I have a love-hate relationship with air travel. I used to love it. Now, I hate it.
Remember when families used to go for a Sunday drive? Sometimes we went to Grandma’s house. Sometimes we drove down to the Detroit River to watch the iron ore freighters glide past. Sometimes we drove into the country to look at the stars. (Can you imagine taking our children or grandchildren to sit and enjoy nothing as a family? These days, we could probably be arrested for abusing them.)
Sometimes we just drove to the airport to watch planes land and take off. Cars would park at the end of the runway and just watch them fly over our heads.
Air travel in those days was unreachable to average American families, so there was something glamorous about flying into the unknown. It beat the hell out of riding in a hot car for 9 hours to visit relatives. I wanted to wear a stylish outfit and fly the friendly skies, so when I was 13 (1965), I called Delta Airlines to research the fare for a round-trip ticket to Atlanta to visit relatives. The round-trip fare was $104. I asked my parents if I could make the trip if I could save up the money. They smiled benignly and said, “Sure, if you can save the money.”
From then on, I saved my meager allowance and modest gifts, and, in about 10 months, I had $104. The fare had remained unchanged, so I approached my parents. My, my, my, weren’t they surprised? Being smart parents, they agreed, but they said they would pay for me and my sister to fly to Atlanta with a return trip in the family car. Not my original plan, what with the sister cramping my style, but I would still have my $104. I readily agreed to the compromise.
We dressed in our best Sunday dresses and shoes, waved good-bye to our parents at the gate, and boarded the plane. We were served filet mignon wrapped in bacon, a common practice when flying coach in those days. And that was the last uneventful trip I’ve ever had.
50% of every trip I take by air involves some sort of snafu in one direction or the other. The only exceptions were when I flew the Concorde and when my sister and I flew to Italy two years ago, both trips on British Airways, now that I think about it.
Here are some highlights of airline angst and how I’ve survived them:
In 1977, my brother-in-law lived on Eleuthera, one of the “out-islands” of the Bahamas. At the time, it had two airports, one on the north end and one in the main town, our destination. Unfortunately, the only airline that served the island was Bahamasair, whose motto, according to the locals, was “If you have time to spare, fly Bahamasair.” We were booked to fly from Miami in the early afternoon. We flew Eastern Airlines to Miami and re-checked in at Bahamasair
Now, it’s always nerve-wracking when you have to step on a scale with your luggage to determine the flight’s total weight. We were assigned seats according to our individual weight, which put me way in the tail and The Veterinarian behind the pilot, about five rows away. Okay. I understand aerodynamics and small airplanes. We sat in the waiting area. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, an announcement was made that the flight hadn’t left the Bahamas because “a front was passing through.” Okay. I understand the effect of wind. When the plane arrived, we immediately were hustled out to the tarmac.
“Board quickly, please!” There was confusion about which luggage was carry-on and which had to be stowed, about who sat where. “Quickly, please!” The agents and pilots kept saying to us.
Once loaded, the small plane rolled onto the huge taxiway at Miami International, interspersed with the usual DC-9s and 747s. The Veterinarian turned around and looked at me and rolled his eyes.
“I love you,” I mouthed. He winked. His family was in the air cargo and charter business, and we were well-familiar with the safety requirements of flying. We were behind a 727 and turned onto the runway immediately as it took off. We looked at our watches and each other as the small plane accelerated. It clearly was taking off too soon after the big jet. I shrugged and put myself in God’s hands. We bounced and jostled as we sped down the runway.
Once in the air and over the Atlantic Gulfstream (about 2 minutes after take-off), the co-pilot announced that we had left Miami too late to make our final destination. We would all deplane and clear customs at the north end of the island and arrange our own transportation to our final destination. As it turned out, there were no landing lights at either airport, and while it would be light when we landed in the north, it would be dark before we could land at our actual destination. If you have time to spare, fly Bahamasair.
In August, 1980, The Veterinarian and I were booked on Republic Airlines to fly from Baltimore’s BWI airport to Detroit on a Friday afternoon for our high school reunion, which was being held the next day. We had to fly home on Sunday because he had appointments to see on Monday. We arrived at the airport, checked in without baggage and proceeded to the gate. Again, we had a long wait. Eventually, an announcement was made that there was “turbulent weather” in Detroit and that the flight was delayed.
Okay. I don’t want people endangered for my convenience. Then, we waited another hour. And another hour. At least, we were travelling between major airports, fully-equipped with things like lights, so we weren’t especially concerned. Finally, the flight arrived, and an announcement was made that it was overbooked, and about 20 passengers were being rescheduled to Monday morning. We were told to go back to the main counter to have our tickets reissued.
WHAT???!!!! We had boarding passes. We had seat assignments. The reunion was the next day. There was no point in going on Monday. I stomped to the counter. The Veterinarian settled back and watched me work. I explained our dilemma to the agent and demanded to either be booked on another flight by noon the next day or issued a refund.
“These are non-refundable tickets, and we are not responsible for the weather,” she snapped.
“I get the weather issue, but how is it that we had seats and boarding passes for the other flight, and now we don’t? How are you deciding who gets to fly and who doesn’t?” Passengers behind me in line chimed in, “Yeah. Explain that one.”
“All flights are overbooked, which is a risk.”
“No, no, no,” I replied. “We had seat assignments. Who got those seats?” Just then, another agent pulled her aside and whispered to her, “They sent a smaller aircraft from Detroit, so we don’t have enough room for all the passengers with seat assignments.”
“WHAT??!!” I seized my opportunity. “You screwed up? The problem isn’t the weather, after all.”
I guess I could have been arrested for inciting a riot, because the people behind me went nuts. Suddenly, the counter agent was smiling and accommodating. Long story short, the airline was forced to find seats on the flights of other airlines. We were re-booked for the following morning. We got to the reunion on time, but why should I need to have a confrontation to get a seat?
In the mid-1990s, we were bounced from two Delta flights due to overbooking. When we boarded the third flight, we discovered that another couple had been given the same seat assignments, and the flight was full.
“You’ll have to deplane,” said one of the flight attendants.
“Here, hold my carry-on and don’t move,” The Veterinarian ordered. I dropped our bags in the middle of the aisle in coach and started explaining our nightmare with Delta Airlines to my fellow passengers in a really loud voice.
In first class, The Veterinarian was having an argument with the gate agent and a flight attendant when the captain of the flight came out of the cockpit and asked, “Why aren’t we finished boarding?”
“Well,” said the gate agent, “These people have been issued duplicate seat assignments.”
“Sir, this is the third flight we’ve been booked on that has been screwed up,” The Veterinarian explained.
“Who’s sitting in these empty seats in first class?” the pilot’s voice boomed throughout the plane.
“Well, they aren’t booked.”
“Put these people in these seats then, or we’re going to lose our slot for take-off,” the captain ordered.
“But we don’t have any meals for them,” said a flight attendant.
“We don’t need food. We just want to get home to Baltimore.” We were hustled into first class, where they did have Champagne for our troubles.
Another time, we were travelling with The Daughter when our American flight was cancelled due to “maintenance” issues from Miami, so we were told that they couldn’t get us on a flight to Baltimore until the next morning. They told us to sleep in the airport. Again, we stomped to the counter with a woman flying alone.
“So,” I began, “this is a cancellation due to a maintenance issue. Don’t you have to provide lodging for us?”
“Well,” the counter agent hesitated.
“Look, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo. Are you putting us up or not?”
“Ok. We’re giving you a room at the Mississoukee Casino.”
“Isn’t that way out in the Everglades?”
“Uh. No. What about the hotel right over there in the airport?” (We’d been put up there twice before on other cancelled flights—geez, I hate Miami).
“Well, they’re having plumbing issues and don’t have hot water.”
“Do the toilets work?”
“I believe so. But there’s no hot water.”
“We don’t need hot water. We need a toilet and a bed.”
“All right.” He made the arrangements, as a single woman from our cancelled flight stepped up to the other agent. I heard him try to send her out into the Everglades.
“Ma’am, no,” I interrupted. “Don’t let them send you out to the Everglades. Make them put you up here in the airport. There’s no hot water, but you’ll be safer.” I glared at the agent as he booked her into the airport hotel.
Now, we also deal with the Transportation Security Administration (aka TSA). In March, 2002, we were flying with our 10-year old, blond, blue-eyed daughter, on US Airways from Philadelphia to Orlando for spring break. Vigilant parents, we always boarded with her between us. I showed my boarding pass for scanning, stepped aside, and The Daughter showed hers.
“Security!” The agent called out. We all three jumped. “You, board the plane.” The agent moved me toward the door.
“No, I don’t think so,” I stopped, “What are you doing with my daughter?” A security agent appeared and took hold of her arm. The Veterinarian put his hands on The Daughter’s shoulders and said, “Get your hands off my daughter.”
“She’s been randomly chosen for a security pat-down according to a code on her boarding pass,” the security agent tried to pull her away. She started to cry.
The boarding agent continued to shoo me toward the jetway.
“You are not touching my daughter,” my husband protested and turned to me, “Go on. I got this one.” I walked down the jetway to just outside the aircraft door but refused to board. A flight attendant asked me what the commotion was about. She shook her head sadly when I explained the problem. I stood there envisioning myself in a federal jail in Philadelphia. Within five minutes, they appeared, my daughter still in tears.
“I told him to pat me down for his ‘random check,’” The Veterinarian explained. “Assholes.”
I could go on and on and on, but it’s just more of the same, including when I flew this past January and in March, when I had to insist that I be flown to Baltimore, where I had parked my car, instead of Washington, DC, when my US Airways flight was cancelled due to a “maintenance issue.”
There have been wonderful moments, two of which I would be remiss if I didn’t share.
When we adopted our daughter, she was living in Denver. We were able to use frequent flyer miles to bring her home. Because no cheaper seats were available on our last minute booking, we had to fly first class, which is never a good way to introduce a child to air travel, by the way. As we boarded, she cheerily told the flight attendants that she was being adopted and was moving to her new home in Maryland. Unbeknownst to us, the flight attendant told the captain, who came and took her for a cockpit tour. This was 1999, pre-9/11.
We were invited to take photos of her sitting in the pilot’s seat, and, the pilot placed his cap on her head. It was one of those magic moments that a parent never forgets. I still get teary thinking about it.
14 years later, she and her girlfriend and I boarded a flight home. About 10 passengers had boarded, when boarding was stopped due to a “maintenance issue.” We sat in the stuffy plane chatting with the flight attendants when the captain came out and introduced himself to us. We told him about the Daughter’s first flight experience, and the captain said, “Let’s do it again! We could be sitting here for a while.” He took her up to the cockpit, sat her down, put his hat on her, and took her photo. There’s probably some regulation against it now, so don’t tell anyone!
The Daughter and I are about to fly. I booked the flight in April, flying out of DC, instead of Baltimore, but the departure time of 11 am didn’t seem too extreme. She was scheduled to work the night before, so I’d pick her up at 8am and drive us, thinking she could sleep on the flight.
Or so I planned.
At the end of June, I got a notice from the airline that the schedule had changed. Now, our flight leaves at 6:45 am, which is before The Daughter gets off work. I understand changing schedules, but I expect that you re-book me on a flight at a similar time. Now, she has to rearrange her work schedule, and this becomes one of those driving-to-the-airport-in-the-middle-of-the-night deals, arriving before the counter has even opened. I would call and go into irate customer mode, but I’m saving the energy for the actual flying experience.
And I haven’t even gotten to lost or damaged luggage. Maybe I’ll have more energy after my vacation. After I lay on the beach and drink Margaritas for a week. So, who am I to complain? Life is (or will be) good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!