I spent a few days last week with Monica, travelling from San Diego to Des Moines by way of Chicago. Aside from all the rain we had a good trip, and we were headed back early Sunday morning, booked on a 6:05 flight out of O-Hare.
We got up at 4am, expecting that would be early enough to make our flight since we stayed at a Holiday Inn Express right next to the airport. Monica checked us out at about 4:30 and I went out to the parking lot to get the car. The lot was a pay lot - Monica had paid $16 for us to park from 9pm until 4am...a rip-off. I was supposed to be able to exit the lot by putting the room keycard into the payment slot. Of course, that didn't work and I was trapped in the lot. pressing the "Help" button only helped me hear the conversations at the front desk. Then I tried calling monica's cell phone, but the noise from airplanes overhead, trains across the street and the shuttle busat the hotel door drowned out her cell phone ringer. I honked the horn and flashed the lights to try to get her attention, hoping she would see that I was trapped and tell the front desk to release me, but instead she came out to the security gate. Unfortunately I snapped at her (Sorry!), but she went back to the front desk to get the guy to finally let us out.
We drove the mile or so to the Hertz return lot to turn in our car. At this pont it was now 4:55am. The checkout person had a big problem - they couldn't override charging us for gas. I had used a coupon good for a free tank of gas upon renting the car, but now her handheld wanted to charge me for 15 gallons @ $7.50 a gallon! We had to "go inside, where it will take 2 minutes to fix." 15 minutes later we are boarding the shuttle to the terminal. One good thing out of this - the agent at the desk not only cleared the charge for a tank of gas, but actually gave us credit for a tank of gas at regular price ($59)!!
The scene on the suttle bus was frantic. The bus was nearly full. Passengers had "loaded" their own bags onto the bus, but didn't put them all in the baggage rack, so there were suitcases scattered around blocking the aisle of the bus. The driver apparently was sewn onto his seat, because he made no move to deal with the bags. I had to climb over several suitcases to place our bags up on the rack (three times) and then we found a place to stand. When we made it to the terminal I once again had to climb over bags to get ours off. The driver almost drove away with our last bag - I had to yell at him to stop so I could jump on and retreive it.
We staggered over to the United curbside baggage check in, which the United web site had encouraged us to use since we had already gotten our boarding passes on-line. But the handlers wouldn't take our bags - they said there wasn't enough time to get the bags to the airplane, even though it was 5:20am, 45 minutes before the flight. They sent us inside to use the regular check-in, which of course was at the far end of the terminal.
Have I mentioned yet that Monica was extremely patient and wonderful during all of this, even though I was blowing a gasket?
We staggered over to the check-in line, where the United agent monitoring the line entrance (very tall, probably a former college basketball player at a local Midwestern college who didn't make it in the Pros because of bad knees) confirmed that there was no way our bags would make the flight. He told us to go through the line to use one of the "United Easy Check-In" kiosks (an oxymoron for sure!) to get an alternative itinerary - "just follow the menus and it will find another flight for you - we have dozens of flights today to get you to San Diego". After about five minutes of line-standing we were at the kiosk. I entered my itinerary code which brought up our check-in information, and as expected, the kiosk told us we couldn't take the 6:05am flight with our baggage (it was now 5:30). We followed the menus to move on to finding one of those "dozens' of flight alternatives, and at the final button click we received the message: "There are NO ALTERNATIVE FLIGHTS for your destination." Great.
I walked back over to our friend at the line entrance and told him about our "no flights" outcome. He called us over to stand by him, telling us that he would "get us taken care of." He called over a desk agent and told her what was up, and after a few moments of whispering we were told to "stand right there" (in the middle of an aisle, not in a line, amidst chaos) and that we would be helped. So, we stood there for about fifteen minutes, watching as other customers also received the "NO ALTERNATIVE FLIGHTS" message and were scooted off to another line - a line that was hopelessly plugged up by an entourage of folks on their way to India, with their boxes and suitcases tied together with rope.
It's now 5:45am. Somewhere out there, folks are settling into their seats, preparing to fly to Denver. Some will then hustle through the concourse to fly on to San Diego...but not us, not yet. I turn my head to touch base with tall-United-line-monitor-guy, but he has dissappeared. In his place is now short-United-line-monitor-guy, who immediately starts yelling at us that we're "not in the line properly!!!" And I mean yelling. He didn't last long out in the chaos - before i knew it someone had hit him with a tranquilizer dart and taken him back behind the curtain, so he could take his anti-depressants. Concerned about our non-proper line status, I searched out the desk agent who had assigned us to our current floor tile. She informed me that we had not yet been released from the 6:05am flight, but that once we were she would re-schedule us. I stepped back over to our floor tile and watched as she turned over the hourglass, for us to watch the sand run out...
At 5:55 we were released from purgatory. the desk agent gave us new paperwork - we were now on stand-by for an 8:05am direct flight to San Diego - Schweet!! We grabbed our bags and scurried over to the security check-in. TSA agents scoured our stand-by coupons and ID's and deemed us fit for X-raying, and we move on through the maze. Once at the X-ray machine we had a little delay, as a pleasant but clueless woman tried to figure out what did and what didn't need to go into the trays to run through the X-ray machine. There she stood, blocking access to the trays and the X-ray machine belt as she shouted questions to the TSA agent behind the X-ray machine: "Do I need to take off my earings - they're made of gold? Do I really have to take off my shoes? My feet will get cold. When do I get my things back? etc., etc."
Finally we get our turn. Monica quickly fills her bins with backpack and purse. Me, I have my backpack from which the laptop must be removed, my C-PAP machine (which must be removed from it's case - I guess the airplane would be safer if I had snored during our trip), another bin for shoes and belt and a final bowl for cell phone, watch, space pen and coins. As I'm walking through the human X-rayer I hear the bag-screening attendant shout out - "need to check these two bags , there's some suspicious liquid in there!!" Did I mention earlier that we had picked up two "breakfast bags" from the nice folks at the Holiday Inn Express? We hadn't checked the contents, which of course included cups of yogurt, which were FORBIDDEN TO BE TAKEN ON AN AIRPLANE!!" Apparently the staff at the Holiday Inn Express don't also stay there, so they're not made smarter by the chain. No one had told them that you shouldn't give airline passengers tubs of viscous fluid-like dairy products in containers larger than 4.4 ounces, which have the same X-ray footprint as dangerous explosives. The TSA folks removed the dangerous lactose, mangled the rest of the contents of "breakfast-in-a-bag" and sent us on our way.
The stumble, er, walk to gate C25 was rather uneventful, as we were too tired and frazzled by now to react to our surroundings. Aside from the guy who walked to the middle of the hallway to stand right in front of us, then followed us for 30 feet, everything was normal. We found two empty seats near the agent desk for gate C25 and plopped ourselves down. Monica, sweet as she is, gave me some cash and told me to go buy a cup of coffee, but that it "better be de-caff, so you don't completely flip out." I bought my coffee (a de-caf vanilla latte), comisserating in line with a young couple who had their flight to Buffalo cancelled the night before and were now waiting for a flight to Cleveland so they could drive the rest of the way to Buffalo (they were on their way back from Cozumel, so they were still grinning...), and sat back down with Moonica. We ate our horribly stale and crumbly Holiday Inn Express Sara Lee muffins and waited for the gate agent to show up.
Gate agents are supposed to show up an hour before a flight leaves, with boarding beginning 30 minutes before take-off. Forty minutes to take-off and no one in snappy United attire in sight, except for a guy who was pecking away at a computer right next to the gate door. I stood at the front of a nice neat line of folks at the desk for gate C25, awaiting my chance to plead for a seat on the plane to San Diego. At t-minus 35 minutes computer guy shuffles over and squawks at us: "this isn't the right place for check-in - I've moved it over next to the gate. Thanks for the info. Mad dash for the alternative check-in desk. I somehow still held my place at the front of the line, barely edging out the Hawaiian guy with Hilo Hattie-bag luggage. Our friendly gate agent confirmed our stand-by status, but assured me that we were at the top of the list and there should be room.
We sat (im)patiently, as first the United uber-elite were allowed to board, then Area 1, Area 2, Area 3 and finally Area 4. Tose of us in Area 51 were then called up to the mini-desk and given our seat assignments. We were in!! Elated, Monica and I floated onto the Airbus 320, finding our seats 16A and 18C (separated so as not to cause trouble?). I settled in admidst a travelling family, put on my headphones, and drifted off and on into restless sleep, as the Waterhorse and 30-Rock interspersed my dreams with visions of Loch Ness and the G.E. building. That's OK...we were finally on our way home!