Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Four Red "S"s (Or: What NOT to have Printed on your Airline Ticket)


Recently my mother began reading my blog. I know - I've been writing it for almost three years, and she just got on board. I think that says a lot about how blog readership is built. Oh well - I'm glad to have her as a fan. She has been enjoying the blog, and recently told me her favorite post to date has been my husband's crazy story about Tijuana. I chuckled and said, "Yup, that's one of the craziest stories that I know of where I actually knew the person involved." My mom looked me in the eye and commented, "I know another one. Why haven't you written about your trip to Philadelphia?"

Right. That story. I had almost forgot about that story. I suppose if I can share my husband's travel nightmare, I should probably share mine.

It all began when I took a trip to attend a conference in New Orleans. Feel free to read all about that here. That trip was fine: tons of fun, saw some amazing sights, got funky on Bourbon Street, etc. It was the wild trip home that my mother was referring to. When my party and I arrived at the airport, we saw to our dismay that the check-in counter for our airline was backed way up - as in, to the very end of the airport and out into the parking lot backed up. We waited in line for over three hours to reach the ticket counter, where rumors were confirmed. There had been tornado warnings in Dallas, Texas, where we'd been heading to meet our connecting flight, and all flights were cancelled. We were stranded in New Orleans. Typically, this would have thrilled me (a few extra days in a fun city can't be all that bad), but we had work to return to, and Easter holidays with our families. Because the cancellation had been caused to due to weather, the airline couldn't help us out. They did give us a voucher to a hotel, and we were sent away with a small smile of sympathy.

It is never good when you see a line-up like this at the airport...

When we pulled up to the hotel, we noticed immediately it was quite run-down. I was with two other young women, Becky and Erica, and as we walked up to our hotel room door, we noticed that there was a drug deal occurring in the doorway next to our room. We put our heads down and entered our hotel room, securing the lock immediately. Then - oh joy of joys - we saw that the hotel rooms were adjoining, separated by only a flimsy red door. We immediately piled all of our luggage, and any furniture that could be moved, in front of the door. (That didn't stop the smoke from curling beneath the door frame later that evening from the room next door.)

After hours of being on the phone, everyone in our group had managed to secure a secondary flight home. However, none of us were on the same flight, and most of us were all meeting connecting flights in completely different cities. Becky was going to Las Vegas, then home to Canada. Erica was hitting up Seattle on a different airline, and then to Canada. I was to go to sunny Los Angeles, and then to Canada. My flight was the last to leave New Orleans, but I didn't mind. We finally fell asleep, happy that we'd at least be home the next day.

Desperately making calls to find a way home

Only, that didn't happen for me. Sitting alone in the airport the next day, after everyone else had caught their flights, I heard my name announced over the intercom, summoning me to the ticket desk. When I approached to find out why I was needed, I was informed that my flight had, once again, been cancelled, and I was being "temporarily re-routed" to Philadelphia (note: on the opposite side of the continent than where I was originally destined to go). Because my flight was leaving so late now, I would be in Philadelphia overnight, and then would be given a connecting flight home the next morning. Since there wasn't anything I could do, and by this point I just wanted to go home, I agreed.

Everyone in the airport waiting to be re-routed.

When I arrived in Philadelphia, I waited at the luggage carousel until I was virtually the last person in the entire airport. My luggage did not arrive. So I was stuck overnight in Philadelphia with no luggage - okay, fine. No big deal. I had no one to impress. I checked in with the lost luggage desk, and they tracked down my bags for me: although I had been unable to fly to Los Angeles, it turned out my luggage had. The kind people assured me that my possessions were en route to Canada, and I had nothing to worry about.

Not sure what to do with myself, I wandered the airport. Because of the time of night, most parts of the airport were closed and sealed off. The only hotel in the portion of the airport where I was trapped was way beyond my price range. I only had twenty dollars left in American money, and no desire to spend an additional $300 on a portion of the trip that was unplanned and uninsured. I spent my last $20 on dinner in the very expensive restaurant that was attached to the very expensive hotel, and trundled back to the baggage area of the Philadelphia airport, with not much for options. I did have wireless Internet, so I contacted my husband to let him know I was alive and well, just stuck at the airport. Since I didn't know when my flight was leaving the next morning, I had to wait until the ticket booths opened, and didn't dare leave the airport grounds until then.

The view from my 'bed' that night - the Philly airport at 4 a.m.

Here's a fun fact: at night, the kindly airport staff let homeless people into the baggage area to get out from the cold and to sleep somewhere warm and carpeted. And that's fine - it just scared the crap out of me, a young girl stranded all alone with nothing but her purse and a laptop. Most of the people who came to stay for the night were quiet and harmless, but one man insisted on banging his head against the wall and yelling sporadically, then sat and eyed my computer. He never approached me, but needless to say, I didn't dare snooze in my seat for very long. I believe all night, I had about one hour of sleep in total, using my laptop as a very uncomfortable pillow.

The next morning, when the airline booth opened, I was the first person in line. I waited while they painstakingly booted up their computers, set up their little tags and ties, and chatted about who-knows-what. Finally, I was able to show the woman my passport and get my flight home organized. Or not. The woman at the kiosk frowned, double-checked my passport, and stated, "You're not in our system. I don't believe you are flying with us today." I am proud to say that at this point, I managed to remain calm. We sorted out that my new flight home was with their sister airline, and she directed me to the next terminal. I hustled there - but still ended up at the end of a very long line. Not knowing when or how I was getting home, I started to panic.

Sometimes charm doesn't do the trick, but tears do!

At this point, I think the heavens above took mercy on me. A man in a business suit noticed my distress, and after I explained to him my situation, he led me to the security guard responsible for keeping order in the line-up. The guard whisked me to the front of the line, where I apologized to the people behind me without actually feeling bad for butting. My hope was rising. Finally, I was at the ticket booth of the RIGHT airline this time. I handed him my passport.

"Hm. There seems to be a problem," the man behind the counter muttered. My eyes widened, but I remained quiet. "It seems you have been put in first class, but I'm afraid first-class is completely booked. They sometimes overbook flights like that, and I see you are a last minute addition. However, there is a flight later on this evening at 8 p.m. that I can put you on." He tried to appear chipper and positive for my sake.

Maybe it was because he smiled. Maybe it was because I'd used a laptop as a pillow the night before. Maybe it was the one hour of sleep. But I just couldn't take it anymore. I burst into tears, and not just sniffling tears of disappointment. My psyche went all the way back to five-years-old, and I was again a bawling baby. I cried with big, choking gasps, like I was drowning above air. The man had been holding my passport out to me, but instead of taking my passport, I grabbed his hand and began to pet it, trying to calm myself enough to speak to him, to beg him to let me on that flight. Somehow I gasped out, "I just want to go home!" I think he understood me, because he gently pulled his hand from where I was petting it like a cat, and said, "Let me see what I can do." He picked up the telephone.

I cried like this little baby right here.

As I desperately tried to get a grip, he chatted with someone on the other end of the line. Finally, he hung up the phone and began typing on his computer. Soon, the sounds of his little, ancient printer could be heard. He held up a ticket. "There, it's all done. This is your flight number, and your gate number. You'll be going to Los Angeles, and then to Calgary from there." He handed me my passport, and I nodded dumbly, backing away quickly before he maybe changed his mind and kept me in Philadelphia a second more. (I was later told some amazing and selfless person had given up their seat for me, although I'm sure they got something very nice for it.)

I ran through the airport to my gate (still crying, because once it started it just wouldn't stop), hoping that security wouldn't make me miss this flight too. When I'd checked my flight boarding time, there wasn't a big window. 'Oh please, oh please, let the line be short,' I repeated in my mind over and over. It was. I was so relieved, until the security guard checked my boarding pass and waved me over. "Security check," she told me, and led me into the little blue room. She was gruff and harsh, and freaked me out completely. "Stand here, and put your arms out," she instructed me as she flipped through my passport. I did so, turning to face the wall with my back to her. "Having a bad day, are you?" she asked me, indicating my tear-stained face.

"Yes," I replied timidly, looking at her with a small smile over my shoulder, hoping to melt her heart and convince her not to give me a cavity search.

"Turn around," she barked, so I whipped my head back around to face the wall.

"Sorry," I said, the Canadian's response to everything.

"Turn around," she repeated sternly.

"I am! I am!" I began to panic. Did she think I was a terrorist? To my surprise, she began to chuckle.

"Turn around," she said again, grabbing my shoulders gently and rotating me so I faced her and not the wall. I smiled sheepishly. "You ARE having a bad day," she noted. I explained to her a very short version of my story, and told her that I just wanted to get home.

"You want to know why I pulled you into this room?" she asked me. I nodded, and she waved my boarding pass in my face. "See these?" she pointed to the ticket. She was pointing at four capital "S"s circled in pen.

"What does that mean?" I asked curiously. She chuckled again.

"It means you are a potential security threat. From what I see, you would be classified as emotionally unstable." This made me blush. "Okay, you can go. Don't miss your flight!" she laughed, and I grabbed my purse and laptop and took off, hoping I wasn't too late to catch my plane.

Example of a ticket with four "S"s - not mine.

Finally I made it - and then I sat. I needn't have worried: my flight had been delayed. However, I didn't mind, as the break gave me a second to catch my breath, go to the bathroom and wash the tears from my face, get a healthy breakfast of sale-item chocolate from a magazine store, and ponder my four "S"s. Once on the plane (and in first-class for the very first time in my life!), I was able to eat a nice meal, wash my face with a hot cloth, and sleep - ah, the sweet beauty of sleep!

But oh, the story is not done. Because of that delay back in Philadelphia, my plane was landing in LAX with about fifteen minutes for me to get from my arrival gate to my departure gate. The gentleman sitting next was as worried for me as I was. He sure was nice, considering I probably smelled, looked awful, and had drooled on him in my sleep. He told me that his company had some planes at the airport, and that if I missed my flight, he would find a way for me to get home. He wrote down his number for me to call in an emergency, which I lost in my mad dash through the airport. Once off the plane, I ran from gate to gate: skipping through the line at security as I'd learned in Philadelphia, running through the airport with no shoes on (I didn't dare stop to lace up my shoes), flying right past someone who I am fairly certain was Robert DeNiro. I boarded the plane third-last, and finally, was headed home.

Despite all this, I still love to fly, and I still love to travel! If you can make it through an adventure like this, you can make it through anything!

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