In the Airline Twilight Zone

When all things are optimized our nation’s airline system is still quite a marvel. Yes, airlines may be cutting costs left and right. Yes, the security is a frustrating hassle. But it’s still a marvel that much of the time and you can get predictably from point A to point B. However when things are not optimized then airline travel quickly goes from marvel to frustrating Chinese water torture. Like the spouse who is usually sweet and sunny but goes into a manic phase every now and then, the same is true with our nation’s airports, airlines and air traffic control system. Sometimes they conspire together to produce the perfect storm.

And that was my unfortunate situation. The way that things should have worked was I would have caught a 12:40 nonstop flight out of Denver yesterday and arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport around the dinner hour. I would have the evening to unpack, reconnect with my family, eat a healthy dinner and vegetate on the computer. Oh how I wanted to vegetate. My cat would be purring contentedly on my lap while I read my email, caught up with my forum and hit my favorite web sites. And then I would be leisurely off to bed. Because I’ve been on business travel all week I have been largely denied my comforting activities. I ache for my mundane daily hobbies.

But the usually sunny Denver was beset by rain and thunderstorms. I don’t begrudge residents of Colorado the rain. In the dry west you can never get enough of rain. But I do begrudge United Airlines for sloppy communications. My flight was canceled for mechanical reasons. I can understand that. Still I was a bit piqued that I was never notified. Although I was signed up for a service that should have notified me by cell phone of this flight cancellation I received nothing. Nor were there any notices in my email inbox. I got to work (in this case the Denver Federal Center) but before dashing off to a meeting I did a quick flight check on the web. And that’s how I found out that my flight was canceled. Of course I immediately started trying to reroute the colleague I was traveling with and myself. I was offered a connecting flight through Indianapolis. That seemed acceptable: arrive around 9 PM instead of 6 PM. Not ideal, but acceptable.

But after making the reservation changes my phone starts to ring. Now I am getting automated voice mail from United Airlines. It informed me that my new flight would leave an hour later than scheduled. And that meant that I probably wouldn’t make the connecting flight. So I call the airlines again and ask for what seems to be a more promising connecting flight through Minneapolis. We were booked on it.

But rain and thunderstorms caused flight delays at the Denver airport. It’s not a good sign when pilots cannot berth their aircraft because the gate crew is not allowed to go out and direct them in. So we left the gate about a half hour late. But we had ninety minutes between connecting flights. I figured we’d make the connection.

But of course just because we were pushed out of the gate didn’t mean we were actually anywhere near being airborne. No, we sat there a couple hundred feet from the gate.

And sat. And sat. In a driving rain. And we hear thunder. We get murky reports from the pilot on how long we were going to be there. But he’s decided it will be a while so he turns the engines go off, along with the air conditioning. The heat inside the aircraft builds. We start to sweat. Man, I hate sitting on the tarmac. You are effectively in prison. You cannot get out. You cannot go anywhere except possibly to use the bathroom. And you have no idea if you will be there for five minutes or five hours. Well at least we were allowed to use our cell phones so I can phoned home to complain. About ninety minutes later we were somewhat mysteriously allowed to leave. A 12:53 PM departure was actually 3:30 PM.

But at least it was smooth flying to Minneapolis. It was good to see the sun again. Of course because we were late getting out of Denver we missed our connecting flight. We snagged a friendly United Airlines employee and followed some passengers to a booking room in the United First Class Club. Our one hope was to get on a US Airways flight to Charlotte, and then hop on a commuter flight into Washington Dulles. It should get us home at 12:05 a.m. We discussed spending the night in Minneapolis. But there was no guarantee we could get out in the morning. All flights were booked.

So we grabbed it. At least we’ll be 250 miles from home instead of 800. United Airlines was helpful in working with US Airways. They pulled our bags from the plane and moved them to the new plane. It was a bit frantic but we made the flight. But there was no time to grab any dinner. And of course there was no dinner on the flight. This is after all de riguer for American airlines in the 21st century. Even so this plane left the gate about a half hour late.

The weather in Minneapolis was partly cloudy but there were thunderstorms all along the Eastern half of the United States that were causing traffic delays. So again here we were pushed off from the gate and we found ourselves sitting on the tarmac. And waiting. This pilot though was more communicative but his estimates were still way off. We actually left at 8:20 PM for a flight that was supposed to leave at 6:45 PM.

I purchased a snack box for $5 on the plane. It had to suffice for dinner, although this sure wasn’t health food. Chips. Salsa. Pretzels. Candy bar. Guzzled down with apple juice. We arrived in Charlotte at 11:10 PM. Even before we left the aircraft we were informed that our connecting flight had already left. So we could either sleep in the terminal or opt for a discount hotel. In either case we could not get a flight to Dulles until early afternoon the next day. We opted for the hotel room, which turned out to be a Ramada Inn five miles from the airport. We were one of many disgruntled travelers in the same boat. But the airline flat refused to give us our baggage. I was out of clean underwear. And the hotel was not free. Weather delays were not their fault, US Airways said, but we could get a discount rate of $53 by calling this toll free number. We used pay phones to rebook our flight and took the packed courtesy van to the hotel.

This is a faux three star hotel that maybe qualifies as a two star motel. The driver of the courtesy van informed us that there is a gentleman’s club next door is open until 3 AM. This gives us an inkling that maybe this isn’t a top of the line hotel. We arrived at the hotel after midnight. It was steamy outside and inside. Music from a club in the hotel was loud and annoying. Barflies wearing what looks like lingerie passed us by on their way to the club. I’m thinking: this is the exciting nightlife in Charlotte? I’m wondering if a swingers’ convention booked most of the hotel. I strongly suspect that this is the sort a place where I could easily find anonymous sex for the price of a few drinks. Fortunately my radar kept me far away from these tramps. And all I really wanted to do was sleep.

The hotel smelled musty and unclean. The hallways were hot and stifling, likely because they have no ventilation. The plastic key they gave me was coded incorrectly, so I had to trudge back down to the lobby and get it replaced.

I was given Room 4334. The room was not hot but it was icky. Curious: a previous occupant had children. There were Goldfish cracker crumbs under the bed. The maid couldn’t be bothered to clean them up. The couch had crumbs on it too. The bathroom counters and tub were chipped. The sink stop was broken. I washed up and climbed into bed. Ick again! These sheets were not fresh! Someone had slept in them before me. But it was past 1 AM and I was too exhausted to do anything about it. I tried to sleep but the bed was not comfortable and smelled funky so I only managed about four hours of sleep. I woke up around 6 a.m. wishing, but unable to get back to sleep. I could not tune out the smell of the unclean sheets. I took a shower and washed my hair. I missed things that were in my suitcase, like a comb for my hair. But I felt reasonably clean even in day old underwear.

We found a nearby IHOP for breakfast. My companion is from India and a vegetarian so it was particularly challenging to find food he will eat. We arrived at the Charlotte airport with more than two hours to spare. Both of us were selected for intrusive “special screening”. Grrr. Another happy result of the Patriot Act: ordinary people like me get to be shaken down like we were suspects. Every item in my overstuffed computer bag is carefully examined. Happily our flight to Washington Dulles airport was only fifteen minutes late. But when I added on the time it took to find our suitcases it was 3 PM before I was home. In short, I had arrived home 21 hours later than scheduled!

No moral to this story. This was just another bizarre adventure in the airline Twilight Zone, probably similar to some many of you have taken too. While it was not exactly hell it sure did feel like some form of purgatory.

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