Why is it that I invariably return from a big trip with some crazy travel saga? And why is it that so many of those sagas revolve around Washington, DC? I’m only halfway back to SoCal now, and so probably shouldn’t yet start telling the tale, as I’m just tempting fate. But I can’t help myself.
I was flying Continental, my airline of choice, this time, and as I still choose them, I’m going to try to avoid pointing fingers their way. Nonetheless:
My flight from DC, via Houston, to Ontario was scheduled for an 11.05 am departure, and I was scheduled to get home at 4 pm PST. These facts are not incidental; I believe this schedule to have been the one and only time ever that, flying from the east coast to the west via Houston, I wasn’t required either to depart pre-sunrise or arrive near midnight. Usually, there are two flights a day from Houston to Ontario, making scheduling more than a little inconvenient. I stick with the airline, however, because they’re nice to me, and because nobody else services my airport any better than that. I felt like I’d caught a break with today’s flights, though, and it turns out that I had: that mid-day westward flight is a Saturday-only phenomenon.
That fact becomes important shortly.
So I get to Washington National (whose official name I still cannot bear to utter) an hour and ten before the scheduled departure of my flight to Houston Intercontinental (ditto). I check in with no problems, and the guy who takes my massive suitcase is no more than averagely gruff, and is pleasantly surprised when I wish him a good day as I head toward the gate. Security is a breeze — just the usual degree of disrobing — and all the TSA folks likewise seem to be in a pretty good mood. The gate is not terribly packed, and we begin boarding on time.
Now, because I fly with Continental a lot, I’m a super-duper elite frequent flyer, and so I both get to board the plane before everybody else and am upgraded to first class on both legs of my flight. (Yes, I know: poor me.) This likewise becomes important, but really only at the point of my story where I start behaving badly.
The gate agents board the plane pretty efficiently, and I’m in my seat with a diet Coke, ignoring most everything going on around me. R. and I had had a pretty sad morning, both hating to see the visit come to an end, so I’m working really hard on clearing my head and getting in a better mood. After all, I get to pick up the keys to the condo tomorrow morning, and so I’m leaning back, trying to decide whether or not I want to carry the air mattress and my sleeping bag to the new place so that I can stay there Sunday night, delayed moving schedule be damned.
I remember nothing of folks boarding, except two guys who get on about mid-crowd. One of them is talking relatively loudly about his military service, and how he isn’t going to be forward deployed, and so he has the luxury of taking some classes that are being paid for for him, and isn’t that great. The guy in front of him — tall guy, longish wavy hair, classically handsome face, well-built: think romance-novel cover — says in response, “it’s a great deal, isn’t it? They paid my way through nursing school.” Which gets my attention.
Anyhow, the plane is fully boarded, but they’re not closing the door, and we’re not going anywhere. I figure we’re waiting for somebody on a slightly delayed flight or something.
Somehow I manage to miss Mr. Romance Novel Cover leaving the plane.
I begin to become aware, however, of a conversation, or a series of conversations, taking place between the pilot and various flight attendants and gate agents, in which the schedule of the plane’s maintenance is being discussed. What did they do this morning? Only put out blankets and cross seatbelts. When did the cleaning crew get on the plane? Before or after TSA? About ten minutes after our scheduled departure, the pilot gets on the PA and says “uh, folks, we’re having a small security issue, and we’re waiting for some information that we need before we can depart, so we’re going to have a little delay. I’m not sure how long; it could be five minutes. We’ll hope to tell you something soon.”
That was the only time for the next half-hour that the word “security” is used. After that, all announcements refer to “maintenance.”
Until, at last, after I spend half an hour sitting in row 2 hearing bits and pieces of conversations that are just enough to freak me out but not enough to give me any real clue what’s happening, the pilot comes on again and tells us that, in fact, there has been a security breach, and given the sensitive nature of the “object” (his word), and the sensitive nature of the airport (across the freeway from the Pentagon; across the river from the Capitol), we’re going to have the re-screen the plane.
What this means, practically speaking, is that we de-board the airplane, a few rows at a time, taking all of our stuff with us. My group goes first. And when we get off the plane and up the jetway, we find the gate area completely cordoned off and surrounded by all the TSA guys and airport police in the world.
What freaks me out, though, and I mean really sends me over the edge into a latent panic (which doesn’t manifest until later in the story), is the Suits. Big fat guys in suits, with fancy shoes. These are the guys who never leave the administrative offices unless something has gone Really Wrong. And they’re all there.
In groups of ten, the TSA guys (one in front leading the way; one in back making sure everybody stays together) take us through the concourse, back outside security, and then back through to be re-screened. And every last one of us, every single person on that plane, is put through secondary screening. Wanding, pat-down, hand-check of luggage. The whole bit.
Afterward we are directed back to the gate, and told to sit on the far side in another cordoned-off area. I ask some TSA guy if it’s okay to go to the bathroom, not wanting to set off any major alarms when I do. (It was okay.)
So we start to wait, and watch as the rest of the plane is debarked and taken in small lots off for re-screening. And slowly the story filters through the crowd:
The plane had been parked at the gate overnight, and at some point last night it was screened (as apparently all planes now are) by TSA. They pull up and check under the seat cushions, they look in all the overhead bins, and apparently they sometimes bring out the bomb-sniffing dog.
And though no one knows how this happened — whether it was overlooked by the screeners or planted after screening, and who, in any case, did the planting — after the plane was boarded, Mr. Romance Novel Cover found a box cutter in his seat pocket. And turned it in to a flight attendant. And, well, everything ensued.
The plane (re-searched and re-bomb-sniffing-dog-sniffed) turned out to be clean, as did the passengers. Mr. Romance Novel Cover was apparently taken off and questioned for a while, but it became clear that he really had just found the thing, and he was re-screened and put back on the plane. So we were never, apparently, in any danger. And the TSA guys were, uniformly and completely, calm, professional, and serious-but-pleasant. The only part of this part of the story that was the least bit upsetting, as I’ve already said, was the Suits, and how entirely freaked out they all seemed.
But of course, by the time they start reboarding the plane, everyone has missed their connections. And I’m thinking, oh well, once again I get in just before midnight, what are you gonna do. At least I can go sit in the snooty club lounge and drink bad, but free, wine, and use their wireless and get some work done during my extended layover.
Just before they start boarding, the gate agent makes an announcement saying that everyone who has connections to any airport other than someplace in Colorado I’ve never heard of, Sacramento, Ontario, Baton Rouge, Macallen, and Mexico City, should get back on the plane. Because though they’ve missed their connections, they’ve all been placed on the next flight out, no prob. The rest of us should not board.
I’m really puzzled, and the poor gate agents are mobbed with idiots shouting “what about Tucson?”, “what about El Paso?”, and so it takes a while for me even to get enough of a sliver of someone’s attention to say “you couldn’t just get me on the next flight tonight to Ontario?”
This is where that Saturday thing becomes important. Because there isn’t a next flight tonight.
So I wait, and try to be patient, and that latent freakout is starting to break for the surface. I’m honestly standing there having to fight not to burst into hysterical tears while the gate agents take crazy amounts of time rebooking people, and begin to help everyone but me.
At some point in this debacle a supervisor appears and says “we’re about to close the doors on this plane. If any of you don’t mind staying overnight in Houston, you can take this flight and get home tomorrow.” And the guy next to me, who’s going to Baton Rouge, says, sensibly, “but wait — what’s my option? I go to Houston and stay there over night, or… what? Stay here overnight? Or get booked on another airline and get home tonight?” The supervisor seemed really put out that he actually wanted to know what his choice was. (Really, it was like a bizarre airport Let’s Make a Deal for a second: you can take this plane and a night in a hotel, or you can take what’s behind door number two.)
I continue to wait. As past experience evidences, if I’m going to be stuck overnight somewhere, I’d rather it be where R. is than where he’s not.
I am the last person helped. And I’m beginning to lose it a little by this point. And so when the gate agent tells me that she can book me on Delta via Atlanta, getting in to Ontario at 9ish pm. There are two different flights to Atlanta that I can take, the 2 pm or the 3 pm, though the second leg remains the same, so do I have a preference?
I ask whether there’s a seat in first class on one but not the other; otherwise, it doesn’t matter. And she looks at me blankly for a second, and then looks at my two first-class boarding passes, both emblazoned with my super-duper elite status, and says “oh.” And taps a few keys. And has to wait for the other gate agent to finish what she’s doing before she can ask her whether she can do anything about upgrades, to which the answer is no. I’m going to be in coach for both legs.
And that’s where I snap. Boxcutter on the plane, whatever. Airport personnel paranoia, sure. Intrusive re-screening, fine. Flight delays, I can deal. But don’t deny me my rightful — if completely and totally undeserved — seat in first.
I don’t remember what I said, but it wasn’t nice, and it resulted in the other gate agent, not the one helping me, saying, “ma’am, you paid for a coach ticket. That upgrade was complimentary.” And so now I feel, not to put too fine a point on it, like a complete and total shit.
So I apologize profusely, and say it’s the strain, and they’re both way sweeter about it than they needed to be. And the gate agent says that she can try Northwest, because they’ll upgrade me on the usual elite schedule, even if Delta won’t. So I say fine, and she puts me on a 6 pm flight via Minneapolis, arriving in Ontario at 11 pm — just as I would have had there been a later Continental flight. And I’m grateful, and apologetic, and I thank them for their help, and finally take the little slip of paper they give me (and the eight dollar airport voucher, which I promptly use to buy a drink) and begin the mile-long trek to the Northwest counter in Terminal A. I’m the last person other than the gate agents to leave the scene. The plane has long since departed, and even the Suits are gone.
And the ticket agent at the Northwest counter is puzzled by the slip of paper, but gets me a seat in first for both legs. And I call R., who comes back to the airport to pick me up again, bless his little heart. He does way too much of that. And he buys me lunch and we take a nap and I finally get calmed down (serious palpitations, profgrrrrl; you might even have called it agita [which yes, I know, actually refers to heartburn, but I’ve always connected it with angina for some reason]), just in time to head back to the airport.
I’ve made it as far as Minneapolis. My suitcase, of course, went to Houston. Who knows when or how it’ll make it home.
[UPDATE, 1.9.05, 6.06 am PST: The first good news is that I made it home without further event. But when we arrived, at what felt like 2.30 am to me, the Delta baggage representative, who handles Continental baggage claims, said I had to file a claim with Northwest, even though they never touched my suitcase, because that was the airline I last flew. And, of course, the Northwest baggage representative was off dealing with the bags from the flight I’d just come in on. I resigned myself to waiting a while and becoming increasingly delirious in the process — but five minutes later the Delta baggage guy, who’d gone off to help with the off-loading of bags on a Delta flight that had also just arrived, re-emerged dragging my suitcase. Apparently Continental had put a “rush” tag on it, getting it on a flight from Houston to Salt Lake City, and from there it got transferred to a Delta flight to Ontario, where it arrived at exactly the same time I did. And that, right there, is why I’m so bloody loyal to Continental.]