Flying the Unfriendly Skies

A recent trip to Cleveland reminded me of how much I love air travel.

The plan was to fly from Hartford to Cleveland on a Wednesday and return on Friday. Naturally, there are no direct flights to Cleveland, or at least there weren’t when I wanted to go. So I had to book a flight connecting through Philadelphia, which at least was preferable to the other options of Atlanta, Charlotte and Buenos Aires.

I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare, as is customary these days. The security checkpoint is always a dehumanizing experience. Remove all items from your pockets, along with your shoes (wear unholy socks), jacket and belt (in case you feel like strangling someone). Take any electronic items out of your briefcase to be sure they receive the most radiation possible.

A note to whoever designs men’s pants: Please stop sewing buttons into the bottom of the front pockets. These buttons show up as miniature explosive devices on the security screen, requiring the attendant to poke and prod you in places normally reserved for spouses and lap dancers.

Just before boarding the plane in Hartford, we were told that, because of the dainty nature of the aircraft, all carry-on luggage exceeding two pounds must be checked at the gate. Mine was among them. I didn’t drop off my bag at baggage check because I was afraid it would land in Sioux Falls and I’d be stuck either wearing the same clothes for three days or buying a temporary wardrobe. Sure enough, the overhead compartments were the size of a breadbox, and the seats were designed for no one larger than a Chinese gymnast. I’ve ridden in larger roadsters.

My flight left Hartford a few minutes late. We were 10th in line on the runway. Evidently, a lot of people want to get out of Hartford. The plane landed in Philly a few minutes later than scheduled, and everyone who checked a bag had to wait inside the gangplank while their bags were retrieved. I had exactly 30 minutes to make my connecting flight to Cleveland. Waiting 20 minutes for my bag erased any notion of making that flight.

“Cleveland?” asked the airport official at the connecting gate.

“Yes!” I blurted, almost out of breath.

“Nope. Already left.”

“You mean they didn’t wait for me?” I asked.

“Go to B2 and they’ll reassign you.”

“B2. Right.”

I got rebooked for a flight leaving in a couple of hours. It too, of course, was late, getting me into Cleveland around 8:30. After I waited for a hotel shuttle that never arrived, I grabbed a cab and got to my hotel around 9:15.

“What time does room service stop?” I asked.

“We don’t have room service,” said the puzzled attendant. “There are a few restaurants within walking distance.”

“Perfect,” I said and toted my bags up to the room.

Ten minutes later I was trolling the dark streets of Cleveland—a city I’m not exactly familiar with, having driven through it once about 15 years ago—foraging for food on a stomach that had been empty for nine hours. I opted for TGI Friday’s takeout. I just wanted to get out of my well-worn clothes and relax in my room watching mindless TV.

On the ride back to the airport on Friday, I mused to my colleague that my return trip to Hartford couldn’t possibly be as difficult as the one I’d just experienced. That is what learned experts call “tempting fate.”

I was dropped off around 3:30 for my 6 p.m. flight. Again, my travels would bring me through Philadelphia on my way back to Hartford. Upon arriving, I decided to check my baggage, figuring I could live without it if it wound up in Sioux Falls. That transaction cost me $25. When I brought my bag to the counter, the attendant informed me that all flights to Philadelphia were canceled.

“All flights to Philly?” I asked. “Did someone steal the Liberty Bell?”

She didn’t offer any reasons. Instead, she told me that I’d already been booked through another airline on a direct flight that would leave at 7:00 instead of 6:00 but get me into Hartford at 8:30 instead of 9:30.

Even better, I thought. But before I made my way to the other airline’s check-in counter, I had to deal with the issue of getting reimbursed for the $25 I’d spent checking my bag. That minor detail took about 20 minutes and three airline officials.

The other airline, as it turned out, also charges $25 per bag. After dumping my suitcase with them and getting my boarding pass, it was on to the security strip search and my gate.

At this point I had about two hours to kill, so I decided to grab dinner at one of the fabulous airport dining establishments. An hour later, I made my way back to the gate, bilious, only to discover that my flight had been delayed. I knew this because it said “Delayed” on the tote board. The gate attendant announced that anyone wishing to get to Hartford might want to take another flight leaving for Atlanta and scheduled to arrive in Connecticut just after midnight. Or we could wait it out for the direct flight we were patiently anticipating.

I decided to stick it out. It was raining pretty heavily throughout the Midwest, which stalled travel, and our plane was experiencing “mechanical difficulties” and hadn’t yet left Minneapolis. Still, I waited, hopeful.

Around 8 p.m. I was called over the loudspeaker to the gate desk.

“Are you trying to get to Hartford?” the attendant asked.

“That’s the plan,” I replied.

“We have a flight leaving in 15 minutes for Dulles, which will get you into Hartford around 10:30.”

“What about this flight?” I asked.

She shook her head. “It’s not leaving Minneapolis. You’d better take this other one.”

She handed me a flight voucher and pointed me toward my new gate, which was roughly three-quarters of a mile from where I stood. I made my way through the terminal, OJ-style, and got there with about two minutes to spare.

I boarded my plane, which, miraculously, departed on time. I settled in and was suddenly bothered by the simple question of whether or not my luggage knew I was on a different flight. I assumed the airline geniuses would figure it out.

We arrived in Washington, D.C., a little after 9 p.m. My flight was due to leave around 9:30. I made my way to the appropriate gate and ascertained the status—delayed. Shocker. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I watched the tote board list my flight as departing at 10:30, 10:45 and eventually 11:30. At one point it said “Closed.” I’m not sure what “closed” means, but I assumed it wasn’t a good sign. As I paced the terminal and poked around the shops, I was grateful that even though I was wearing what was becoming an uncomfortable suit and tie combination, I didn’t have to lug around my clunky bag. Otherwise, I was, by this point, rather perturbed.

At 11:45, the gate attendant announced that we had to board the plane right away. She hurried us through the gate, paying no attention to those passengers with disabilities, those with preferred status and those who, for some silly reason, bought a first-class ticket for a 45-minute flight. We stampeded down the gang plank, onto the tarmac, through the wind and rain, up the narrow ladder and into the plane.

And then we sat. And waited. Shortly after midnight, the pilot addressed us via the intercom. He said something about how he and co-captain Smith had already flown almost 11 hours that day and how they were about to approach the daily limit and how they’d have to petition the FAA for approval to take off and how, if they were denied, we’d all have to “deplane” and find some suitable lodging right there in Washington, D.C. We grumbled. And then waited some more. A few minutes later, the captain spoke to us again, this time telling us they had indeed gotten approval to fly but, alas, something had gone wrong with the instrument panel, which had to be fixed immediately. We grumbled louder. And waited.

Good news, said the captain. The instrument panel was fixed. It was now 12:30. We were cleared to take off, but—the evening was full of buts—Hartford was covered in dense fog, so we might have to fly to Boston, where we’d spend the night. We’d get clarity on the situation somewhere over Delaware.

Anyone who’s flown through a heavy rainstorm knows just how fun the experience can be. Modern air travel becomes more akin to a covered wagon trip down the ol’ Chisholm Trail. Potholes and frost heaves in New England have prepared me well. The flight attendant came by and offered coffee to perk us up, but I respectfully declined the opportunity to get scalded in the process.

As we approached Delaware (or thereabouts), the captain informed us that we would indeed be landing in Hartford. One final victory, I thought. We did just that, deplaned and headed for baggage claim. The airport was eerily quiet. All the shops and restaurants were closed. I guess airports aren’t a 24/7 operation, or at least this one wasn’t.

It turns out my bag was smart enough to find its way from Cleveland to Washington to Hartford after all. I grabbed it and went looking for the long-term parking shuttle. It was about 1:30 a.m. I was approaching delirium.

When the pilot mentioned dense fog, I didn’t realize he was the reigning master of the understatement. It was the kind of fog that made the “pea soup” variety seem like consommé. If you stretched out your arm and held up your thumb, you couldn’t see it. Visibility was nil.

I managed to find my car but, thanks to this blanket of fog and the absence of decent signage, couldn’t find my way out of the parking lot. Then again, if there had been decent signage, I wouldn’t have seen it anyway. After paying the groggy parking attendant, I put on my GPS to guide me home.

“Turn left onto the ramp,” it said, attempting to get me onto the highway. I did so as a leap of faith, because I certainly couldn’t see any ramp. I was hoping the GPS didn’t have a sense of humor about the whole situation.

Normally the trip home from the airport takes about 45 minutes. This time, with no traffic whatsoever, it took me 75. I drove about 30 miles per hour, praying there were no deer or moose or antelope out for a stroll on I-91 or that some similarly weary schlub was doing 20 in a car lacking tail lights.

I pulled into my driveway around 2:45. As I did, it occurred to me that when my colleague dropped me off at the airport to begin this journey, had I instead chosen to rent a car and drive home, I would have arrived two and a half hours earlier than I did taking air transportation, fog notwithstanding. And that’s driving across some of Ohio, all of Pennsylvania and New York, and half of Connecticut.

Which is exactly what I’ll do next time I have to fly anywhere I can drive to in a day. The skies, it seems, have become anything but friendly.


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