Monday, July 29, 2013

A Travel Story

I travel frequently, and not just to the usual tourist destinations. I've gone to places like Singapore, Japan, Ukraine, and India. This is a story of trying desperately to get home from a recent trip.

Be Aware of You Surroundings

The first sign of trouble was when the roof started leaking. The storm outside had only been raging for half an hour before the two droplets landed on my head. The buckets and signs on the floor captured most of the leaks, but there were numerous unmarked drips. You don't want this kind of water in your hair or food. Always be aware of your surroundings.

I arrived at my gate to find a delayed flight. At least there was now time to eat, since all the good food options were in the international terminal. Casually I trekked over, scarfed down some ethnic food and began meandering back to the gate.

An Ominous Sign

The blaring alarm noises and the flashing emergency lights of the fire alarm told me something was wrong. Neither the airport staff, nor security, nor the airline staff knew what was happening. Just that there wasn't a fire. Maybe. There was no smoke, no firemen, and everyone was calm. Carefully and slowly, I continued towards the gate. Then the power went out.

It was still daytime, and the sunlight and fire alarm (probably on backup power) provided enough lights to get by. The gate was in complete chaos. None of the computers worked, and the staff tried their best to assuage angry passengers. Some were just grumpy, others in tears, but all wanted some answers. There were no answers, no air conditioning, and it was getting hot.

The darkened terminal was like an impoverished refugee camp. Uniformed staff handing out bottles of water to angry men, crying women and screaming children. Mobs of people begged staff for answers. It was dark, hot, loud, and no one knew what was going on. This went on for two hours.

Then the plane arrived, but we couldn't board. The jetbridges were electric and wouldn't extend. Other parts of the airport had power, but the airline couldn't or wouldn't use the working jetbridges. The flight was cancelled, but we weren't rebooked to a new flight because there was no power. We had to call the central reservation office. This was never announced, of course. I happened to overhear another passenger talk with the gate agent.

So I called. After 30 minutes, a man with an accent answered. He sounded legitimately concerned, but all the flights for the day were sold out. I asked if he could rebook me on a competing airline; he typed something on a keyboard and then told me that all flights on all airlines to my destination were sold out. No inventory; The earliest possibility was the next night. Begrudgingly, I agreed. I asked about hotel vouchers. "Of course, the gate agents can print them for you", he replied. The power was still out.


I wasn't about to spend another night in this place. There was still one flight on a competing airline, and it was leaving soon. Sure I was told there were no seats, but one can't blindly trust a company to do something that lowers profit. And besides, maybe someone wouldn't show up. The competing airline was naturally in the furthest possible terminal from where I was. It was a long walk, but they probably power.

Turns out there were seats on the flight. There would be a cost, but I would get home, today. Life was also better in this part of the airport. There were no leaks in the roof and the air conditioning was on. Nobody was crying. I sat down near the new gate.

There was a current flight there, delayed indefinitely. Must be weather, I figured. That assumption was shattered when I heard two airline employees talking next to the gate entrance. Turns out the plane needed fuel. They sent for a fuel truck, but it arrived without fuel. For the past half hour they were trying to find either fuel, a new fuel truck, or whomever got them into the boondoggle. No one was answering. After 15 more minutes, they found a new truck. Two hours later my plane arrived.

Don't Count Your Chickens...

As we boarded, I realized there were plenty of seats. The flight was only half full. So much for "no seats available." As we taxied to the runway, I was thankful to finally be out of this wretched place.

My enthusiasm was premature. Literally as we were next in line to depart, our plane was directed to stop. After an hour on the tarmac, the full story unfolded. The original flight path had unexpected weather. We had an approved alternate flight path, but in the time it took us to taxi (about 30 min in the rain at this airport), the alternate flight path also had unexpected weather. It was 30 more minutes before we moved again.

Departure At Last

This time, it was for real. Our wheels touched off the ground and we ascended into the stormy sky. The plane shook violently as we passed through the rain, wind, and lightning. I clutched my seat and thought about this abhorrent place: the fire alarm, the crying passengers, the hot, dark, sweaty terminal, helpless staff, the leaky roof and fuel-less fuel trucks. I just wanted to go home and to never again fly into Philadelphia International Airport.

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