Monday, September 19, 2011

Adventures with American or Flying, American Style

So, we all know that the time for a doctor's appointment is merely a suggestion, not a mandate, as the doctor is hardly ever on time. We have even started of necessity to apply this theory to air travel. But to end up arriving 5 hours late and... to the wrong city? Well, this was a new one on me. Here is what happened.

I went to ICAAC for the day yesterday to present some of our data on predictors of a mixed skin and soft tissues infection. If it had not been a podium presentation, I would have considered skipping the whole meeting, since it was my son's birthday. Instead, I decided to swoop in for the day.

I chose American Airlines, as it is one of the few carriers that can get me to Chicago without a lay-over. The flight there was fine, and I had plenty of time to get myself to McCormick Convention Center, have lunch with a colleague, get to the session and do my thing. My schedule was such that I had to get in the cab immediately after presenting to get to my flight, which I did.

Getting to the airport was a challenge, as after 3:00 PM the perennial Chicago traffic jams are just a fact of life. But get there I did, with time to spare. The lines at the check-in counters were daunting, and luckily I was able to find a self-service kiosk, where I swiped my credit card. With a predictable automaticity I went to press the "Print boarding pass" icon when something caught my attention: this did not look my itinerary! I had been meant to fly to Bradley International Airport on the 5:25 PM flight. Now the screen was trying to push someone else's trip on me that went from Chicago to Bradley via Dallas-Fort Worth. Luckily there was an option on the screen to decline the itinerary as not owned by me, which I did. Alas, the second try resulted in the same baffling error.

A lovely young man with the American Airlines uniform on standing next to my kiosk noticed my confusion and asked how he could help. I pointed to the screen. He smiled broadly and sweetly and delivered the bad news that my flight had been canceled, and I was being re-routed via Texas, and that instead of getting to Hartford around 8:00 PM, I would be getting there well after midnight. The shock prevented me from stopping him from printing out the boarding pass. Before I had recovered my ability to speak, he furrowed his brow while examining the pass. Glancing at his watch, which read 3:30 PM, seemingly speaking to himself, he said "I wonder why they put you on a 3:05 flight when it is already 3:30?" As I was catching my breath, he continued "Oh, this flight is tomorrow afternoon!"

With these words my hopes of seeing my son before the end of the day of his birth hopelessly vanished. Yet I was not to be defeated yet. Although I was told that a later flight to Hartford was still happening, but was already overbooked, I was not ready to give up. Instead, I asked how close to Hartford they could get me on the same night. Turned out that there was a 5:05 to Boston, which was now going to be delayed until 6:30, but there was a coveted seat available and did I want it. Well, given my choices, I desperately wanted it, and luckily got it. So, now, instead of getting home by 10:00 PM I was looking at getting into Boston at a yet undetermined time, renting a car to get myself to Bradley, picking up my car from the garage there and driving home. If luck was with me, I would be home before 3:00 AM. Well, at least I would not have to go to Texas. Tomorrow.

Now that I had indefinite time before boarding, I treated myself to a latte and a book, Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist. It felt somehow luxurious to be suspended in this space without time, where I could just concentrate on the rich story and language and question my Personal Legend, though I was pretty sure that awaiting a late flight at O'Hare only to land in the wrong city and then drive for hours to get home was not it. Nevertheless, peculiarly, this departure from the rush of traveling felt like a little spa break, albeit in the midst of a chaotic throng craning their necks for the arrival of the aircraft.

Well, we finally were airborne a little after 8:00 PM, the flight was uneventful, I rented a car, got to Bradley before Avis closed (no, they are not open 24 hours), got into my car and got myself home just before 3:00 AM. All in all, it could have been a lot worse (I could have had to go through Dallas... today). And everyone was so frightfully nice, especially the young man with large brown eyes and a feline manner at O'Hare. The epiphany for me was that I could not even be angry -- there was no one or nothing to be angry at, and anger would have been disempowering, impotent. Instead, the lesson was that this is air travel in the 21st century -- crowded, uncertain, thoroughly unappealing. The only thing one can do, aside from avoiding it, is to accept it for what it is and go on. Though I have to say that being screwed is much nicer with a smile.      


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