Up in the Air

[What follows was written at 30,000 feet. I’m no longer there, but firmly on the ground, for another fifteen minutes or so…]

I should have known right from the start that this was going to be a particularly surreal trip. I went online the night before leaving, just to make sure that all with my reservation was as I left it, and discovered that while I’d had a seat assignment for the Houston-to-Paris leg of my trip a few days before, that assignment was no longer there, and a note on the reservation said that my seat would be assigned on check-in.

No biggie, really, except that I’d used miles to upgrade to business first, since it’s such a long journey with such a quick turnaround time. And now, of course, I was afraid that they’d sold my seat out from under me. So, intending to throw a little platinum-elite-frequent-flyer muscle around, I called Continental to see what was what. The quite lovely rep I spoke to was as befuddled as I; first class was not oversold — it was in fact empty — and all the seats had been frozen. Nothing he could do. I figure, whatever, I’ll get to the airport early tomorrow.

So I do, after my customary morning-of-departure what-am-I-forgetting OCD attack. But even at the airport, the agent behind the counter — not a Continental agent, sad to say, as Ontario has so few Continental flights in and out that they use America West agents to staff the counter — told me that she couldn’t do anything either, that the seats were all still locked down, and that I’d have to get a boarding pass at the gate in Houston. Again, whatever. There still appear to be plenty of seats, and my reservation still says first.

But then she starts doing the rest of whatever it takes to check me in, and says “Houston’s having weather. But you know that, right?” I shrug; Houston’s always having weather, so whatever. But she starts telling me how if I get on this first flight and then get stuck in Houston, there will be no “amenities.” And another agent looks over her shoulder and says “Red alert? What’s that?”

Not so much with the “whatever” now. Red alert?

But if there’s a chance the flight is going to go, I need to be on it, right, so I say I’ll take my chances. She finishes checking me in and I head up to the gate. Once the gate agent arrives — and nine times out of ten, flying Continental out of Ontario, the same America West agent who checked me in is the gate agent, but this time it’s someone else — I sidle up and ask her how things look in Houston, that the agent downstairs had said something about weather and a red alert, to which the agent responds, “Weather is yellow.”

Great. So what’s red?

She pokes at her computer for a second, and then mutters something about — I kid you not — “tee enn tee.” And I’m thinking, TNT? Or T.N.T., like Temporarily No Transportation? Or Today’s Not (a) Terrific (day to fly)? But then she follows up by saying, “well, it should be fine, because they’re still coming and going.”

So I’m back to “whatever,” but it’s a bit of a strain.

I get on the plane, settle in, pull out work, and attempt to hide the fact that my computer bag is behind my feet (I’m in the first row, so there’s no seat in front of me, and I’m going to need the computer during the flight). Of course, the eagle-eyed flight attendant spots it immediately and offers sweetly to put the bag up above for me. Whatever. But she looks weirdly familiar to me, and I can’t figure out why; I take this flight out of Ontario through Houston quite a bit, so I’m assuming I’ve flown with her before, but that doesn’t feel quite right somehow.

Why becomes clear once we start taxiing, as the safety video runs; she’s Allie, one of the flight-attendant-spokespeople in the video I’ve seen eight bajillion times. She’s standing right in front of me, right next to my little drop-down screen, and I do the totally dorky reflex look-back-and-forth between her and the screen, and before I can stop myself blurt out “oh man, I thought I recognized you.” She was quite sweet about it, telling me how she’s run into fellow airline employees out of context and out of uniform and been unable to place where she knew them from.

It would be great to end the story here, but just after this we took off, to the accompaniment of a profound shuddering and awful noise in the front end of the plane, which was enough to set my teeth on edge — I’m not a terribly nervous flyer, but this was a little more than I really wanted to deal with. Particularly given the rushing back and forth of flight attendants that ensued, as apparently one of them smelled smoke just after take-off. This was the point at which my latent superstitiousness kicked in in force, and I started thinking about the number of weird portents that have so far surrounded this trip, the kinds of portents that only really appear in made-for-TV movies about plane crashes, signs from beyond attempting to warn me not to get on the plane, and a literal bit of bleed from the TV monitor into the reality in front of me, letting me know exactly where I was.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the movie ends, to say the least.

[As you may guess by the flashback-driven nature of said movie, all ends well. “Red alert” is apparently about weather after all, of the particularly untenable kind. And being Houston, the weather has pretty much moved on. As am I. More from France.]

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