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Plane crazy

June 8, 2011

It's a simple fact of life that the older you get, the less able you are to keep track of the passage of time. For example, my sense of time is so skewed that I still keep thinking airlines are a classy and efficient way to travel.

Of course, they once were. Time was when plane travel was prohibitively expensive, but it was also fast, luxurious and enjoyable.

Schedules were adhered to, and counter people were efficient and friendly, as was everyone else connected with the airports. Sure, the food was crappy, but being fussed over by upbeat, soignee stewardesses more than made up for it. But not anymore - not by a long shot.

Overbookings, cancellations and delays are a given. Snotty counter people are hardly the exception, and the odds of getting a straight answer from anyone about why things are screwed up are about the same as figuring out what the hell's going on with the Sears lot.

Plus, the cost? By the time you factor in all the extra, built-in ticket expenses and then add baggage fees and food, and then the cost of meals and hotels caused by cancellations? While it might be slower to hire a palanquin, it would probably be no more expensive or uncomfortable.

My latest adventure with Airlines in Wonderland took place on Memorial Day.

Phase one

On paper, it was a simple scenario. The Amazon Queen was visiting her family in Minnesota. She'd fly out of St. Paul in the early morning and land in Newark. Then after a couple-hour layover, she'd fly out in early afternoon, arriving in Burlington at 2:50.

As I said, it was no sweat - on paper. But having experienced our share of airline screw-ups, the AQ and I worked out collateral plans in case she became an object of collateral damage.

I'd stay at home waiting for her calls. The first, from St. Paul, would let me know if there were any delays with that flight.

She called, and there were none.

Next, once she got to Newark, she'd call and let me know about that leg of the trip.

While I was waiting for her to call, I checked her flight's status on Continental's website. Her departure was right on schedule or so it said on the site. Then she called and told me it'd been delayed a half-hour.

I rechecked the site - it still said departure was on schedule. Well, why update the flight status if everyone has a cell phone, right? Or perhaps a more pertinent question from a troublemaker like me is, why have flight status on your website if you don't bother changing it? (And just FYI, at 4 o'clock, almost three hours after the flight was supposed to have left but hadn't, that status had still not been changed.)

What with the website-reality disconnect, I should've suspected things might go even more awry, but naive and trusting bumpkin that I am, I didn't. Instead, at 2 o'clock I hopped in the car and headed east. This'd get me at the airport at 4, giving her at least a half-hour to deplane and all the rest. Then I could swoop in front of the terminal, pick her up and be headed home, tickety-boo.

I got to the airport at 4 on the dot, but there was one big problem: No AQ in front.

No biggie, I figured. I pulled into the parking garage and headed into the terminal, and as soon as I did, I saw on the arrival board her flight was now rescheduled to land at 5.

Of course I was disappointed, but what's an extra hour - especially to a resourceful Dope like yours truly? I wasn't about to waste those 60 minutes cursing the airline or pacing about in the airport; instead, I took off to Barnes and Noble to peruse and perhaps purchase some new source of enlightenment for my already-elevated consciousness. Which I did, picking up a nifty little tome called "The Himalayan Way of Wisdom," which practically guaranteed I'd be seeing 20-20 out my third eye in only a matter of days.

I returned to the airport, and again no AQ in front. So again I pull in the parking garage and go into the terminal.

This time when I look at the arrivals board, I do a double-take: Not only is the time of her flight's arrival not listed, the flight itself isn't either. What to do? Simple, I'll just ask a friendly Continental counter person.

I go to the counter, and guess what? Not only is there no friendly CP, there's no CP there at all.

Instead, milling around way in back of the counter, by the conveyor, is some rugged female character with bleached spiked hair and a scowl, which makes her look less like any kind of airport employee than a bouncer in a leather bar.

I ask her if she knows about the flight from Newark; she jerks her head in the direction of the main entrance and stalks off.

I look at the entrance. There's some kid gnawing on a fingernail who looks 13 but has an ID clipped to his shirt pocket. My only thought is he came here with his old man as part of a Rotary "Dads and Lads Day." It turns out he didn't - he actually works there. I ask him about the Newark flight.

"Fifteen, maybe 20 minutes," he says, without either quitting his gnawing or making eye contact.

Fifteen to 20 minutes to him translates as an hour to me. What to do? The answer's obvious: I'll drown my sorrows in French fries and a chocolate malted at that Burlington institution, Al's French Frys.

Fazed two

I have my leisurely repast and then go back to the airport, wondering what'll go wrong this time.

The first thing is - once again - no AQ in front. Which is OK, because by now I'm used to it.

The next thing is not only something I'm not used to; it's something I've never seen in my entire life: There are no parking tickets at the garage. Oh, there are lots of parking places, but the machine is out of tickets, so there's no way to raise the barrier.

Airport parking lots are not a customer convenience - they're a business. And like all good American business, they try to become monopolies. The Burlington airport does it by making everything within walking distance of the airport a no-parking zone.

So now I do the only thing I can - I commit the ultimate sin: I park my car in front of the terminal, unattended, and sprint in, expecting the wrath of Homeland Security, Delta Force, Seal Team 6 and perhaps the CIA to immediately descend on me.

Luckily, they don't. Instead, some kid in a puke-green fluorescent vest calls after me.

"Sir," he says, "you can't park your car out there."

"Yeah, I know," I say. "But since there are not tickets I can't park it in the garage, either."

Meanwhile, I'm desperately scanning the lobby for the AQ, who's nowhere in sight.

"Yes," he says, "we're working on that."

I don't know whether to laugh or to spit. They're working on it? If they were working on it, all they'd have to do was post some jamoke at the garage, have him handwrite times on official stationery (which I'm sure they have by the reams), and then people could pay when they left. Really, it'd work. But I digress

Giving the kid his due, he's a nice fellow, and he tells me I can wait in front as long as I'm sitting in my car. Having no alternative, I do that.

A little while later, the AQ shows up. She tosses her bag in the back seat and then hops in the front.

"Sweet mother of God!" she says, exhaling explosively. "You won't believe the hassles I've had to go through today!"

"No," I say, suppressing both an ironic smile and a biting comeback. "I'm sure I won't."



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