Wednesday, August 06, 2008


Omens en route to Hawaii

July 31, 2008

Consummate travelers probably already know things that I have to keep teaching myself, like how to recognize bad ideas and bad omens.

The fundamentals of a good trip evidently do not include going out to the Astoria Beer Garden the night before a 7:50 a.m. flight and then sitting drunkenly in a Greek restaurant eating spicy feta dip while an overweight woman analyzes why her overweight boyfriend wants to move to a certain neighborhood in Queens (answer: Your cousin lives next door!).

I guess I have learned this now, though the trip didn’t seem real to me on Wednesday night, despite how much preparation it took, the frantic writing of four stories in one day for the paper. It didn’t strike me how bad an idea that little beer garden jaunt was until we were back at the apartment at midnight and Valerie was exasperated at how much time we had wasted.

Neither of us had packed. Neither had we cleaned the apartment like we had planned in order to deter the rodent invasion. It seems every time we get ready to take a trip, a mouse shows up. It was no different this time. On Tuesday, after four months without a trace of mice, I heard the little bastard rummaging around for the carbonized rice grains that fall under the burners of the stove. I threw the stove lid open and saw the mouse skitter toward the back. But then it paused at the gas hose which evidently is its bridge to this magical kingdom of charred food scraps. I called to Valerie to grab me the bottle of 409, hoping to give the critter a squirt of caustic kitchen cleaner. She didn’t hear, and after 10 more seconds, the mouse leaped off into the netherworld.

On Wednesday night, knowing we had frittered (and fetaed) away an evening better spent sweeping the crumbs from our cluttered floors, Valerie put her hands on either side of her head.

“That was a really bad idea going to the beer garden,” she said. “There’s just so much left to do!”

She promptly crawled into bed for a three-hour nap. I cleaned the apartment and tried to put together a list of what I would pack. Up at 3, out the door at 5, no sleep. That was the plan. While I was sweeping and doing dishes, Val’s phone rang twice. It’s not unusual to have callers this late, since friends and family are on the West Coast, so I didn’t think much of it until after I had crawled into bed, expecting to sleep for an hour before a panicked packing session.

After I tossed and turned for half an hour, she got up to stop the phone from beeping about its unheard voicemails. She didn’t come back for several minutes, so I walked into the living room. She was sitting doubled over on the floor, phone to her ear, scribbling frantically on our trip itinerary.

“Our flight’s been cancelled,” she said. “They rescheduled us for 2:45 p.m.”

And so the fallout from American Airlines’ colossal baggage fuckup came home to roost for us. In actuality, it was kind of a relief. Valerie was happy to be able to sleep a few more hours, and so was I. The pressure was off, and though we’d wind up in Hawaii at 10 p.m. instead of 1 in the afternoon, it still seemed as fortuitous as a massive equipment failure could be. Oh how wrong I was.

A little information about the baggage problem: American Airlines had just debuted its brand-new baggage checking system at JFK. They were so proud of it that they put out press releases. My newspaper wrote about how they claimed it would drastically cut loading times and save passengers all kinds of hassle.

Then they put it to use and it broke. A software problem caused the entire baggage system to go down. No suitcases could move anywhere. They piled in lobbies like the personal effects of dead refugees. American started delaying, and then canceling its flights to buy time. They had no baggage system for nearly 24 hours.

That all happened on Wednesday, the day before our flight. When I checked the New York Post Thursday morning, all reports were that the baggage system would be up and running at 6 a.m.

We hopped in the car and got to the terminal just after 1 p.m., giving us the allotted 90 minutes before departure time to deal with any unexpected problems. We walked to the electronic check-in terminal and plugged in our information. The machine promptly told us there was an error. In lieu of the boarding passes it was dispensing to everyone else, it printed out a little receipt that said, “You may check in no earlier than 24 hours before departure time.”

“Bullshit,” I said, loudly enough for an American Airlines employee to overhear. He walked over, asked us what the problem was, walked us through the touchscreen checkout again, and then nodded.

“Your flight’s not until tomorrow,” he said. Val and I looked at the itinerary in disbelief. She had written the information from the voicemail correctly: August 1st. But at 2:30 in the morning, what constitutes “yesterday,” “today” and “tomorrow” get pretty blurred.

The terrible realization dawned on us that we had stressed, woken up early, put the car in super-expensive long-term parking a full day earlier than the airline wanted us. It also dawned on us that American Airlines was hoping we would politely swallow the fact that they had bumped us a full 30 hours from our carefully planned flight time. When you’ve got five days of vacation time, every hour counts, let alone every day, and we had a pre-paid hotel room waiting for us in Waikiki.

I was livid. I don’t deal well with transit inconveniences when they’re as minor as poorly publicized weekend subway service changes. When it means spending an entire day sitting sourly in my apartment instead of strolling on the beach 6,000 miles away, it’s a whole other ball game.

We got in line at the check-in desks behind about 75 other people and I mulled my building rage. I also called the airline a few foul names, which was enough to attract the attention of a TV news crew who were looking for just such a hapless traveler.

“Have you been affected by the baggage delays?” the well-coiffed black-haired woman with the microphone asked me. Yes, I told her. We were going to lose a day of our vacation.

“Well could we interview you about it? We’re trying to cover this story,” she said. “We want to help you by showing what’s going on.”

Ah, pandering to one’s sources. How charming. I explained that we were reporters ourselves and that she should find someone else, but she pleaded a little and I relented.

“Are you angry that their baggage problem is affecting your vacation?” Yes, I said. We had a very short vacation planned, and it’s unacceptable to lose an entire day.

“Have they offered you anything?” she said almost breathlessly. Here it is, the big scoop, the aha moment. “Any vouchers or compensation for your inconvenience?”

She wanted me to erupt with more of the shouting she heard before the cameras started rolling.

“Well, we’re waiting in line right now to talk to them, so I have no idea what they will offer,” I told her evenly.

“First American Airlines is the first airline to start charging passengers a fee to check their bags, and now this. As a traveler, what’s your reaction to that?”

She was really trying to bait me.

“Economic times are tough,” I said. “I’m not going to get mad at the airline for charging the fee. I’m just going to carry my bag on the plane instead.”

That was that. The TV crew wandered off, and we waited for another 15 minutes to get to a clerk. To American’s credit, the clerk was very helpful. She first told us that she could bump us up to 6:50 a.m. tomorrow, but that all Hawaii flights were booked solid today. I asked her to see if she could transfer us to another airline serving Hawaii, and without a word of protest, she did. It took her about 10 minutes of searching databases and she warned us we would have to hurry to catch the flight, but she put us on a plane to San Francisco at 2:55 p.m. where we transferred to a United flight to Hawaii.

Relief. Exultation. Tears of gratitude, almost, except for the realization that American thought it would be more acceptable to cost us an entire day of our vacation than to first try and get us on any other flight to our destination on the same day. I do not appreciate that.

We thanked the clerk profusely and rushed off to the terminal, but the circumstances stuck in my craw. I still don’t know if I’ll ever fly American again.

Everything went smoothly after that except for the TSA people. They pulled us aside at both JFK and San Francisco to search us and our bags. It’s a minor indignity, I realize, but that rationale kind of embraces the “if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about” mentality. It also screws with my brain. I’m Mr. Unassuming White Guy. If you put a little pomade in my hair, you probably couldn’t tell me apart from the wholesome, gee-golly spawn of some insurance-selling Levittown dweller from the 1950s. I realize the TSA is trying to avoid racial profiling, but twice in a row?

Maybe this is an omen, too. If they do it again on the way back home, I think I’m going to go get a different haircut or something.

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