Occasionally, I’ll read a story like this one, where a woman was removed from a flight for singing “I Will Always Love You” at the top of her lungs for three hours. Or one like this, where a guy was apparently throwing “gang signs for Jesus” on an aircraft. I often wonder what the hell is wrong with these people.
Now, I have figured it out.
When an extremely rigid set of rules are combined with massive quantities of ineptitude and arrogance, it is possible to feel completely justified in taking a shit in the middle of an airport and flinging it in the general direction of the counter help.
I took a trip to San Diego last week to participate in a student media convention. The group that was bringing me out there had booked my travel and had set me up at the hotel. It was a good gig and a chance to meet with other advisers and kids who seemed to benefit from time away from their newsrooms, working with others of their ilk to improve their publications.
The flight was a split flight, so I took Frontier to California and a U.S. Air/American Air jet home. The flight home was to leave at 4:30 and head to Phoenix, where I’d have an hour to change planes and head to Milwaukee with an 11:57 p.m. arrival. Not ideal, as I had a two-hour ride home and an 8 a.m. to teach the next day, but passable. I’ve done worse.
I got to the airport with three hours to spare. I checked in with the U.S. Air terminal. There was nobody around except a women’s sports team from Ole Miss and one other lady who was checking in. Crowding or time crunches weren’t even a consideration. Keep that in mind.
The lady checking me in was quite nice, but having trouble with her printer. After trying a few computer terminals, she said she managed to “force print” my boarding passes and check my luggage through to Milwaukee. I looked at the passes and there was nothing unusual about them. Had my flights, my seats and my gates. Standard stuff.
Still, for some reason I asked, “Is there anything else I have to do before the flight?”
“No,” she said. “You’re fine. Have a great trip.”
I got through security with no problem and found a seat at the gate. Everything was normal until I tried to get on the plane.
As they called our “zones” (We apparently can’t be trusted to board by rows any more. Now we’re in “groups” or “zones” for some reason.), I looked for my zone and found that I was in the very last one. For once in my extremely impatient life, I decided “the dude abides,” so instead of pushing and cramming my way to the front, I hung back and waited until it was relatively empty. After all, I have a seat. There’s no reason to be a dick.
When the lady scanned my boarding pass, she handed it back and I was two steps away when she said, “Oooh… Wait a minute. We just need to fix a little thing. Please step over to the counter.”
Thus I met The Officious Prick Named Gary.
Gary was in his early 50s and bore a striking resemblance in stature, attitude and behavior to Tim Gunn from Project Runway, especially after Tim is shown a “halter-dress diaper.” His nametag noted that he was a “supervisor,” which is apparently U.S. Air parlance for “I’ve outlasted people who wanted a better life.”
Gary took one look at me and gave me the “up and down” glance before looking at my tickets and sneering, “These are not valid.”
I wondered if a lifetime spent huffing jet exhaust had allowed him to develop a strange sense of humor. “Excuse me?”
“These are for Frontier. You can’t board our plane.”
I looked at the boarding passes again, wondering if the lack of sleep or sheer terror had me misreading something. Nope. The passes said the right airline, the right flight and even had a seat number.
“It says right there that these are for your plane, including the flight number.”
“Well,” he said with a dismissive wave. “These need your original hardcopy tickets from Frontier.”
“They were e-tickets,” I protested, handing over my phone, with the email outlining my trip including the “Please check in with U.S. Air” line highlighted. I also was wondering how the hell they managed to check my bags onto this flight if I didn’t have a ticket. For all the shit they tell you about “Don’t take a package from a stranger,” the airline would have seemed to done just that, if The Officious Prick Named Gary were correct.
By this point, everyone was on the plane, sans a few stragglers who were busting ass to our terminal from a late connection. Gary was placing these people on the airline while his underling took pity on me and was trying to figure out what the hell went wrong.
“I have got to get on this plane,” I pleaded with the both of them. “I have to teach in the morning.”
Gary looked at me the way a mean child with a magnifying glass looks at an ant. He strode slowly and yet purposefully to the jet-way door and closed it smoothly. He then looked at me and said, “This isn’t our fault.”
It was at that point that fear turned to anger, that panic turned to horror and that “We’re all people” turned to “gang signs for Jesus.’”
“Well, it sure as hell isn’t my fault,” I said through gritted teeth.
The woman was still on two phones trying to figure out what had happened. Gary stood there, winding up some baggage claim stickers. The plane pushed away from the gate.
I have yet to experience a sicker feeling than standing there, watching a flight I had tickets for leave, as I could do absolutely nothing about it.
At this point, Gary walked away.
The lady at the terminal was still banging away, trying to figure out how it was I managed to get through the entire security network without an actual ticket. The guy at the TSA even checked me through the “Does Not Need to Take His Laptop Out or Belt Off” line without a blink.
Suddenly she hit pay dirt. The lady at the ticketing counter had failed to notice how the tickets were set up. All she would have had to do was print the extra tickets, staple them to my boarding passes and I would have been on my way to Phoenix. The tickets were paid up, everything was fine, but she had “forced” the pass print, thus giving me only the boarding passes.
Everything was OK.
Y’know… Except for the whole “The Plane You Need Is Gone” thing.
Now it was about 4:45. All of the major flights were gone. The woman was working through about a dozen iterations, including a two-stopper that would land me in Chicago at about 3 a.m. and allow me to rent a car and drive in. In desperation, I agreed. Turns out, that wasn’t going to work, either.
The only way to get me home was to flying me on an overnight flight to Charlotte, N.C. that left at 10:35 p.m. local time. I would then catch an 8:45 connection to Milwaukee and land around 10:30 a.m.
Having no actual option, I took it.
As the lady printed out my tickets, she told me, “You are so lucky this happened to you here instead of in Phoenix. They wouldn’t have been as nice.”
Yeah. That’s me. Luckiest fucking kid on my block.
As she handed me my tickets, I had to ask her, “Look, I know you’re telling me I’m getting on a plane in six hours, but how do I know that for sure? I was supposed to be in Phoenix by now according to what your airline told me earlier.”
She looked at me with an understanding nod, “I will be working the gate over there tonight. You will be getting on the plane.”
Unlike the other airlines that have stranded me, I got no food vouchers. I spent my time editing book chapters and wandering around. I also emailed my first two classes and told them to skip class the next day. I wasn’t going to be there. I still had to make it home for academic advising by 12:45 and a 2 p.m. class that was all test prep. I promised those kids I’d make it in time for their needs.
During all of this, I got a sobbing phone call from The Midget, who was inconsolable.
“You’re never coming home!” she wailed. I almost had to agree.
At 10 p.m., we began boarding. The flight was one of two left in the terminal at that hour and the people waiting had that, “I have been fucked with to the nth degree” look on their faces. The lady who had printed my tickets was around, but she was working with another gate. The person checking tickets had the look of “mid-40s overlord with way too much makeup and perfume” going on.
After she boarded the Super Gold Deluxe Special Carpet members and the Super Extra Frequent Flyer Program members and the Extra Special Doubly Special Special Flyer members, she called Zone 1. I was at the front of the line. I’m getting on this plane.
The lady scanned me, handed back my pass and let me go. I was halfway down the jet way when I heard her calling out a mangled version of my last name.
I turned around as she leaned in the doorway of the jet way.
“We need you to come back.”
“I’m not getting off this plane,” I told her not moving an inch and feeling every muscle fiber in my body tense.
She beckoned me with the finger wave usually reserved for grade school children being called to the front of the room.
“Sir, we just need you to step back here.”
It was at that very instant that I felt the branch I was clinging to start to crack. It was like the old “Incredible Hulk” TV series, when David Banner’s eyes got that pure white color. I held the fort for just one more sentence.
“If you are taking me off this plane, you need to call security.”
The look on her face changed. It was like she realized she was about to deal with a wounded animal.
“I won’t take you off the flight. You’re getting on this flight. I need to have the ticket that’s stapled to your boarding pass.”
“OK. Come and take it.”
She walked purposefully and yet tentatively toward my position, took the ticket and returned to the gate. I was on the plane.
The flight was about 112 hours of me not sleeping, for fear of what might happen next. An optimist would say, “Hey, you’re almost there.” An airline traveler in my shoes would say, “Until my ass is in my recliner back home, I’m nowhere.”
The flight landed with plenty of time to make the connection. The people in Charlotte started lining up early and everything was there: the pilots, the crew, the plane and the staff. Life looked good until about 15 minutes before the flight was getting ready to leave.
A woman and a man who were both in wheelchairs arrived and took advantage of the preboard. No complaint at all on my end. The only problem is we were boarding from the tarmac, not a jet way, and the woman, while telling the airline that she was in a chair failed to inform the good folks at U.S. Air that she was immobile. While her traveling companion could get out of his chair and ride in a smaller chair (or as he did, hop up the steps), she was unable to be moved.
The crew then tried to use something called an LPD or something that put her up the stairs. As she was well over 300 pounds, this thing didn’t work. As I was unable to see from my position in line, I relied on the views of others, one of whom noted that they were apparently bringing “a crane” over to lift her into the plane.
I was furious and doing my best not to direct it at anyone, especially this lady. I’m sure she wasn’t happy that 100 people thought she shouldn’t be on the plane (actual conversation going on behind me) or that people were now late because of her. I’m sure if she had her druthers, she’d be able to run the bases at a church softball game as opposed to having complete strangers view her as a giant, doughy third base.
The lady running the gate appeared exasperated as passengers began to gripe.
“You know,” she said. “This is not our fault.”
Hmm… Where have I heard that before?
After about 92 false starts, they finally got her onto the plane.
We were now about an hour behind schedule.
We landed around 10:45 and via my “O.J. Simpson routine” (in that I mean like him running through the airport quickly, not killing people who pissed him off) I managed to get into my car at exactly 11 a.m. I did the 2 hour drive in 1:40 and walked directly into my office in time for my first appointment.
I was dressed in the same clothes I’d worn for two days, complete with a T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. I reeked of recycled airplane air and rage. Still, I did my job, which was more than I could say for U.S. Air.
I told them as much in the complaint I filed, outlining all of this and the general stupidity that led to me writing this post. The response I got was classic:
Don’t worry U.S. Air. I will always love you…