Fifteen hours into my journey home and I'm wishing my toothpaste hadn't been confiscated. What does security have against dental hygiene? And what does the airline industry have against me?
This morning at 5:30am I dragged myself out of bed in the Berkshires in the western-most part of Massachusetts. It was a beautiful, crisp day. Ok, I have no idea if it was a beautiful day. It was still dark. But it was crisp as hell. I'm pretty sure that's what they mean by crisp. In New England, "crisp" is synonymous with "wicked cold," in much the same way Dunkin Donuts is synonymous with breakfast and Fenway Park is synonymous with the Taj Mahal.
5:30 am and I hit the road. Heading for the Hartford airport, it strikes me that Hartford Connecticut really doesn't deserves an airport. Don't you think that a "city" should meet certain minimal criteria before it merits an airport? For one, I think that if you don't have an NPR affiliate in your so-called "city," you don't deserve an airport. And perhaps a sport team of some repute. No, Triple A ball doesn't count. You should, at least, have a Ruth's Chris steak house. No self respecting city would be Ruth's Chris free (they cook their steaks in butter -- not margarine, butter). No Ruth's Chris, No sports team, No NPR . . . NO AIRPORT.
But Hartford does have an airport. Well, it isn't really an airport. It is more like an overblown food court with too many exit doors. I wonder if the locals come to the airport for lunch? It wouldn't be too hard to get through security to the "Wicked Good Subs" (that is really what it's called). Best I can tell, the Hartford security officers are recruited from the local football teams. Land an all-city rushing record and you too can sit behind the x-ray machine and look for liquid contraband. Wide receivers are the showboats -- they get to make the announcements -- "please take all laptops out of bags and place them on their own in gray tubs." Former wide receivers are easy to spot in Hartford. They're the one's with "please take all laptops out of bags and placed them on their own in gray tubs" written on their palms in black pen. And linemen stand on the secure side of the detecto-gates waving travelers through with an affable smile (well worth taking all those steroids in Jr. High -- look how that payed off for you). As for kickers, they get nothing. Give me a break. You'd be lucky to sell replacement toothpaste in the airport mini-mart after being kicker for the football team. Please.
Upon arriving at the airport at the crack of dawn, I set about the task of clawing my way out of steerage and into the front of the plane. My morning desperation took the form of first wrestling with the check-in kiosk and then wrestling with the check-in moron. According to the kiosk, there were e-upgrades available. Hurray, I could buy my way out of the back of the plane (it's a little bit like pre-school at the JCC -- you can buy your way out of helping out in the classroom). I really don't understand what is "e" about an e-upgrade? And why is it an upgrade at all when it costs you four hundred bucks? That's called purchasing a first class ticket in my book. But who am I to quibble over semantics. At least I was going to get up to first class. I gave the kiosk my credit card, which it happily consumed and charged me four hundred bucks to qualify for the "upgrade." But when I attempted to get my new seat, I was stymied by the kiosk. It would automate the process of buying the e-upgrades but apparently it would not automate the process of using those newly purchased upgrades to get me out of the cattle car.
No worries. The pleasant enough human in the airline uniform waved me over to rectify the situation. I'm guessing he was once the Vice Principal of one of Hartford's lesser-performing middle schools. The school was no doubt closed down when the inner city population fled for places less dominated by the insurance industry. But Mr. Vice Principal didn't have the resources to relocate to Knoxville or Chatanooga, and so he did the best he could and signed on with one of Hartford's lesser-performing airlines -- It is where he feels comfortable. He pulled up my records and set about the task of applying the e-upgrades. But no matter how he tried, he could not figure out how to get me into first class. After a quick call to his supervisor (the former underperforming Principal, no doubt), VP informed me that someone had "snagged" the last upgrade while he was struggling to understand the upgrade process. It was pretty clear that no amount of protesting, foot stomping, or gratuitous swearing was going to get me into the first class cabin, so I calmly thanked him for trying and headed out to the gate (approximately 4 paces from the security checkpoint).
Thankfully, the flight to Chicago was a quick one. And there was plenty of room to spread out. After all, how many people actually fly out of Hartford? Best I could tell, the only folks flying out this morning were a handful of insurance executives, the University of Connecticut soccer team, and me. That left me with a whole row to myself on the plane. Not exactly first class -- I had to buy myself a snack pack -- but at least I wasn't sandwiched into a middle seat.
In Chicago I decided to get proactive. Skipping the counter altogether, I called the airline to check on a potential upgrade from Chicago to San Francisco. Sure, my man in Hartford had failed me. But I was sure I'd meet with much better success calling the folks in India. After all, they are all about authority and results. I got a perfectly lovely woman on the phone (Mary or Susan or some other made up American name) and explained my hope to put my unused e-upgrades to work. "No problem Mr. Hornik. Let me see what I can do for you." And off she went into the hold-musak abyse while I waited. And waited. And waited. When she returned, her pronouncement didn't surprise me. Well, not entirely. She informed me that she "wasn't able to upgrade me again on this leg of the trip."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I'm sorry Mr. Hornik. We were only able to upgrade you from Hartford to Chicago, but our first class seats are sold out from Chicago to San Francisco."
All in all I think I was pretty darn calm given the circumstance. The empty seat in first class that I kept eyeing longingly on my way to Chicago turned out to be my seat. The Vice Principal was, in fact, sufficiently competent to get me a seat in first class, he just wasn't competent enough to know it. The guy who had "snagged" the last seat in first class was none other than me.
While breathing deeply, I asked "Mary" to kindly refund my e-upgrades because I had not, in fact, had the good fortune of enjoying them. She did so. I headed to the gate. No first class seat. Not the end of the world. It was a relatively quick trip back from Chicago. How much of a difference could it really make?
As we pulled away from the gate, I looked out my little porthole and wondered about those storm clouds. I surmised that no amount of rain could deter a plane from flying out of Chicago. After all, how could a little bit of rain impact an airport that was so used to dealing with snow. We taxied. And taxied. And taxied. All the while the storm clouds grew darker. And darker. And darker. If our taxiing was not intended to give the clouds a chance to move in on us, it was nonetheless successful. The rain began. And we sat. Soon enough we were treated to a pronouncement from the cockpit -- "ladies and gentlemen, as you can see we are a little bit delayed here waiting for the rain to pass. Unfortunately, if we don't get out in the next fifteen minutes, we are going to have to taxi back to the gate to add some fuel for the journey."
Now I am no aviation expert, but does it trouble you at all that a few extra minutes of taxiing are sufficient to deplete the fuel supply for a flight from Chicago to San Francisco? I was always foolishly living under the dillusion that the planes on which I flew had enough extra fuel to circle their destination for a reasonable period of time, or to get to nearby airport should there be any trouble at the destination. As I contemplated the idea that planes were fueled like formula-1 race cars -- just enough gas to make it over the finish line -- the skies exploded. First hail then the Niagara falls. Our plane stopped on the runway and waited it out. Despite the cacophony of rain against the fuselage, a calm set in across the airport. Looking out my window I saw disabled plane after disabled plane sitting still on the runway, outlined by blinking lights softened by the splashing downpour. No one spoke for the entirety of the downpour. They simply looked out their respective peep holes and waited. At long last the rain subsided and we recommenced taxiing -- not to the runway for takeoff, but back to the gate for refueling.
By this time I had been on the plane for four hours and had made it all the way from Gate 4 to Gate 6. The flight attendants assured us that the fueling stop would take only a few minutes but in an effort to avoid a mutiny, she reopened the hatch and people streamed out of the plane in search of a full-sized bathroom and a king-sized Snickers bar. I stayed put for fear of slowing our departure further and stared angrily at each member of the escaping horde in an effort to convey the fact that if they delayed the flight any further I would find them and beat them with an airline pillow (which we all know is about as soft as a tote bag full of sheet-music). The ten minute refuel took thirty but miraculously everyone returned promptly and we were on our way. Again.
As we pulled out onto the tarmac, foreboding clouds circled. A drop or two of rain fell. But our pilot was determined to get out before the next torrential downpour and out we got. I suppose the rest of the trip was uneventful because I have no recollection of the movie, the chit chat, the airline magazine. Just shy of midnight west coast time we landed. I had been in transit for some twenty hours. While I doubt I can avoid the Chicago airport for the rest of time, you won't see me in Hartford again any time soon.