The Pre- And Post- Flight From Hell

September 14, 2009

in Odds & Ends Stories

This is not so much about a hellish flight, because the flight was fine, it was the getting to and from the flight that was hell.  Do you know how, when there is an accident, the investigators rarely find a single proximate cause?  Instead, they find a chain of improbable events that conspired to eventually cause the accident.  That’s what this story is about: a series of improbable events that led up to the pre- and post- flight from hell. 

Two summers ago, we (my 17 y.o. son, my 72 y.o. mother , my (now ex-) girlfriend and me) flew into London from JFK the day before the fateful day.  Improbable event #1: On board our transatlantic flight, was a large troop of 50 or so Boy Scouts that were heading to some kind of Jamboree in England (the significance of this will be clear later).  We arrived in London where we had booked a hotel in close proximity to the Underground.  We had a flight the next morning from London-Stanstead to Shannon, Ireland, so the idea was to be near the Underground so that we could catch it in the morning, and then transfer to the train to Stanstead. 

Our flight was at 10:30 AM so we were up at 5:30 AM, meeting in the lobby at 5:50 to catch the tube at 6:00 for an eventual arrival at Stanstead at 7:30.  The second “event” happened while we were assembling in the hotel lobby.  My girlfriend plopped herself down on her suitcase and declared that there was no way that she could proceed until she had coffee.  There was no coffee in the hotel, and I explained to her that none of the coffee shops would be open that early.  She insisted that I go look anyway.  So I hiked to the nearest High Street, walked up and down a bit, and confirmed that no shops were open.  When I got back, my mother pointed out that it was now past 6:00 and that we would likely miss our Stanstead train if we took the Underground.  So I had to pop an extra 40 pounds for a taxi ride to the train station.  Improbable event #3 – just as we arrived at the train station, the hotel called because we had forgotten to turn in one of our room keys (it was an old hotel that was still using real metal keys).  Apparently they had a limited number of them, and needed it back right away.  It took us 20 minutes to unpack the suitcases until we found the missing key (it was in mine :-/).  The taxi driver offered to drop it off at the hotel for us, as he was heading back that way anyway.  So, we missed the train, but fortunately there was another only 45 min later. 

So we arrived at Stanstead 45 minutes behind schedule, but still 2 ¼ hours before our flight. We checked our bags and got our boarding passes by 8:45 so it seemed like we were in good shape.  When we got to security however, the line was incredibly long.  It seems that some idiot terrorist had crashed his flaming van into the terminal at Heathrow two days before (fortunately, hurting no one but himself, but providing improbable event #4), and so as you might imagine, security was nuts.  We had been in line for about half an hour, when an official came walking down the line announcing that new rules were in effect that each person could bring only one carry-on, and that it could weigh no more than 10 kilos.  Well, that sent us all into a panic.  We each had two carryons.  My girlfriend had a standard carryon roller bag – the size that just barely fits into overhead bins, but in no way would weigh under 10 K.  So we stuffed as much of our stuff as we could into her bag to bring each of us to only one carryon, and sent her back to the counter to check her bag.  We were then busy transferring contents between the bags to even out the weight, which distracted me and caused me to miss the fact that the adult leader of the aforementioned Scout Troop had decided to cut into line in front of us (event #5).  He’d lifted the barrier strap from its stanchion, and was ushering in all 50 of his scouts into line in front of us.  Now being a former Assistant Scoutmaster myself, this pretty much infuriated me.  This was not the way that the trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent were supposed to behave!  So I said to the Scoutmaster – “this is not a very scout-like thing that you are doing.”  He gave me some excuse about the scouts being anxious to get going – and I told him he had no right to make everyone else late!  The guy behind me got the attention of an official and told them that the scouts had cut into line, but the official was too busy attending to something else to do anything.  So our progress was delayed by 50-people’s worth of waiting.

When we finally got to the front, they checked our boarding passes, and then sent us to the next line for bag-scanning. When we got to the front of that line about 15 min later, they weighed our carryon bags, and all were under 10 K, except for mine, that was still above at 13K (event #6; although not particularly improbable).  So they made us get out of line to shed that weight.  So I put some of my excess into the other’s bags, but there was nobody with room or weight to take the large hardcover book I was carrying.  I resigned myself to throwing it away and got back in line.  So we get to the front of the line again, all carryon bags now weigh under 10K.  I tried to hand the book to the security guy (the same guy who sent us out of line), telling him he can take it because I don’t have the weight allowance to carry it, and he says: “that’s all right sir, just put it in your bag (!).”

We get through security, but as a result of all these delays and waiting in line, we now have only 30 minutes until our flight.  We are proceeding to enter the duty-free shop area that is between us and the terminal, when we are called aside by security personnel.  They are doing ‘random’ checks on shoes, and they have decided to pick me and my mother (event #7).  Between waiting in another line, having shoes checked, and putting them back on, by the time we get out of there we now have only 20 minutes until our flight.  When we get out of there, my son is waiting, but there is no sign of the girlfriend.  I ask my son where she went, and he points.  We look and see her walking at a fast pace all the way on the other end of the shops area, maybe 100 yards away.  We watch as she goes around a corner into the terminal area.  So I sent my son after her, with the instructions to tell her that we are coming as fast as we can.

Now, my 72 years old mother gets around fine, but she had had back surgery a year before, and while she could walk, she could not walk fast.  Nonetheless, we hurried as much as we could, arriving at the gate right at departure time.  The gate was closed and there was no sign of my son (improbable event #8 – he’s an Eagle Scout and should have known better) or my girlfriend.  The agent can’t tell us whether they are on the plane or not, but we assume they are.  We begged her to let us on the plane, but nothing doing.  We begged her to let my son and girlfriend OFF the plane so we could stay together, but nothing doing.  The thing that was really maddening was that the plane sat there for 45 minutes past its departure time, still attached to the gate.  We asked the agent why it had not departed, and she told us that it was delayed because they had to find and remove our luggage!  We pointed out that it would be far better for everyone, and faster, if they just let us on, so they didn’t have to look for our baggage.  But still, nothing doing. 

Finally, the plane departed.  The airline still did not know if my son and girlfriend were on the plane, but they clearly weren’t in the airport, so we figured they were.  Next, we had to go through a 2 hour-long ordeal as they tried to find our bags and return them to us.  In the end, after 2 hours of talking to various airline personnel, waiting at baggage claim, and even being taken down to the restricted area where they stage all the bags that have been taken off planes (and not finding our luggage), they inform us that: yes, my son and girlfriend were on the flight, and so were our bags (!).  They had not taken them off the plane because the gate agent had checked them all under my son’s name.  Grrrrrr.

So next, we went back to the ticket counter to try to book another flight.  There were no more flights to Shannon that day (#9), and the ones for the next day were fully booked as well (#10).  There were two seats, and two seats only, to Dublin that day, but the flight did not depart until 7:30 PM.  Now, Ryanair is supposed to be the budget carrier, and indeed our tickets to Shannon had only been about 30 Euros.  But as it turns out, they offer those deep discounts only on the first seats to book.  For the last seats to book, they charge a fortune!  They wanted 450 Euros apiece for these tickets to Dublin, and they would not even give us credit for the airfare we’d paid to Shannon (“that flight is gone – so those tickets are worthless”).  We were stuck, so we bought them.

Next, we had to figure out how to get from Dublin to Shannon.  In the end, the only viable solution was to drive, but the only rental car left that day at Dublin airport was a BMW 5-series sedan.  I certainly didn’t mind the car, but the price for a ‘premium’ car, $220 Euros a day, was a bit staggering.

Next, we had to figure out how to communicate the reunion plan with my girlfriend and son.  I had a cell phone that worked in Europe, but they didn’t (we were always going to be together).  I was sending them e-mails from the public kiosk, but they never read them. I left a message with the information desk at Shannon, where I told them what we were doing, and that we expected to arrive at Shannon around midnight.  We learned later that they did get those messages.  We then proceeded to sit for the entire day at Stanstead, waiting for our flight.  When it finally came, the flight itself was fine.   Upon arriving at Dublin, obtaining our rental car was fast and easy.

Our drive across the entirely of Ireland to Shannon, in the pouring rain (#11), in the dark, on the “wrong” side of the road took us two hours longer than I’d estimated.  My nerves were shot by the time we finally pulled up to the Shannon terminal at 2:00 AM.  I was worn out, tired, grumpy, and still mad that they had gotten on the plane without us.  Even then, I knew better than to yell at my girlfriend ;-).  But when we found them, I told my son “you should know better than to get on a plane without us.”  I might as well have just yelled at her.  She took me aside and proceeded to dress me down.  Apparently it was MY fault for not being fast enough to make the plane.  I tried to explain that my mother could not walk that fast… and well, let’s just say that the discussion did not go well.  Her first words to me were: “Where the HELL have you been?” In addition to this, we had booked a hotel miles away, and we were too tired to drive again, so we took rooms at the airport hotel, another 400 Euros in unbudgeted expense.  In the end, this little mis-adventure cost over 1200 Euros (+ 40 pounds!), and about a million pounds of aggravation.  Looking back, it was that moment that was the beginning of the end for that particular relationship.  The tone was set and it didn’t get any better from there.  The flight may not have been hell, but getting to and from it surely was.

Demotage

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerrie September 15, 2009 at 6:45 am

Girlfriend sounded like a real piece of work.

Reply

Peter Fulton Foss September 15, 2009 at 5:33 pm

The airlines today from top to bottom are run by second and third generation FOOLS!

Reply

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