The Long and Winding Road

by Rob Gregory Browne

We missed our connecting flight by ten minutes.

Ten measly minutes.

The woman behind the airline counter had a sour look on her face.  She clearly hated her job, herself, her country and undoubtedly all of mankind. 

Which, of course, included my wife and me.

"The next flight to Philadelphia doesn’t leave for another five hours," she said.  "I can put you on standby, if you like."

Standby?  Did I just hear her right?  Freakin’ standby?

That was the moment I nearly lost it.  The moment when a mild-mannered writer of thrillers came dangerously close to turning into a sleep-deprived, ax wielding mass-murderer.  Fortunately, my ax had been confiscated at the security gate in L.A. along with my switchblade, my Beretta and my bottle of Silky Boy shampoo.

Before I became a published novelist, I didn’t really travel all that much.  Honolulu once a year.  An occasional jaunt to San Francisco or Vegas.  A few cruises to Mexico.  But what they don’t tell you when you sign up for this gig is that you’d better learn to pack economically and carry an inflatable donut, because — thanks to the zillion and one writers’ conferences and book festivals out there — you’re going to be spending a lot of time sitting on your ass. 

Not writing, unfortunately.  But in planes, trains and automobiles.

And in terms of comfort and sanity, planes are by far the worst.  (Trains, by comparison, are bliss.)

But back to O’Hare International, my favorite airport:

Being victim to a delayed flight/missed connection was bad enough, but what truly got my panties in a wad was discovering that not one single employee of the airline — including the woman behind the counter — seemed to give a damn about our dilemma. 

And the missed connection was their fault!

Thankfully, my wife — who stayed amazingly calm throughout the entire debacle — managed to find the ONE sympathetic airline employee (okay, I lied earlier — so sue me) in all of Chicago and we were able to spend our unscheduled stopover in the VIP lounge.

Whooptee-freakin’-doo.

True, they had nice comfy armchairs, mini muffins, surprisingly good coffee (which I doctored with Swiss Miss) and free (but agonizingly slow) Internet access, but none of it made up for the loss of time in Philly.  And at that point, even fem bots offering free sexual favors wouldn’t have made me feel any better. 

Thanks to the world’s worst airline service — and I’m talking a major carrier here — our much anticipated two-day vacation — prior to Thrillerfest in New York — was virtually cut in half. 

And I had to wonder.  Was traveling by plane always this bad?  Or is the tanking economy, the price of gas, the general fear of job loss, personal bankruptcy and corporate indifference turning customer service into a steaming pile of doggy dung?

Not everywhere, it seems.

Because when we finally caught our flight, then a cab, and staggered into our quaint little Philadelphia hotel — 24 sleepless hours after we’d started this endless trek — the kind and patient gentleman at the front desk listened to our tale of woe, then smiled warmly.

"Not to worry," he said.  "You’re home now."

And those six words reminded me of what’s so great about travel: 

Being there. 

I know that those of you reading this have had similar — or even much worse — getting there experiences.  So take a little time and vent. 

Trust me, it feels good.

21 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road

  1. Catherine

    I like to travel. Probably because I don’t fly all year round, and also because based on past experience, I tend to assume from the get go, that weird, weird stuff will happen.

    A few years back I ended up travelling the long, long flight from Australia to LAX twice within a couple of months. I thought nothing much about the process of getting there would surprise me…I’m so part of the jet set crowd. Hah.

    I don’t sleep on the 15 hour flight, and I’m lucky to doze for a second here and there. Something about being trapped in a metal tube with lots of strangers over a lot of ocean…

    So, some time, where the flight attendants start handing out steamed towels from those trolleys before you land, I did start to doze ….to wake with a start to find a young german punk girl, perched over me, straddling the armrests like a spider monkey.I let out a little yelp and she scampered down the other side. In her absence the nice American couple to the side of me explained that she couldn’t leave her aisle seat because of the trolley blocking her pathway to the bathroom, and it was URGENT right then, to get to the bathroom, (more so than in the preceding 14 hours of flight) and that she thought climbing over my prone body was more considerate than waking me from my doze….

    By the time we disembarked, I was still somewhat rattled as I went to join the rest of the herd to be processed through customs.

    I’m used to being checked at every security point whenever I travel.I’m just lucky that I look so innocent, it’s automatically suspicious…and I’m used to the people at customs being very, very intent and serious ( even before 9/11).

    However just after that long flight with the piquant dash of crazy,I was so, not my best when the very large security guy was scanning my suitcase for explosive material. When he very politely asked me,

    ‘Do I have your permission to open your bag?’

    I had try to be helpful, and use the most stupid statement my bleary little jet lagged mind could of said in July of 2002.

    I said, ‘Sure but be careful, as the clothes are packed really tight and they’re likely to explode out of there.’

    I’m not sure who looked more shocked by that little gem…? A very quick verbal backtrack, stating the bleeding obvious that, ‘I really did not mean to use the word explode, I meant spill…that the I was a very tired woman, using words badly and was very, very, sorry’. Thankfully I must of looked pretty convincing as a harmless idiot to THAT particular custom guy, and I was on my way after a very thorough search.

    This is an example of only one of my flights where the getting there delights can come from any source.In this case, scary young limber tourists with no personal space issues what so ever, an enormous custom dude and my own worst enemy… me.

    Reply
  2. Jim Winter

    This is what I don’t understand. Whenever I fly [large major carrier with a disappearing hub in Northern Kentucky], I am inevitably treated rudely by the employees and crammed into a metal tube with for more human bodies than the mosh pit at a Pearl Jam concert. Leg room? Forget it. Plus this airline thinks it’s funny to schedule a 40 minute layover in Atlanta.

    Now… Let’s talk Southwest, Jet Blue, AirTran, etc. Even if you figure in for energy costs soaring, their fares are ALWAYS substantially lower than the struggling majors. Yet their planes are roomy, their staffs friendly, and their flights short and to the point.

    So someone explain to me why I get treated like uppity cattle when I pay more and like a celebrity when I pay less. Will someone explain that to me?

    Reply
  3. J.D. Rhoades

    I made the mistake of telling someone this past weekend at Thrillerfest that I’d been very lucky with airline travel. No bumps, no cancellations, no missed connections, etc.

    So of course once I get to JFK for the return flight, I wander into a scene of utter chaos in the Delta terminal (not one but two gate changes, and no one seeming to know what was going on)followed by sitting on the taxiway for four freaking hours waiting for permission to take off.

    Wait, let me amend that….part of the time was spent going back to the gate becuase we’d sat there for so long and were being directed to take off at a runway so far away that we needed to go back for more fuel. And part of it was spent taxiing for what seemed like miles, rolling and rolling and rolling until I finally began to wonder if the pilot had decided “screw it, it’ll be faster to DRIVE to Raleigh-Durham, I’ll hook a right onto I-95.”

    The only consolation was that the plane was half empty (I guess others had gotten the word about Delta before me) and I had room to stretch out. I actually got a little much needed sleep, which I usually can’t do on a plane.

    But I will WALK home before I’ll ever fly Delta or go out of JFK again. No one with either organization seems to have the slightest idea what they’re doing.

    Reply
  4. J.D. Rhoades

    “So someone explain to me why I get treated like uppity cattle when I pay more and like a celebrity when I pay less. “

    Because some airlines know what the hell they’re doing, and some don’t. Southwest rulez. I just wish they flew to NY.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I guess the worst was sometime last year when I arrived in Phoenix at about 9 pm and my connecting flight to LA had been canceled. In fact, it seemed almost all flights had been canceled (due to weather, of course, it’s always due to weather so they don’t have to pay for your hotel. The airline employees at the gates told everyone to walk down the hall to Customer Service to get our flights rescheduled for the morning – knowing full well that Customer Service was long closed and the hall took us out into the terminal so that we couldn’t return to bug them some more.

    Baggage claim was chaos, hundreds of people were scrambling for hotels, and no one knew if they would have flights when they returned in the morning, so the scene there the next day was even more of a zoo. The only thing that kept it from being one of the most stressful 24 hours I’d spent in years was knowing that no matter what, I could rent a car and be home in 24 hours.

    Driving has become so infinitely preferable to flying it’s not even funny.

    Reply
  6. Wilfred Bereswill

    Ahhh, travel. My specialty. I have become numb to the process of travel. I’ll tell my one tale quickly.

    I woke up in Beijing one morning to a ringing phone. It was my collegue in Wuhan China who I was supposed to meet in a few hours. She was still in Wuhan in the middle of a MAJOR ice storm. (turns out the storm made national news in February of this year.

    She wasn’t going to make it. Stuck in Beijing with limited language skills and two days until my flight back to the states through Shanghai. Not so bad.

    Well, by the next day that storm moved to Shanghai closing the airport, unknownst to me of course. I arrived at the Beijing Capital Airport at 7 AM for a 9 AM flight and a 5 hour layover before my Frequent Flyer Free Company tickets took me from Shanghai to O’hare (THE Airport I HATE most).

    I checked my bags (tactical error) and waited in the lounge until noon. By the way, the Chinese do not keep you informed on status (the communism way). They just look at you and say “Yes, no problem. On time.” Uh huh, even though your flight is now 4 hours late.

    I calmly get on my international cell phone and call the travel agency. “How much from Bejing direct to Chicago?” “$11,000 first class, $10,000 Business.” I call my boss. “Have a good time in Beijing.”

    I can’t get my frequent flyer tickets changed until the office opens on Monday. It’s Saturday. And Monday morning in the States is Monday night in Bejing. I get creative and call back the travel agent. “How much for coach?” “$1,100” “Say that again.” “Yes, $1,100.” “With my high status with my frequent flyer card, can you upgrade me for that price?” “We can get you Executive Coach.” “What the $%*& is that?” “It gives you 1/2 in more knee room and the elderly Chinese guy next to you gets gagged so you don’t wake up from his snoring.”

    “Book it.”

    Now I have to get my bags back and I forgot to tell you this is the first day of Chinese New Year. The biggest travel day of the year in China and I’m in the domestic side of the terminal with a sea of humanity. Like Robert’s wife, I found a simpathetic desk clerk and an hour later, miraculously I got my bags. Now I only have 5 hours to kill.

    I find a seat in a restaurant above the sea of humanity and get a bowl of beef noodles and a Budweiser. You know that former American Beer? I kill a few hours and head to the check in desk for United. As it turns out, I had something called “System Wide Upgrades” only reserved for “Global Services Members.” I wind up with a seat on the upper deck of the 747-400 in Business Class. No gag issued to the New Yorker snoring next to me.

    I lift off from Beijing 12 hours after I arrived at the airport and descend toward The Windy City before I left Beijing (Some kind of time warp Time zone thing.) BUT the tale is not over. The plane starts gaining speed and altitude and rushes away from O’Hare. Thunderstorms in the area. We’re low on fuel from fighting headwinds and headed to Indianapolis to refuel and wait it out. Shouldn’t be longer than an hour.

    OH, no customs there. Have to wait on the plane. FOR FIVE HOURS.

    At 11 PM we arrive at O’Hare. Cranky passengers, cranky customs agents, cranky gate agents, no flight to St. Lou until the next night, no one way car rentals, no hotels anywhere near the airport.

    I’m despirate. I rent me a local Avis with a promise I’ll return it tomorrow. I did, in St. Louis. At 4:00 AM, 36 hours after I left my hotel for the airport, I pulled into my driveway.

    I’m pretty mellow about travel these days. Sorry for the long-winded response.

    Reply
  7. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Oh, I’ve had some doozies . . .

    There was the ice storm in Dallas. That was fun. Believe me, DFW DOESN’T know how to handle a sheet of ice.

    There was the delay in NY after a trip to France where we sat on the tarmac for six hours, our crew — of course — went over the time limit and by the time the airline could find others we’d missed the connecting flights in St. Louis and had to spend the night in a hotel. Of course, it was so late that the restaurant had closed there so none of us had eaten for hours and hours.

    But, probably MY most stupid moment (Catherine, I can so relate) was when I returned on one of the first-ever direct flights from Hong Kong to San Francisco. (Yeah, I’m dating myself.) I’d been a foreign exchange student there for a year in college and had a lot of stuff crammed into my luggage and a backpack that was held together with rope.

    I’d also not slept a wink because I’d helped interpret; would you believe this airline flying to and from HK didn’t have anyone who spoke both English and Cantonese? Amazing.

    Anyway, we got to customs in SF. My eyes were bloodshot and I was in a bad, bad mood. The official asked if I had any drugs in my backpack and I brilliantly responded: “What kind of idiot do you think I am? And, if I did have drugs, do you think I’d be stupid enough to admit it?”

    . . . let’s put it this way . . . I made a huge scene with all the indignation of a 21-year old and am lucky they finally let me back into this country at all.

    Reply
  8. Dave White

    Since I haven’t flown in more than ten years (though that might change in a month)… I feel the need to comment on one thing… Uh, Jim Winter… there are no more mosh pits at Pearl Jam concerts… signs every where…

    Reply
  9. Karen Olson

    Shockingly, when my family went to Vegas last month, all our flights were on time. I was worried, because I’d booked a discount fare through Travelocity and our layovers were an hour or less…in Dallas. And we had to change terminals to catch our connecting flights. Granted, we were running, but we made it, both going out and coming home. It was the first time in two years that I had flights on time.

    Although the blizzard in Cincinnati on my way to Denver in March wasn’t the airline’s fault.

    Reply
  10. Jake Nantz

    Yeah, like I can afford to travel a lot. The only real problem I can think of was the thunderstorm over Florida (not one major city, the whole damn state had massive thundershowers) that left my wife and I stuck in RDU for 7 hours on a Sunday before we were cleared to load up on American. Now I realize that’s not a big deal compared to the stories you guys have had to put up with, bless your hearts. It was the first day of our Disney honeymoon, though. That kinda sucked.

    Reply
  11. Michelle Gagnon

    My flight home from Tfest was delayed four hours, with a significant chunk of that spent sitting on the JFK tarmac (and the flight crew wouldn’t let us leave our seats). As I sat there, frantic to use the bathroom, faint from hunger and dehydration, I reflected on the fact that until this year, I had never been on a delayed flight. But the past seven flights I’ve taken this year have all been delayed a minimum of one hour (most averaged 2-3). And this after undergoing strip searches at check-in, paying to bring a bag on the plane, and paying $15 for a mealy sandwich. Jet-setting ain’t what it used to be…

    Reply
  12. Jim Winter

    “Because some airlines know what the hell they’re doing, and some don’t. Southwest rulez. I just wish they flew to NY.”

    Dusty, they do fly to Islip, which has impressive cab service. Long Island Railroad is your buddy. Even having to take the Hampton Jitney (LIRR had construction that spring) back to Islip, I still saved a fortune and had a ball and got back to Columbus early.

    Downside?

    Has anyone actually driven that godforsaken stretch of I-71 between Columbus and Cincinnat? There’s a reason Washington Courthouse thrives.

    Reply
  13. JT Ellison

    I’m one of those incessantly cheerful flyers. I love planes. I love traveling. Airports don’t bother me, though I’ve been in some dumps that are pretty icky. Any travel to New York means a several hour wait — I just automatically bring extra reading material and find a plug. Getting worked up just makes it worse.

    And of course, the number one rule of flying. Don’t connect. That’s how you get in trouble. I will pay tons extra if it means I don’t have to connect. I figure the money is well-spent, my sanity apparently does have a price.

    I used to work for the FAA, and traveled constantly for months on end. I’d leave Monday and come home Friday. The trips we take now, comparatively, are cake. It takes a lot to rile me up in an airport. Not saying it doesn’t happen, just that you need to strand me before I get too pissed.

    Reply
  14. Stacey Cochran

    Yesterday, I flew from San Diego to Denver then Denver to Raleigh/Durham with my wife and 19-month-old son.

    Our plane in San Diego was 90 minutes late arrival from San Francisco, and so we were sweating the connection in Denver (our two-hour layover had become a 30 minute layover). But the flight from San Diego to Denver was slower getting into the air.

    So we had no layover in Denver. In fact, we had to run from one plane to the next (with a 19-month-old) just to get onboard.

    Keep in mind that they serve no food on these flights and diaper-changing is… um… a challenge.

    So finally, we get in to Raleigh last night at 9:00 PM.

    Only… our luggage didn’t get transferred in Denver.

    So, we spent an our (with a screaming 19-month-old who smells only slightly worse than his dad at this point) trying to determine where our luggage was. No luck.

    The people at RDU could only speculate where our luggage was… most likely in Denver.

    To make matters worse, our house keys were in our checked luggage.

    So last night at 10 PM EST, my family was officially homeless.

    Courtesy of Southwest Airlines.

    In an unusually calm state of mind, I suggested to my wife that we eat some food (remember, no food all day at this point), and come back at 11:15 PM to see if our luggage came in on the next flight from Denver.

    Which it did… and I had the Shrimp Key West at TGI Fridays in between.

    Needless to say, I’m feeling a little bit jet-lagged today.

    And glad to be home after two weeks of travel.

    Reply
  15. Fiona

    I travel a lot. Often with two kids. I HAVE LEARNED that stuff happens–be prepared.

    I always have–Tylenol, tea bags, instant oatmeal, dried fruit,ramen noodles in a cup (you can usually get hot water), gum, camping cups and spoons, a deck of cards, a book to read, a pillowcase and 2 changes of clothes for each person (Makes a pillow & gets you through lost baggage) basic toiletries, a prepaid calling card & phone #s of hotel chains, airlines and rental car companies.

    DON’T STAND IN LINE, CALL OR GO ONLINE, IF YOU CAN.

    Don’t check keys, medicine, or anything you’ll need for the first two days. Most lost baggage takes two days to get to you.

    If at all possible, when stranded in a strange city, get a LONG layover and get away from the airport. Get a meal, see a museum or visit a park. We were stuck in Denver one spring and went to the zoo. It wound up being our favorite part of the trip.

    If you MUST be somewhere at a certain time–to catch a cruise or go on something you can’t easily catch up with later–get there a day early.

    Fly as early in the morning as possible. The later you fly, the more chances there are of “domino effect” delays. You also get where you’re going earlier.

    For expensive trips, buy the travel insurance. All of our luggage was lost for our week in Spain. It arrived at our hotel AFTER we left to go home. We had to buy everything we needed for a week ( including luggage to take it back!) It was expensive, but I had fun shopping and people at the hotel were great.

    Reply
  16. Rob Gregory Browne

    Great tips, Fiona. I’ll have to print them out. One of my biggest fears during our ordeal was that we’d never get our luggage. Having extra supplies and clothing with you is one of those common sense ideas that those of us who lack common sense don’t think about until it’s too late.

    Reply

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