Traveling is Tough Even Under Normal Conditions

July 18, 2011

in Airport Stories

My wife and I went on vacation in Europe. I expected flights from hell somewhere, but was pleasantly surprised that, except for a 2 hour delay on our way from PHI to Zürich, all travel arrangements went as planned. Still, if not a flight from hell, at least a modest test of endurance getting home from Milan, Italy…

5:38 AM: Catch train to Malpensa Airport. We’ve never been there so we arrive a couple of hours early. They insist we check our carry on bags. I’ve never been refused using this bag as a carry on before. This means we will need to wait for baggage to clear customs later in PHI and we still have a final connecting flight to catch after that. Drink Red Bull and wait bleary eyed. No gate yet for our flight. Milan was currently inundated with mosquitoes and they made it into the airport of course. Our flight did not yet have a gate assigned and so we waited in a mosquito-filled main terminal area. 7:30AM no gate. 8AM no gate. 8:30 no gate. All the other flights have gates. Ah, we finally have a gate and things move along well. Flight to Frankfurt leaves relatively on time.

10:15AM: Arrive in Frankfurt. Everyone is coffeed up and ready to get off the plane and hit the bathrooms. But wait, we’re not taxiing to the terminal. We’re going in the opposite direction. We deplane on the tarmac and are taken by bus about a mile to a central terminal. I have never seen so many squirmy guys holding it in. The bus finally arrives and we burst out. Alas, only two working urinals in the first bathroom. I’m in and out! Guy’s faces are turning green.

10:45AM: Take the Sky Tram to terminal C to catch our USAir flight to Philadelphia.

11:00AM: In the process of getting to the gate we go through 5 security checks. One is official immigration. Then at the top of the stairs to their terminal, USAir asks us for our passports, boarding passes, and asks us a series of security questions. We then go down the stairs and through a standard x-ray security line (passports and boarding passes please). After that, we can either stand (no seats) in a central area that sells food and has bathrooms, or otherwise go to the secure gate where there are seats. This entails getting in line and speaking to a USAir staff person (passports and boarding passes please). She reissues us new boarding passes in place of the ones we got from Lufthansa. We then go through the turnstile to our gate and are met by another USAir staff person who is standing just 3 feet from the last transaction and she (I kid you not) asks for our boarding passes and passports. Not sure what we could have done in those couple of steps, but OK. After running this gauntlet we can now sit for about 90 minutes until our flight boards.

1:15 PM: Boarding goes fine. We’re riding an Airbus A330. It is designed to pack them in for the haul. There is zero leg room. Our little jet from Milan to Frankfurt had substantially more leg room than this behemoth. However, we settle in, watch some video, sleep, stretch, eat, watch a family in a neighboring row deal with their 3 year old daughter’s continuous air sickness for 8 hours and 40 minutes of flight time. All and all, it was actually fine. But it is a very long flight when you’ve already trained and planed and are not yet done.

3:45 PM: Arrive in Philly and head to their Immigration>Baggage Claim>Customs gauntlet. Crap, another big plane in at the same time, we have to get our checked bags, and we’ve got 1 hour 45 minutes to get over to the commuter terminal on the other side of the airport. Long line, nice immigration guy, bags show up, we don’t have anything to declare. We’re through in an hour and have about 45 minutes to spare. We’re going to make it!

4:45 PM: Head around a corner and into… a standard x-ray security check line? What could we have done since being checked 5 times in Frankfurt and then never leaving a secure area since deplaning??? Oh crap. So after almost 20 hours it comes to this. I have to take my shoes off and hand over passports and boarding passes again! If I wasn’t so exhausted I’d probably have lost it.

Hurry through, put shoes back on, put passport and boarding pass away for the last time! Off to another shuttle bus, then down to our gate. Plane is there, we are there, we have all our bags, which we did not recheck. We are going to make it.

We board and pull from the gate, but then stop on the tarmac as the pilot tells us bad weather is approaching and the airport is shutting down most departure corridors. Everyone is getting “rerouted” and no time estimate on when we’ll go. The storms blow in. We sit in the plane. The pilot tells us we can get our cell phones back out because he doesn’t know how long we’ll be waiting. Many planes are lined up on the runways. Not looking good.

Oh, so close but so far. So tired. I get out my phone and before it can completely power up, the pilot says, “Folks we have been cleared and rerouted, so put those phones away and let’s get out of here.” I figure there was only a small window for our little 1 hour prop job flight. Go man go!

So, all in all, it wasn’t a flight from hell. Everything ultimately went right. No cancelled flights, no lost bags, no creepy passengers. But, 21 hours of trains, planes, buses, Sky Trams, and taxis were very tiring and that’s when it all went right. If things had started to go wrong, it would be real hell.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

James July 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

Just sounds tedious. I've had a few. But one serious comment:

I've flown into several countries, and in many cases, they are able to route your baggage through a connecting airport for you. Among the countries with the technology to do this: United Kingdom, France, Germany, Egypt, Cambodia, Thailand, Japan, China, Australia.

In fact, the only country in the world where I've seen connecting passengers required to collect their luggage and re-check it is the United States. Pathetic, isn't it?


Robyn July 21, 2011 at 4:10 pm

If airlines don't have affiliations or agreements with one another, in most cases, that's when you'll have to collect your baggage, and re-check it. Otherwise, even if you're flying two seperate airlines but they have baggage agreements with one another, the baggage will go all the way through to your final destination.

Glad to hear it was a smooth trip. I had a 30+ hour long-haul once and in my sleep deprived state I misplaced a handfull of souvineers and undeveloped photos at airport security in Heathrow. I didn't notice until I landed in Montreal, and I was a histerical mess by the time I got home to Winnipeg.


Jenny July 21, 2011 at 7:52 pm

Did you ever get your belongings back?


@Richboy455 July 27, 2011 at 9:16 am

Its not that they didn't have an interline agreement with the other airline, it is that US Customs and Border Patrol requires all passengers to have all their belongings with them when they go through Customs. That includes checked baggage. One you exit Customs, you go right to an area where the airline takes your checked bags and sends them to your next airplane.


J_C July 22, 2011 at 9:09 am

Security – the US requires collecting and rechecking of luggage when arriving from an international flight so they can rescan the luggage. Have you seen some of the loose security in some countries?


James July 22, 2011 at 1:51 pm

Collecting should not be necessary.

The United Kingdom and Japan take advantage of these fancy things called "bar codes" that we print on all the baggage tags now, this redirects the luggage when we change planes; it ought to be easy to rescan, and if there is an issue identify the owner of the bag and if necessary deny boarding. But I guess this kind of computer technology is beyond a third world country,


Robert July 23, 2011 at 8:40 am

I will say this: Philly has to be the WORST airport to cycle through ….. stupid layout, massively unfriendly staff,…… if at all possible, Charlotte is my go-to connector.


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