Monday, December 07, 2009

Always have a back-up route, because sometimes you need to use it.

You can only sit around an airport eating Kit Kats and drinking Cokes for so long before you start going a bit stir crazy. I can do it for a couple of hours, but five or more seems like an eternity. When you’re traveling you begin your day with a pre-conceived notion of how the time will flow – where you’ll be, what your transfers look like and which part of the time block you’ll spend sitting on the plane. In the past it used to be all about what time I arrived. Lately, with the travel I’ve been doing, it’s more about whether I’ll arrive at all.

While airport terminals are very busy places there really isn’t much of anything interesting happening. All the activity and motion that sometimes appears dizzying is really nothing more than people rushing here and there. And aside from that ever enjoyable pastime of analyzing the appearance of one’s fellow travelers, nothing of much interest comes from the movement of people. Unless someone falls down or walks into a pillar or something.

The isolation gets even worse when you spend your time in a lounge because the goal of those places is peace and quiet. Sitting in a lounge is all about snacking, waiting for lunch to show up and complaining about the performance of their wireless connection assuming they even have one. Sometimes you write a blog, or polish off a little work email. Or maybe you play a dozen games of Spider. In the end though you spend most of your time checking your watch and calculating how long it will take you to get to your gate, because you certainly don’t want to give up the lounge climate one second earlier than you have to.

After getting bored with taking photographs of the terminal ceiling – it is an interesting ceiling – I had a look at my watch and decided to have a walk down to the gate. Grabbing one last handful of Kit Kats I made my way down the escalator and across the concourse past all the a-list shops. Not too many people shopping this afternoon, maybe everyone was feeling stingy from being so delayed. Today all the shop girls were wearing what appeared to be some sort of gold uniform overcoat. It didn’t seem so cold on the ground floor, but with the Chinese you never know. Sometimes 75F is cold for them.

Over the course of the last year I have switched my standard route from China to home to the path through Beijing. I used to hate it because in the early, pre-Olympic days of the new airport, flying through here meant an unseemly bus ride from the old airport to this one. And the connections were always too close to spend time on an airport tour bus. But eventually Air China started to have a flight from Dalian that enabled me to catch the midday flight to San Francisco and so I started coming this way. Of course this route has not been without its perils – witness my day of forced tourism back in August. But on average, it has worked out well for me.

United Airlines Flight 888 always leaves from Gate 28 which just happened to be on my way to today’s departure point, Gate 23. Walking by, I saw the plane we should have had parked up within reach of the withdrawn jet way, both cowlings off of its left side engine. I figured that was the reason I was still wandering around here instead of being halfway across the Pacific by now. Later I heard that the plane had hit a bird and that was the cause for our delay. Its presence there got me wondering about what plane we would be departing on.

It was now about 3:45, twenty minutes before the boarding time that the geography-challenged agent had written on my boarding pass. Bad news waited at Gate 23 – there was no plane. Now it’s never good news when you’re scheduled to board in 20 minutes and you’re lacking as basic an ingredient as an aircraft. I asked the agent what was going on and she pointed to the runway and said “The plane is right there, it’s arriving.” It became clear right then and there that we would not be pulling back at 5:00, because they were planning to turn around the jet that normally arrives at 3:40. I’ve been on that flight when it has pulled in a full hour early. Normally it’s in at least 20 minutes before its scheduled arrival. But not today when I was waiting for it; no, today it was arriving 10 minutes late.

After standing around and watching the sun set over a Continental plane that was waiting to board for “somewhere” they started calling us up to the lines by the podium. Normally they board the 3 special classes first and together. Today though they decided to board the two classes higher than mine in advance, a move that simply caused more confusion since they’d lined us up all together. I stepped aside and let the more important people pass and then got on and got settled.

There is a certain class of Business traveler that drives me nuts. They tend to be loud and they tend to be aggressive and they tend to sit scattered around the cabin. They have a habit of standing up in their aisles and yelling across the way to their buddies, in a way that guarantees that everyone knows just how important they are and just how experienced a traveler they might be. The impression I get is that they have somehow managed to maintain this behavior from their time spent in their 3rd rate fraternity at their 2nd rate university. Today I had the great misfortune of being surrounded by them. Eventually though they shut up and sat down, one falling asleep and one crossing paths with me again later in the flight when he turned out additionally to be a Seat Button Jammer – one of those morons that thinks it’s best to just push the recliner button and jam the seat back as fast as possible. About midway home he did that and crushed my foot. Judging from the look on his face he didn’t appreciate the choice words I had for him at the time.

We pulled away from the gate a full 40 minutes later than expected and then proceeded to sit on the runway for an additional 40 while we waited for takeoff clearance. We were finally airborne at 6:20 PM. My Albuquerque connection was surely disappearing and my back-up route – San Francisco to Denver – was now in jeopardy as well.

The flight was like any other aside from the almost fisticuffs with the middle-aged frat boy. I flirted with the flight attendants, had a discussion with a Mexican about the desert agreeing that it was more like Flan than Tiramisu and spent some time watching movies and sleeping. A guy in the row ahead of me woke me up twice by yelling, really loudly, forgetting perhaps that he had sound abating headphones on. Don’t know if he was having a bad dream or yelling at the movie he was watching, but whatever the reason it’s disconcerting when people start yelling in a darkened plane cabin. The pilot did make up some time but we arrived about the time my original connection was leaving and so I was quickly into back-up mode – I needed to clear Immigration and Customs as quickly as possible.

Sometimes when you’re rushed and stressed, everything goes wrong. Once in a great while everything goes right. This particular morning was one of the latter – it was as though I was betting Rouge in Roulette and the ball was falling with every spin of the wheel.

I was past the last Border Patrol check in less than 15 minutes and rounding the corner to the United service desk I found it abandoned aside from 3 agents standing around just waiting to help me out. Boarding pass and a waitlist ticket for 1st Class in hand I tore off to the closest domestic security check and found that line short as well. I had 30 minutes to make a gate at the far end of the airport but things were going my way. After two passes through the metal detector I was on the homestretch and I made the gate with 15 minutes to spare. I boarded the plane with my 1st Class ticket in hand and settled in for the next challenge – making a 35 minute connection in Denver.

I sat and had a nice conversation with the guy in my row that had also been on the Beijing flight. Airplane conversations can sometimes be a bit dangerous, and I deftly avoided commenting on his statements regarding the state of our country and the recent political events. Eventually we went our separate ways by donning our headphones; I spent the rest of the flight watching the Great Basin float by. Another plane passed close beneath us, leaving a puffy contrail and mightily impressing me with how fast it appeared to be going when seen from above.

By now my luck had officially changed, we arrived on time and I was out on the concourse in a flash. I merely had to make my way from Gate 49 to Gate 93 and I had 30 minutes to do so.

I started walking, using the moving walkway whenever it was not clogged by the standing lazy. On and on I went for what seemed to be forever. The signs kept pointing the way ahead but I couldn’t understand how 30 more gates could be beyond the 60’s and when I reached the end of the concourse it was even more perplexing. As I stepped off the walkway, I saw one more sign that pointed a way off to the right. Taking that and heading down an escalator, I found myself in the shame of the Denver Airport – the Barbie Jet Departure Lounge. Apparently tacked onto an otherwise beautiful airport, this place was really little more than a cinder block bus station jammed with people who had nowhere to sit. I guess the little jets are not tall enough to use the rest of the airport and so this little ghetto had to be built to accommodate them. I stood and waited, getting asked to move by some guy who felt the need to walk between me and my luggage as opposed to going around. Go figure.

I was first on board and after stripping all the stuff out of the front pockets of my bag in order to squeeze it into the overhead bin; I plopped down for the ride. Two guys stinking of cigarette smoke sat in front of me, one was so fascinated with the cell phone wrist watch that he’d found in the Sky Mall catalog that he felt compelled to talk about it with the people across the aisle, even offering the page number for easy reference. His pal was going on about a fist fight he’d been in, offering a detailed analysis of the angle in which his fist had met the jaw of his opponent and relating how he was able to steal the guy’s sunglasses when the battle was done. A jovial plus-sized fellow with really short legs sat down next to me absorbing a lot of the space I had paid for but it didn’t matter, I leaned against the wall and dozed off until it was time to leave. The flight attendant literally read the safety and beverage instructions off of a script in “See Dick Run” cadence, making me wonder how she could not have memorized it by now.

We took off on time and hit a burst of air that made the plane violently rock from side to side. My neighbor commented that perhaps the pilots had the same experience level as the flight attendant, I countered that at least she wasn’t driving. All was well until I stretched my legs about the time we were getting ready to land and touched the leg of one of the thugs in front of me. He turned around and accused my neighbor of playing footsies with him; my neighbor responded by pointing out that his legs were too short. I volunteered that I’d done it and apologized, telling him the plane was just too cramped. He took a look at me and laughed, a second fist fight avoided. I guess 29 hours of travel and 10 days without shaving gave me the appearance of someone who was not going to forfeit his sunglasses at the end of the fight. Our little encounter brought to mind a paper I’d read away back in college explaining how violent criminals required more personal space than regular people. Case in point I guess.

In the end my 4+ hour delay in Beijing translated into being exactly 4 hours late arriving in Albuquerque. A good use of time I guess, with layovers being replaced by airport sprints and planes that could actually depart and arrive on time. Once in while you get lucky, once in a while you don’t. Today was my day and I was glad of it.



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