I’m back. We’ve been out of town – in New Mexico, to be precise. I’m going to spend this post telling about the nightmare journey to Albuquerque. I’ve got some photos to share, so there will be a few posts on the trip as I have time over the next few days.
We had very reasonable tickets that we purchased through Expedia to fly on United Airlines. What we saved on the price was more than offset by the inconvenience of the trip, however. I cannot recommend flying United Airlines, at least not from Atlanta.
Our neighbor Ron kindly offered us a ride to the MARTA station to take the train to the airport (this is really the best way to get there in Atlanta). About halfway there, we realized that we didn’t have a photo id for Ben, and – fearful of what might happen if we didn’t have it – we turned around and went back to get his passport. We hit traffic, and were running a bit behind when we arrived at the station. Then we had to get the new MARTA cards to ride the thing – what was wrong with the tokens? They were easy, they were good. I guess they are hoping that people will loose the new cards and have to keep buying them. The first machine wasn’t working – and that’s when the train came. We struggled to the platform with the bags (more on that later), and waited. And waited. Finally the train came, and we got to the airport in about half an hour…
only to find that they wouldn’t check the luggage curbside. There was a significant line at the United counter. We waited. And waited. When we got to the front of the line, we were told – told in a rather matter-of-fact and unsympathetic manner – that we had missed the 45-minute-ahead-of-flight-time cut-off for the baggage by a couple of minutes. We could fly, but our luggage could not! Could they put it on the next flight? No. Could we ship it? No.
We had about two minutes to make a decision. Everything was reserved in hubby’s name. I could tell that standby or rescheduling was going to be difficult. So I said – “Go on, you guys go and fly. I’ll meet you when I can, with the luggage.” All of us were very unhappy. John and Ben went off to go through security – turning back once to wave. I turned, and eyed the luggage.
The luggage. You see, we planned to do some camping. (Don’t do this. Take it from me. If you’re planning to camp, drive. Or rent equipment from an outfitter.) We had three large bags. Two were big black suitcases – about 50 pounds each, but at least they were on wheels. The third was the massive duffel bag, with three sleeping bags and pads, and whatever else would fit (flashlights, first aid kit, aloe vera with lanocaine – all the basics). It … did not have wheels. Now, we had other bags and items too. John brought his computer bag, but he had that with him, and Ben had his Star Wars bag with the portable DVD player in it, a coloring book, a couple of comics, and some Superhero figures. They also took the car seat (because for some reason New Mexico wanted Ben to have one and the rental car agency wanted to charge us daily if we didn’t have one with us). Still, I had these three monster bags, plus my purse.
So… I started negotiating about the next flight. What solutions could they offer? None.
People were glaring at me in the line and I didn’t blame them. I somehow kept my cool, sorta, but I was starting to get a bit angry about the attitude I was seeing. I wondered why United Airlines didn’t have some sort of troubleshooter or manager there to take care of things like this, especially given that the airport conditions were bad enough to have been mentioned on the news the night before. Finally, they just said that I would have to come back in the morning. I could fly standby for the first flight, and I should be there first thing in the am. The first flight was at 9 AM. I looked at the bags again. Tomorrow? Dear Lord.
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that I could call someone to ask for a pickup at the airport. Maybe it’s the whole new England self-reliance thing (a tendency that has often burned me before) that prevents me from asking for help. In any case, it didn’t occur to me. I got a cart, piled everything on (getting a couple of nasty bruises on my calves), and hailed a taxi. There goes my pocket money… I finally got home only to remember that I had given the house key to our neighbor. Fortunately they were still home (thank you, thank you). I dragged everything into the house (banging my shin on the front stairs), and collapsed into tears. Walked into the house, opened a beer, went out on the deck and allowed myself to feel self-pity for about twenty minutes.
There was a voice-mail waiting, and I talked to John and Ben a couple of times that night. Their first flight was delayed, and then they got stuck in Denver for the delayed connecting flight and didn’t get into Albuquerque until well after midnight. The storms and flooding in Texas and surrounding areas had messed up a number of flights. O’Hare was reportedly a nightmare, too.
Flash to the next morning. My kind, lovely, wonderful neighbor (I have to do something really nice for him) drove me to the airport. We left at 5:45 a.m. At the airport I loaded up another cart ($2 a shot) and wheeled the towering monster into the United Airlines line. Again. The nine o’clock flight was – you guessed it! – canceled. I waited for almost two hours to get to the front of the line. This time, they took the luggage, but not me. (Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t fly without your luggage – it’s not true.) So – I got rid of the luggage, and that was a huge relief. Now, the only problem was how to get to Albuquerque? In addition to the weather problems, there was a big convention in Atlanta for educators letting out. They all needed to go home, too. There were also tons of military personnel that were flying.
Flying United out of Atlanta might normally be all right, but during hectic times it’s really better to fly Delta.
There are only a couple of United gates at the Atlanta airport, but Delta dominates the Atlanta airport. There are more options with them if things go wrong. I was breezily informed that United doesn’t add flights, no matter what. It’s not cost-efficient or some such. After the nine o’clock flight was gone, there were only two more flights that day. They were overbooked to start with. My only hope was that with the long lines, some people wouldn’t make it to the gate on time.
On United Airlines, having a discounted ticket puts you last in line for standby. They said that Expedia doesn’t help with anything, and that the tickets were too deeply discounted for me to expect much from United either. I even had to argue about whether my ticket was still valid. One person tried to sell me a new ticket for a thousand bucks! I finally got them to see that my ticket was as good as anybody else’s.
For contrast, stay tuned for the return flight saga. I’ll be blogging on a stellar Delta employee – he rescued us for the return flight, and I’ll be naming him. I hope he gets a bonus. (I won’t tell you what I think the United Airlines personnel at the Atlanta ought to get. I had to focus on unclenching my fist throughout the day, and I am a creative person. I’m sure you get the general idea).
So here I was, hour after hour. I was cold. I was tired. I bought a hoodie and listened to my ipod and drank too much coffee. I attempted to get United to at least get me as far as Denver. I could probably ask my cousin Kim to come and get me, and then wait for John and Ben to drive to meet me. We could do our trip in a sort of reverse circle. But there was no getting to Denver either. I could have gotten to O’Hare, but I really didn’t want to be stranded there, especially with all that luggage!
At one point I noticed a rather forlorn guy who was wandering around looking very scared and lost. I thought at first that he might have been a Buddhist monk. He was probably in his early twenties. I asked him if he was all right. No, he wasn’t all right. He was flying from Alaska to Amsterdam and then Beirut – going back to Iraq, again. He had never flown a commercial airline before, and he had gotten completely lost in the Atlanta airport. He was also sleep-deprived and disoriented. He wasn’t in camo like most of the other military I saw, so he wasn’t getting any special treatment. Another woman saw us talking, and joined in. The two of us waited in the security line with him, but then they wouldn’t let him through. They pointed him to the military lounge – I hope he’s all right. I ran into other people who had been in the airport for almost 24 hours. Everyone was unhappy. Yeah. Unhappy.
I have never seen such a scene at the Atlanta airport – not at Thanksgiving, not ever. The lines toward security clearance backed up to baggage claim.
For each of the remaining flights, I talked to the United people as they appeared at the gate. The general attitude was “too bad for you.” The flights were overbooked. I was last for standby. Too bad. Too bad. Nothing we can do. We can’t get you to Albuquerque.
John, meanwhile, was talking to the United people in Albuquerque. Not unexpectedly (to me), they were much nicer there. I like people in the Southwest. I like their manner, the way they talk. I’m really starting to detest the hypocrisy of all this southern hospitality propaganda. Maybe it was a part of the culture once, but except for some of my neighbors, I’ve not seen much evidence for it. From the Albuquerque side, they at least upgraded my standby status a little bit. They were surprised that the Atlanta people were so callous about separating a family. It didn’t seem to help very much, but at least they tried.
I talked to a truck-driving Navaho woman who told me some of her experiences about how Indian Affairs had managed the educational system for tribal peoples in her childhood. She had gone back and forth between two different tribal communities, speaking different languages. When she was a child, she tried to help another child who only spoke Navaho – and was rewarded with a soapbar in her mouth. The first day of school, they cut off all the girls’ braids. For that alone, I would never have forgiven them. She was wonderfully calm and kind and we shared some cherry bark skin lotion that I had tucked away in my purse.
After the last flight of the day was ruled out, I was really at my wit’s end. I had spent the entire day at the airport, starting with an hour that was far too early for me in the first place.
So how did it work out? It was resolved by a passenger, one much more savvy than myself. He had his computer with him, and had discovered that there were seats still available on a Delta flight. He asked at the gate why they weren’t putting us on that flight. And that’s what it took. They booked both of us on Delta. The tickets weren’t done right, but it was enough for the people at the Delta gate to work with – they reprinted them.
Oh! Just by the by, my ticket was “selected for special screening” (SSS) going both ways. Sounds vaguely Nazi-esque to me. Do we really have to re-employ the word “selection”?
On the trip back, selection actually worked in our favor by letting us skip ahead of a longer general security clearance line (your papers, please). They were far better organized – and really much nicer – in Albuquerque than they were in Atlanta. In Atlanta, it was just one more episode requiring focussed breathing for stress and anger management.
Here’s the thing that makes me fume more than anything else: United Airlines personnel had all the information right in front of them the whole time. Yet no-one had ever mentioned the possibility of booking me on another airline – not for 24 hours! They should have done that as soon as John and Ben started walking away, but it was past ten o’clock in the evening the next day when when I finally got on a plane. My husband and little boy were in another city without luggage and without me, and the response I got was pretty cold. If they’d had more people working the counter, we could still have made the original flight. I still can’t believe that they cut us off for being two minutes beyond the deadline, especially since their first flight ended up being delayed almost an hour anyway.
The Delta flight was handled more professionally, and I even had a word with the pilot. We flew directly to Albuquerque, and the pilot made such a great landing that I barely felt it when the plane kissed the runway.
John and Ben were there waiting for me, and had already picked up the luggage earlier in the evening. We all went back to the hotel, only a mile or so from the airport. Then we hit the thankfully-comfortable beds and konked out.
And that was the beginning of our family vacation.