-can-I-get-a-seat-on-this-one bookers. I got to my seat, a lovely aisle. I saw many familiar faces from the night before. It didn’t matter. We were all on the plane and our departure was 10 minutes away.

"Good morning from the flight deck, ladies and gentlemen. We're just waiting on a mechanic to come up and take a look at something..." That was not the way I had expected or wanted that flight to begin. There was an audible groan from the many around me who had experienced the cancellation the night before. I saw the mechanic enter the plane eventually. I don’t know how long we waited for him. The captain had told us in his earlier announcement that he thought it would be 15 minutes. There I was sitting again and waiting. I had to laugh. I sat there and smiled to myself as I shook my head. I don’t know what was going on in the Universe. All I know is that I didn’t let any of what it was throwing at me affect me like I would have even a year ago.

Our flight was cleared for take off. We didn’t have to wait in line for departure very long once we’d taxied. Our flight was relatively smooth. We landed without incident. I went straight to baggage claim. I explained about my cancelled flight from the previous night. I was pointed to the office where unclaimed luggage is kept. I could see my bag through the window. United had magicked it to NYC before I even arrived. I felt like Harry Potter when he arrives at Hogwarts each new term and his trunk found its way to his room without him having to take it there. The man with the voucher for my hotel discount was right. United had ways.

Outside in the taxi line, I couldn’t even worry about its length. I was on the ground back in my City. I was a taxi ride away from home. I wanted the line to move, but I was dealing with its turtle speed progression just fine.

When I finally got into my cab I gave the driver my address. He told me he had wanted a passenger bound for Manhattan and instead got one staying in Queens. I laughed and told him I’d been trying to get home since yesterday. I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Effie, we all got pain.”

The frustrations I’d been feeling and trying to keep at bay melted away when I walked into my house. I showered and sat my tired ass on my sofa to catch up on the television that was waiting for me on my DVR. When exhaustion finally took over around 8pm, I slept for 14 hours.