Monday, June 6, 2011

A Singular Flight Experience

My recent return from Des Moines was a two-leg journey. One flight from Des Moines to Phoenix, then a second flight from Phoenix to Seattle (why one would fly such a stupid route is a topic for another time). Although I try very hard to ensure that I have at least 2-hour layovers when making connections, I had been unable to do so on this one; I knew once I landed in Phoenix that I would have a mere hour to make my flight back home to SeaTac.  Does that seem like a long time? You obviously have not been flying recently.

The first flight of this adventure was... well, if not the worst experience of my flying life, it was certainly the strangest.  Maybe both, and I fly a lot.

The whole thing began after I had checked out from The Wildwood Hotel in Des Moines, and stopped by the computer in the lobby to check in for my flights and print both of my boarding passes. The US-Air site was up and working (unusual) and I was able to get exit-row-window seats on both legs of the flight. I am over 6'2" tall, so this is rather critical to me. I'd never been able to get extra legroom on two flights in a row like that. I felt incredibly blessed...

...until the browser crashed without saving my changes. I logged back in, and it crashed again. And again.  The hotel had Internet Exploder installed, a rather old version that barfed on Flash code. I thought "I could try to fix this, or I could just download and install Firefox". The latter was faster, frankly.

Firefox installed, I tried again, but the seat map would not display due to the lack of the Flash plug-in, and the plug-in would not install due to my lack of admin privileges. I could install Firefox, but not a Firefox plugin.  Right.  I noticed that one could simply enter the selected seats into a little text box, and amazingly I remembered both seat numbers. Bam, it went in and I printed both boarding passes.

"Our glitch for the mission," I thought, like Lovell on Apollo 13 after the CECO failure. Actually, just like that as it turned out.

When I arrived at DSM, there were no lines at security and I sailed through. Once in, however, I looked at the "Big Board" (only about 10 lines long in this tiny airport) to find my gate. All flights had been assigned a gate except mine. I was pretty early, so I sat down to wait for the gate assignment. After some time had passed with no gate listed, I noticed there was another US-Air flight to Phoenix, 10 minutes before mine, but with a different flight number. There were two flights from Des Moines to Phoenix, on the same airline, 10 minutes apart? Weird. Anyway, it had a gate assignment so I went there to ask about the situation.

When I arrived, the gate agent informed me that yes, this was my flight. The "Big Board" was wrong. The other flight number was the Monday-Friday flight, and was a different number and time on weekends, and they had neglected to change it. So, there was only one flight, and it was mine, and they listed two because... well, just how important could that be? Only that I would have missed the flight if I had not asked.  Nah, we don't have to be all that accurate when it comes to airport information-radiators.

So I boarded. Waiting in line at the door to the aircraft I heard a flight attendant on the plane say over the PA system that this flight was quite empty, that everyone should be able to have a row to themselves, and that people should feel free to move to any seats they liked. Keep in mind that most of us were not yet on the plane when she said this. 

I got to my choice, hand-picked, window-exit-row seat with all that lovely legroom and, of course, someone had taken it. I showed this guy my boarding pass and said he had my seat.

"They said take any seat you want," he said gruffly.

"I'm pretty sure that means any unclaimed seat. I have this one assigned to me," I replied.

He stared straight ahead and ignored me. After a minute or two I waved down a flight attendant who came over and told the guy he'd have to move. He did. To the seat right next to me.

So now I was sitting next to this giant, seething twerp, fighting for the armrest and noticing that the air inside the plane was getting extremely hot. They had the main door open (on a crude jetway without much of a seal), and the 90+-degree Des Moines air was pouring in. I twisted the little airjet over my head and... nothing came out.

The (same)  flight attendant came on the PA again and explained that the US-Air ground crew in Des Moines had changed to a new company, one that was inexperienced and had failed to connect the plane's external power umbilical, and so until the engines were started we would have no air conditioning. I glanced out the window and noted that the baggage handlers were not using the powered loading belt, but were putting the luggage on one bag at a time. Three handlers moving one bag at a time, slowly.  "Inexperienced" indeed.

The heat continued to rise, as did the CO2 content and general human-humidity. My bulbous seatmate was getting particularly ripe as the temperature rose well above 100 degrees. Three mothers with infants, obviously concerned about the lack of actual oxygen content in our atmosphere, had walked up to the front of the plane with their babies and were holding them, at arm's length, out the cabin door into the sunny jetway, so the little ones could breathe as they screamed. That single image was probably the strangest thing I'd even seen on an aircraft.

Until a few minutes later. It was obvious to all of us that the "nearly empty plane" was, in fact, completely full. The gate agent, or someone, had gotten that wrong (probably because they thought there were two flights as well). So our favorite flight attendant got back on the horn and, with vague apologies, said that we could not "take any seat" but would have to move to our actual assigned seats. Now.

Watching an entire planefull of people, in 100-degree, oxygen-free, BO-reeking air attempting to reshuffle their positions using the tiny little aisle between the seats was a visual I cannot adequately describe. People climbing over seats and one another, hauling out their carry-on luggage from the overheads (while the flight attendant told them "don't move your overhead bags"), snaking moistly past one another's typical American obesity, some actually crawling under and over others, sweat dripping from one person's head onto another's face, people being bashed with roller bag wheels... well, it was like the most unpleasant orgy scene imaginable. I silently thanked providence that I was already in my correct seat, that I had no carry-on luggage, and that my hostile neighbor had to make his way through that sweating knot of humanity to some other place, far away from me.

The flight attendant sternly admonished us that we could not take off until people were in their seats. This was the same idiot who had told people to take "any old seat," long before most of us were on the plane. Now I began to think about that 1-hour layover I supposedly had in Phoenix shrinking away as people desperately tried to claw their way to their official seats. I glanced out the window and watched the Remedial Baggage Handling School for the Mentally Impaired as they slooooowly placed each bag into a carefully-selected nook, discussing each selection with ultimate care.

Finally the pilot, who seemingly had a brain cell or two functioning, decided to fire up the engines on one side of the plane, the side opposite the baggage handlers, so we would at least have some air. He announced this, and we could hear the hiss of the airjets functioning. But it did not really get much cooler because, for reasons unknown to me, they still had the cabin door open (even though the moms were back in their seats with their gasping, grey little babies). I mentioned this to the flight attendant, and she joined the other crew members near the door so they could all discuss this for, oh, 10 minutes. Finally they figured out the difference between "open" and "closed" and with a whump, the air started to cool.

Time crawled by, but eventually we were in the air. And really, really thirsty.

The beverage cart came down the aisle, everyone begging pitifully, poignantly for something to drink, and when they got to my row I asked for a club soda with lime as I usually do. I was rummaging around in my bag for my book so I didn't notice until well after the cart had moved on that everyone in my row was given something to drink... except me. I tried to get her (yeah, same chick) attention but could not.  Sincerely, I was about as thirsty as I can remember being in a good long time, so I rang the bell for the attendant.  But, of course, the aisle was blocked with the cart so it was another 15 minutes before I could get something to drink. Note to self; always bring a bottle of water along. Other note to self; they take them away from you at security anyway.

I was also starving. They had announced they had "food for purchase" and so I took out my credit card and waited. The food cart simply never arrived, no explanation.

When we landed in Phoenix I knew we were quite late (and even moreso since, when we got to the gate there was another plane there and we had to wait for it to pull back first), but my FlightView android app said the gate we were arriving at was #4, and that my departure gate was also #4. Same plane? Perhaps. Maybe my problems were over. Flightview had never (not once) given me bad info, so I relaxed a bit. The flight attendant (yeah, same one again) announced that everyone had to get off, even if they were continuing on the same plane, because they were changing crews. Why one thing meant the other thing eluded me, but then again I was working with a lightly-poached, dessicated brain at that point.  We all slogged our way off the plane into the 99-degree Phoenix jetway, which took forever because of all the people in the forward part of the plane who had luggage in the overheads of the rear part of the plane.  Collisions, climbing, snaking again as I desperately tried to get to the door. 

Upon exiting the plane I found we were actually at gate B5. B? So "#4" didn't even make sense in the Phoenix airport.  Bad info in the same system had mislead Flightview, but again, how important could that be? I checked the PHX flight board and found that my flight to Seattle was not at this gate, not on this plane, but rather on another flight currently boarding at A25. A concourse, next to B, right? Not that far, right?

Wrong. Other side of the freaking airport. So I began to run.

They have people-movers everywhere in the Phoenix airport. Running on those moving belts can really speed you up if other people really do "stand to the right" as 100 signs and a constant announcer tells them to, but they don't. Also, more than half these motorized belts were not working anyway. Of course not.  So I ran down the main corridor, dodging the beeping carts full of overweight people and knots of teenagers stopping randomly and unpredictably to tweet.

I saw the gate up ahead, the door still open, and I realized I was going to make my flight! I also realized that my bag, not understanding the situation very well, probably was not running from one gate to the other.  That's the real reason for long layovers, gang, to give your luggage a fighting chance to make your next flight.

I made it home without further incident, and my bag actually made the connection as well (a fact that proves the existence of a power greater than our own, at least to me), which was good because I noticed, while waiting at the assigned carousel, that the US-Air luggage office, right next to the escalator, was closed, dark and unmanned. I have no idea what I was supposed to have done if my bag had missed my flight.

I just booked my next trip, to Philly. As you might have guessed, I insisted on a direct flight... the only one available being on US-Air.

-Scott Bain-


  1. And please explain to me why you are STILL flying USAir?

  2. Wonderful. I'm on US Scareways to Pheonix today.