never a dull moment in the life of a frequent flyer


So I got safely to Dulles...where, as expected, things didn't go according to anybody's plan. Here's a peek into my evening. As Dave Barry says, "I am not making this up!"

You'd think that transferring between flights on a single airline would be pretty straightforward. Not at Dulles. I arrived in D terminal, and had to leave from A terminal. However, they don't have shuttle buses from D to A at night, so instead I had to ride from D to C, and then from C to A. During each ride I got to listen to a chirpy recording of a female voice saying "Thank you for riding in this Dulles airport mobile lounge! This method of travel reduces your travel time and exposure to inclement weather, as well as allowing you an unobstructed view of airport operations and a wide range of aircraft here at one of America's busiest airports." Whose bright idea was it to try to make this airport bug seem like a feature?? "Mobile lounge," my ass.

After twenty minutes of riding "mobile lounges" and walking endless corridors, I finally arrived at my departure what I thought was moments before departure. But what I saw at the gate was lots of unhappy people milling around, and a small army of gate agents were looking confused and distressed. I heard vague mumblings from passengers about not wanting to volunteer their seats.

Gerald had already called to tell me that there'd been a foot of snow in Rochester already, and that I should plan on taking a cab home rather than trying to dig my car out of the satellite parking lot, so it occurred to me that volunteering my seat for an overbooked flight on a snowy night might be very wise--theoretically, I'd get a free ticket, a hotel room, and a flight out in the morning. What wasn't to like? (You sense trouble coming, don't you? Of course you do.) I elbowed my way up to the desk and offered up my seat, and the inarticulate agent thanked me and added my name to the list.

After a few minutes, the captain appeared, and announced that the weather was still acceptable for landing in Rochester, but was forecast to get worse. We could leave, but there was a possibility we couldn't land, which meant they were required to have two backup airports, which meant they needed more fuel. More fuel means fewer passengers, so not only were they oversold, they also had to leave with empty seats. (*Big* kudos to the captain for actually coming out to the gate and telling people this. It's amazing how a little honesty and face-to-face communication can defuse an angry crowd.)

So now I'm thinking I'm guaranteed a quiet night in a DC hotel, and flight home in daylight when the storm is over. I started feeling relaxed. I shouldn't have.

At this point, I overheard a gate agent tell a woman that there were no hotel rooms in the area, due to weather cancellations and local events. (No, I didn't believe her either. But that's irrelevant.) They'd offer an extra $50 in addition to the usual vouchers to compensate, she said. Ack. I started mentally going through my head, trying to figure out who I knew in DC that would be willing to put me up for the night. (Yes, Jared, you're the first one who came to mind, since as I recall your new house is very close to Dulles! But I don't have your phone number, dude. You need to send me that.)

Now, anyone who travels regularly knows how this kind of thing goes. They start with the people who've volunteered. They make a few announcements to get more volunteers, gradually upping the ante. Not these guys. They never acknowledged that a group of us had already offered to give up our seats. Instead, they announced that they were going to board the flight one person at a time, by name, using frequent flyer mileage status and check-in time as their ranking tools. WTF?!?

Ten minutes later, with 20 angry people still waving their boarding passes and demanding to be let on the plane, they called my name to board. "Are you sure?" I asked..."I did volunteer." They waved me on board, while the angry mob at the gate scowled at me.

I walked through the sliding doors, and was confronted with three possible directions I could walk. There was no sign of a gate agent to direct me. (They were all too busy standing at the desk looking confused, it seems.) "Is my plane behind door number one, door number two, or door number three?" Suddenly one set of doors opened to a darkened exterior hallway, so I took a chance and headed that way. At the end of the walkway, confused tarmac workers asked me why so few people were ocming through. They clearly didn't believe me when I told them how boarding was being handled, then asked for my boarding pass. I handed to them. "Why do you have the whole thing?" they asked, looking at me suspiciously. "Nobody asked me for it," I replied. Looking appalled, they tore off my stub, and motioned me towards the Canadair regional jet on the tarmac. I climbed aboard.

A few minutes later, I was followed onto the plane by a young man clutching a cell phone. "Dad, I swear, that's really what they're doing. No, I'm not kidding. Dad, they really are boarding people by name. I don't care, Dad, that's what they're doing!" He finally hung up, and settled himself in the seat next to me.

Thirty minutes later, as they finally prepared to close the doors, the flight attendant made an announcement. "I know y'all have had a rough evening, so tonight we're going to play a little game I like to call "boarding card bingo." Anybody every played this before?" Silence. "Okay, here's how it works. I have... [she looks in the galley] bottles of red wine, seven bottles of white wine, five bud lights, six buds, and...uh-oh, this will cause some fights...four heinekens. When we land, I plan to be fresh out of all of those. I'm going to collect your boarding cards and drop them in this bag. After we take off, I'll pull cards and you get your choice of what's left, no charge. Drink it fast, it's only a 40 minute flight to Rochester!" After a moment of stunned silence, the airplane erupted in laughter.

(Now, those of you who know my stepdaughter Erin can simply imagine Erin at age 45 with dark hair, and you've got a spot-on vision of this flight attendant. It was spooky.)

A few moments later, she came down the aisle, collecting our cards. When she got to the row behind me, she said "Okay, y'all are in the exit row. Hush up now, and listen." Then she rattled off the exit row speech ("are you able, here's what you have to do, etc etc") faster than the fedex guy in the classic fast-talking commercial. I have never heard anything like it. All of us in earshot were listened in disbelief. When she finished, we broke out in a rousing round of cheers and applause.

The flight was uneventful after that. We landed safely in a very snowy city, and trickled out to the terminal. Before we disembarked, I handed my card, with my blog address, to the young man next to me. "Give your dad--and your professors at Geneseo--this address if they don't believe your story, okay?" (Blogs as fact-checking mechanisms; shades of Accordion Guy and the New Girl, no?)

Gerald had instructed me to call a cab to take me home, rather than trying to dig my car out of the lot, so I went to the taxi stand. There were 15 other people there, and no taxis to be seen. Ugh. So I decided to hop the shuttle to the lot, and hope for the best. Bad idea. She pulled up in front of my car, and my nifty new remote starter did absolutely nothing to elicit signs of life from the car, which had a 2' snow drift behind it, as well. After a few other tests made it clear that the car was dead as a doornail, I headed back to the airport and got in line for a taxi.

At about 1am I paid the cab driver the extortionate fare he'd demanded to take me home in the snow, and dragged my sorry self in the door of my house. And ten hours later, I'm starting to feel almost human again.

Was sxsw worth all that? I think so. But I hope it doesn't become an annual travel-from-hell ritual, that's for sure.


Ouch. At the very least, hopefully this storm was Winter's last hurrah. Spring cannot come soon enough...

I had a similar experience during my senior year coming back from spring break. We boarded fine, but spent six hours in the air (we're talking about a 45 minute NYC-ROC flight!) before the captain decided that Rochester was too snowy and he'd fly us to either Pittsburgh or Buffalo because we were running out of fuel (always great to hear). Now Buffalo would be the obvious choice, right? Oh no Pittsburgh we went, got to the hotel at 3am, and finally made it to Rochester the next day at 3pm. Gotta love it...

Glad sxsw was worth it! :)

You forgot to tell them about losing your keys after all that...

Yes, -g. is right, there's a postscript. Right after I posted this, we got ready to go to the airport to jump my car and bring it home. And I couldn't find my keys.

I remembered having them when I got back into the shuttle at the airport, but not after that. I called the shuttle company, but they hadn't seen them. Then I called the cab company (three, actually, 'til I found the one with the exclusive franchise on airport pickups), and they hadn't seen them. I left my info with both, and we went to the airport, jumped my car, and brought it home (using -g.'s key). Then he went out and got me a new battery. About an hour ago I got a call from the cabbie, who had the keys. So I'm off to the airport in a few minutes to go pick them up. All's well that ends well, I guess.

Now I could swear Jared double checked with you about having his cell number before he left. That number seems to come in handy... at least it's saved me a quite a few times.

Amy, you're right. I just looked, and I _do_ have was in the address book on my computer. I just forgot to add it to my phone. D'oh!

yah should have said something.... i was just on the other side of the city when we were chatting, and my hotel wasn't full.

Looks like you're from my neck of the woods - sorry we didn't meet in Austin, but maybe we'll run into each other around the Beltwat before next year.

Oh. Maybe you were just passing through. Well, seeya in Austin next year.

This kind of story makes me feel better about the conferences I missed this spring, including SXSW.

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