Monday, August 06, 2007

A very different approach

You might think that an airport in city the size of Albuquerque would be a peaceful place at 5 in the morning on a Monday.

One the contrary – it’s a beehive.

I fly in and out of here with some frequency, as you all know. Usually it’s a pretty laid back place with short lines, small crowds and a clear shot down the concourse. Today though, everyone seemed to be beating a path out of town as quickly and as early as they could.

I walked in and found myself 3rd in the Premier-International line which is basically unheard of. I’ve never been worse than 2nd. Topping it though was the group in front of me composed of the meek and the loud. The loud telling the meek to make sure that they divided their prescription medicines between checked and carry-on luggage, lest the checked bags disappear en route. The meek responding that they’d divided their prescriptions between carry-on and checked luggage for that very reason. One of the meek wasn’t quite following what was going on until one of the loud told him they were checking in. Up to that point he must have been wondering why they were standing in that particular line. The woman in front of me finally had enough and bullied her way up to a kiosk for manual check-in. I waited, Buddha-like.

Thankfully the agent took me next, ahead of all the other people who had been waiting far longer than I had. Sometimes it pays to have that little silver card.

She offered me a $65 1st class upgrade to Denver, which I declined as I was checking in for San Francisco. She told me someone named BRO was going to Denver. After a brief discussion about whether or not I would need to gather my bag in Beijing, I was on my way. Security was no big deal aside from the man with the Mac whom was made an example of (for all of us) because he had placed his baggie of liquids on top of his laptop before sending it through the scanner. The agent remarked that he really liked the decals on top of my PC and thanked me personally for putting my baggie in with my shoes.

From there down the concourse to the B gates which threw me into a complete spin as United always leaves from the A side.

We were about to commence boarding when a frantic middle-aged Chinese couple came hurtling down the hallway yelling in Mandarin. They ran up to the gate where the young, mohawked agent smiled and told them to wait while he went to check on the plane. Naturally they followed him and he stopped and gave the universal two-handed “stop” sign. This continued two or three times - he’d walk five feet, they’d follow, he’d say stop. Finally he curtailed their advance by slamming the jet way door in their face, with a smile of course. The woman was absolutely beside herself, slapping both sides of her head with her hands, jumping up and down, yelling at her husband. He finally gave her a cell phone which she began to yell into instead.

I mentioned to my companion that it was almost preordained that they would be sitting beside me on the plane.

We boarded and I got situated. Playing empty seat roulette, it looked like I was destined to have the whole row to myself – and then the last boarders entered the plane, the Chinese couple. They came down the aisle, she said “jiu” (9) and sat down next to me. Thankfully now, their crisis seemed to be over and I still had an empty seat next to me.

The flight to SFO was uneventful until the approach. The bay was completely socked in with the thickest, most continuous mat of dirty gray fog clouds I had ever seen. We made a few circuits of the area and started to descend. Another jet flew by miles underneath us on the same approach. For many minutes we neared the top of the fogbank and finally began to enter it. You could look out the window as we skimmed the top and see peaks and valleys of gray fluff; it reminded me of the photos taken across the plains of the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Occasionally the shadow of our plane would skirt a couple of the peaks. And finally we went in.

Down and down we went, it getting darker as we moved into the center of the clouds. For a few moments the feeling was very strange – gray above and gray below. I imagined we would be on the ground when we finally broke through. Assuming we did.

I could see the occasional ground feature only to have it be consumed by the clouds. Then finally we were clear and I was surprised to see that we were still 1000s of feet in the air. The landing was textbook from that point on, touching down smoothly on my regular runway.

You have two choices to get to the international gates once you’re in the domestic terminal – out and through security or the 100 yard bus ride. I almost always take the bus because I just know I’m going to pick the wrong security line and get behind the guy who puts his baggie on his laptop.

So down the stairs and out onto the dreary runway I went to catch the bus. Today though was a bit different – they must have been working on commission because they kept filling and filling the bus until there was no room left, sitting or standing. Which is odd, because each and every one of us can afford the 5 minute wait for the bus to come back given our 3 hour layovers. This time though – no wait, just a crushing mob.

The bus loader stepped onto the platform and said in broken English – “Stop 1 United, Stop 2 Canada Air” and stepped off. The driver drove off. We had to wait a minute while a 737 crossed our path and then we made the regular u-turn to the disembarking area. We stopped and the driver said in broken English “United Stop 1.” The passengers looked dismayed and confused. A murmur went through the crowd, “is this United, I think he said United.” I cleared it up by loudly telling one lost soul that this in fact was United. Even the concerns of the guy wearing shants, a size XXL Hawaiian shirt and a crumpled straw cowboy hat was put to rest. I think he was on his way to Mexico.

From there, up the crammed elevator and onto the international concourse. It being early, everything is closed and the place is largely abandoned. My flight is not even yet on the board. So I wait, staring out the window eating a pain au chocolate and drinking a bottle of water. This water being “spring source” and not “tap.”



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