Steve

Steve

Friday, January 24, 2014

THE LONG FLIGHT HOME


There were no direct flights back to Maryland from Barcelona that didn’t involve Dulles Airport, and that drive through Northern Virginia is a killer.  So we had several lousy choices for connections to Thurgood Marshall BWI Airport near our home, and we ended up choosing what seemed like a no brainer: catch a connecting flight in Philly.  I mean, "What could possibly go wrong between Philly and Baltimore, a short 45-minute flight away?"

What indeed …

We left our hotel in the Montjuic section of Barcelona in the pre-dawn dark as a light rain began falling. It was the first time we had encountered rain in Barcelona.  In retrospect, this was a harbinger of the day that lay ahead.

We walked to the Metro next to our hotel and used our handy dandy Metro Pass one last time for a short hop to Espanya Plaza where we caught a shuttle bus to Barcelona-El Prat Airport.  Everything went like clockwork and we got to the airport about three hours before our flight.
We sleep-walked our heavy bags to the busy U.S. Airways section of the airport where hundreds of people were standing in long lines and looking quite stressed.
No one was sure what line to get into and all was chaos. 
After standing in what proved to be the wrong line for about fifteen minutes, a very helpful attendant came over and instructed us to first get our seating assignments, using their “convenient” automated system.
So, we schlepped our bags over to the new line that was quickly forming behind one solitary computer terminal.
The mood was getting ugly and two sisters from Atlanta who had just come off an unpleasant Carnival Line cruise started whining incessantly.  There was an undercurrent of grumbling moving through the early morning, coffee-wired crowd.
Our line moved along pretty well and just when we were almost at the front, another attendant suddenly appeared out of nowhere and started yelling angrily at the first agent in Spanish.  The two U.S. Airways employees went back and forth for a few minutes while all of us stood there wondering what the hell was wrong.
It turned out that the computer system had crashed – not the one where you checked your bag, but unfortunately the one we were using wasn’t registering at the main desk.  So everyone who had gotten their boarding passes at the pre-board check-in had not been registered by the system.
We were told to get back in the baggage check-in line where we had originally been standing. That line was now incredibly long.
The Atlanta sisters blew a gasket and started threatening to sue everyone in the world.

Inna and I took deep breaths, closed our eyes, and went into meditation mode, scooting our bags forward with our feet every few minutes as the line slowly snaked its way toward the busy baggage counter.
This was obviously not a good start to what was going to be a very long day, but shit happens.  Computers crash.  Everyone at U.S. Airways in Barcelona was friendly and trying to do their best.  We were going to have to wait somewhere in the airport before our flight, and standing in the line waiting to check our bags was as good as some crappy restaurant selling stale sticky buns and burned coffee.  Or at least that’s what Inna and I kept telling ourselves.
It took about an hour to get our assigned seats – in the middle of the row, of course – and check our bags.  And even after all the early check-in drama, we still got to eat some sketchy airport food in a stark glass café without walls as we waited to board our flight.
The nine hour flight from Barcelona to Philadelphia was actually quite good.  The planes these days have individual televisions on the back of each seat loaded with the latest movies, episodes from popular TV shows, documentaries, and video games.  I watched three good movies – “Now You See Me”, “The Heat” and “Iron Man 3” – and a very interesting PBS documentary about the Chunnel Tunnel under the English Channel.  The flight seemed to just fly right by – no pun intended.  Even sitting in the middle aisle wasn’t that big of a deal, except when I had to go to the bathroom midway through the flight and my legs didn’t seem to work after sitting for five hours.
As we stumbled off the plane in Philly, I told Inna that I might just be able to actually survive a fifteen hour flight to Australia – a country we have always wanted to visit – given the right mix of food and entertainment – especially with an aisle or window seat.  She agreed.
And that’s when the real trouble began.
In Philadelphia we encountered what I can say without a doubt was the most incompetent staff that I have ever encountered at any airport in the United States.
We came off the plane in the A Wing that services all international flights.  It was 1:35 in the afternoon and we had an hour and forty-five minutes to catch our connecting flight.
But first we had to go through customs after we picked up our bags.  That took about thirty minutes, as was to be expected.  The U.S. Customs folks were courteous and efficient.
We still had over an hour to catch our plane to Baltimore, so we figured we were in good shape.  That is, until we were herded into another security line.  This seemed rather odd in that we had already gone through a very thorough security check before boarding in Barcelona, and we had not been outside of the watchful eyes of the TSA since landing in Philly.  But apparently, we can never be too secure these days.  A surly, disheveled guard directed us loudly into a narrow hallway where we formed into two long lines.  The temperature in the stuffy hallway was hot and the place smelled like feet.
                       Welcome to America!

After forty-five minutes in the false security line, we came to a checkpoint where a bored TSA guard gave our passports a cursory look, stamped our airplane tickets, and then pointed us toward yet another baggage check-in area.  That took another fifteen minutes.
I have no idea what all this foolishness was about, but I can tell you that if a United States Congressman had to play this false security game, I’m guessing the system would change fast.  More importantly, it was hard to see how this added level of inspection had made the airport any more secure.
We now had fifteen minutes to get from the A Wing to Gate F-39 – literally as far away as we could be, and still be in the same airport.
The departure board said the flight to Baltimore was on time.  So, we started our mad dash for the F Wing.  We soon came to another TSA security line at the entrance to the C Wing – or maybe it was the D Wing, I don’t know.

We were literally panting at this point from running with our heavy suitcases and we didn’t have time for this stand and deliver nonsense again.  I almost lost it as I asked the guard why we had to go through another security checkpoint.  He and his crew thought this was all very amusing and he laughed as he told us that we didn’t.  We had to backtrack to the B Wing and get on a bus that would take us over to the F Wing, which apparently was in another city.
We dashed back to the bus transfer area and caught a standing room only bus that bounced across the sprawling airport tarmac, dodging several airplanes, and we arrived at the F Wing with two minutes to spare.
When we got to the end of the F Wing, the last gate was F-38.

WTF?
I walked around a temporary wall behind the last gate and there was the unmarked, closet-sized gate F-39 where we encountered eight angry Baltimore-bound passengers and a harried young ticket agent who refused to answer our questions as to the status of our plane.  One of the tortured passengers was a women who was caring for her decrepit old mother who had Alzheimer’s and who was sitting in a wheelchair and babbling incoherently.  It was an ugly scene.
Something was definitely amiss because there was no plane in front of the gate, and we definitely couldn’t fly to Baltimore without a plane.  After avoiding eye contact with us and staring intently at her computer screen for about fifteen minutes, the customer service girl finally informed us that our flight had been cancelled.
Okay, so shit happens.  
Well yeah, except that U.S. Airways had known all this hours before, because our friend Jimmy who was picking us up in Baltimore found out the news about the cancellation at noon when he called the airport.
But the airline had not posted this vital information on the Departure board.
Why not, you ask?
Well, it turns out that the folks at Philadelphia International Airport do not maintain the Arrival and Departure screens that all passengers refer to in order to determine the status of their flights.  That task is performed by the City of Philadelphia.  I still don’t know how to process this ridiculous news.
So, even though U.S. Airways knew well in advance that our flight to Baltimore was not leaving from Gate F-39 at 3:22, this was not relayed to us until we almost killed ourselves rushing for miles across a busy airport, after a nine hour transatlantic flight, because someone in the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office, or Economic Development Department was asleep at the switch.
The poor customer service girl who was obviously as much in the dark as we were finally gave us tickets for a new flight which was departing way back in the B Wing three hours later.
We walked slowly through the F Wing in a daze.  The walls were covered with flashy posters from all the famous movies filmed in the City of Brotherly Love, like “Rocky” and “Silver Linings Playbook”.  We were not feeling the love at that point.  We hopped on the crowded bus for a ride back to the B Wing where we had started our pointless journey.
With several hours to kill, and in great need of alcohol, we ended up spending $100 on an early dinner at Legal Seafood.  No complaints there, other than the needless expense.
After several drinks we calmed down.  At this point we had been in the Philadelphia Airport for almost five hours.
We proceeded to gate B-4 as our tickets (and the big board) told us was our departure gate.  We got there at 5, about forty minutes before boarding and at no time did the agent at the gate announce any changes in flights or departure gates.
But when the plane hadn't boarded by 5:40, we asked what was up and they informed us without any explanation that we should have been at Gate B-7.
When we rushed over there, we were informed that the plane to Baltimore had just left.
We then went to the Customer Service desk at B-15 where an incredibly rude U.S. Airways manager said she had no idea why we had been directed to Gate B-4, or why we had not been re-directed to B-7.  She suggested with a sneer, "You can go back to F-39 and ask the lady who gave you these tickets why they have the wrong gate on them if you like."
That poor girl was undoubtedly long gone at this point and was probably at home watching television with her family – which is where we should have been too.
We were given yet another ticket, for yet another flight to Baltimore that was leaving in another three hours.
 
Now I was pissed.  Royally pissed off.
Inna went to gate B-9 where our next flight supposedly would depart and I went looking for the main customer service desk, back in the A Wing where we had first landed from Barcelona.  I was bounced around from one indifferent mid-level U.S. Airways manager to the next until I finally demanded to speak to the Domestic Operations Manager for the Airport.  From the reaction I got, they had never had anyone ask to see the big cheese before, and they weren’t even sure how to contact that person.  I insisted, trying my best not to raise my voice.  Yelling at people never gets you anywhere, especially at an airport where everyone is out of control.
About twenty minutes later a very professional older woman named Laticia showed up.  She was in charge of all Domestic Operations for the Philadelphia International Airport.

I proceeded to tell her my story.  I told her that the management at their Domestic Operations was possibly the worst in the world – certainly in the U.S.  And not only were they incompetent, but everyone we had encountered – from the security guards, to the customer service folks, to the custodial staff – were incredibly rude to boot.
When I finished, she apologized profusely and informed me that the person responsible for my nightmare, the Day Manager, had gone home for the evening.  She was the Night Manager.  Sorry.  Have a nice day.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
Inna and I found a seat at our departure gate, right in front of the ticket desk, and every five minutes we badgered the attendant, confirming that our flight was still leaving from that gate and was on time.  It was.  And at 9:30 PM, we boarded our flight back to Baltimore.  The trip took about forty-five minutes.
Our friend Jimmy, who had been trying to deal with this fiasco from his end all day met us with a tired smile at about 11, in the near empty baggage area.  Luckily, we found our bags in the U.S. Airways unclaimed luggage office and then headed for Jimmy’s car.
It had ended up taking us longer to get from Philly to Baltimore than it did to fly from Barcelona to Philadelphia.  Hell, we could have driven back and forth between the neighboring cities almost four times and still had time for a nice lunch and dinner.
And my original question, “What could go wrong?” had been definitively answered, much to our dissatisfaction.
The only advice I can give you is this: Never, ever use Philadelphia International Airport.
 

3 comments :

  1. I'm in US Air's computer system as "Upset Mother " under Clark's record. When he went to Australia in 2003 to study abroad, he had to change planes in LA. I asked for an escort to get him to the international terminal to catch his Quantas flight and US AIR told me they didn't have to do that (against ADA requirements). They told me he had to "prey upon the kindness of others."




    On another occasion when he was going to LA for Paracycling training camp, he was on a flight and had to change planes (this was the last time he has flown on US Air). They gave him a seat in the back of the plane, had him get off last, then wait for an escort to his new gate. Of course he missed his connection. I wrote to the President and CEO of US Air (a Navy Grad) and told him how Clark was treated. The company sent him a free domestic round trip ticket to anywhere he wanted in the contiguous 48 ($400 worth). Clark refused to use it and gave it to us.




    As you said, you can't make this stuff up.

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