Well, at least there’s Southwest

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m not sure exactly when flying stopped being fun and started becoming a hassle. Flight delays will turn any flight into a hassle, no matter how outstanding the service. Still, I am old enough to remember when flying usually was fun. It was something you looked forward to. Maybe it was the warm moist hand towel served with before your meal so you could wash your hands. Yes, some airlines did this, even back in economy class. Real silverware was provided with hot meals back on Delta Airlines in the 1980s, also in economy class. Mostly, back then flying commercial was fun. There was usually a great view out the window, great looking flight attendants, and you felt fussed over.

Sometime in the 1980s, I took a People Express flight to Florida. I definitely saved money but the experience felt very third-world. It was my first experience flying on a cattle car of an airline. I’m not surprised that they went bankrupt, when you ended up connecting in Newark in a tired, ugly brick concourse. They had way more people than they had chairs, so mostly you found yourself sitting on the floor waiting for your connecting flight, then walking through a door with a hinge, out on the tarmac to a stairway to get on your plane. The flying part, when it finally happened, was excruciating, at least for a guy over six feet like me. The seats were painful for anyone under six feet, or anyone weighing more than two hundred pounds. To top it off, the plane was grimy and smelled of sweat.

Since the 1980s the flying experience has steadily degenerated. It is the unpaid price of airline deregulation, it seems. These days more often flying is both costly and a hassle. Free meals are a thing of the past, unless you are in business or first class. Getting a meal on any flight is problematical, but if you get one you will have to pay for it, and it will probably come in a snack box, in fact it will be more like a snack than a meal. We customers now pay for lots of things that used to be free: exit row seating (which used to be considered a hassle), baggage, early check in, two inches of additional leg room (or “Economy Plus” as United likes to call it), window seats, aisle seats and on at least one airline the privilege of using the toilet. In only one way has flying improved: smoking is no longer permitted, at least on flights within the United States.

The odd thing is no one really likes airline service. Certainly it’s unliked by customers, although many economists will argue that passengers now fly at a lower cost per mile flown than they ever have. The airlines don’t seem to like the business they are in, perhaps because it is no longer sexy. Most of them lose money and those that make money tend to do so sporadically. Airline attendants used to be paid a living wage; now not so much. Even captains get squeezed, particularly on commuter airlines where your pay may be as low at $18,264 a year, barely above minimum wage. Airlines also seem to merge regularly, most recently Southwest and AirTran, making you wonder if we will end up with a half dozen airlines, all of which will charge premium prices for mediocre service.

So I’ve learned to reduce my expectations flying. However, I still pine for days when the food served on airlines was hot and usually tasty, and when people actually dressed up to fly. Now I am mostly concerned about not getting ripped off, getting from point to point on time, and not having my knees painfully scrape the seat in front of me.

Lately I have been rebelling flying United Airlines. Typically I flew it everywhere I traveled for work, simply because they had the contract fare. It’s not even my money, so I shouldn’t care. But when it costs $1100 for a contract flight to and from Denver from Washington, D.C., I feel cheated. What do I get for all this money? Well, I do earn frequent flier miles, but in spite of traveling for business three to ten times a year, I never earn enough for a free flight, at least for some place I want to go at a time that works. The system seems programmed to frustrate you. Once I managed to get business class at no extra charge, but usually even that is not available. United carefully restricts the number of seats it will upgrade with frequent flier miles. Mostly they want you to pay $50 or $100 for the privilege, and will still dock your frequent flier miles.

This year, with one exception, I have been flying Southwest Airline exclusively. While remembering the airlines’ glory days, I am also appreciative of Southwest. Its system is a bit strange at first, but it is easy to get used to it. What I particularly like is saving money, even when it is not mine. Typically Southwest flights don’t even show up in our travel reservation system at work. I discovered that going to their web site and booking a web-only rate that I could cut the cost of a flight roughly in half compared with what my employer was paying for United and get a flight that suited me. Fortunately, since it cost less, I can book these flight.

What do I not get? Not much. Southwest doesn’t offer movies or any form of inflight entertainment. The recent exception has been Wifi, which you have to pay for, but which is not available on all flights. Fortunately, for most of us this is not a problem. We have our iPads, laptops and DVD players. They will keep us amused, but if not an eReader or old fashioned paper book will work as well.

I also lose the ability to book a seat. Instead, it is first boarded, first seated, which means twenty four hours before your flight you have incentive to get your boarding pass online. So it pays to watch the clock and get that boarding pass as soon as you can twenty four hours before your flight. Yesterday, I got my pass about ninety minutes after the window opened, and half of those on the flight had already gotten their pass! I ended up with B32, not a seat number, but an order for boarding. This got me an aisle seat three quarters of the way toward the back of the plane.

I did not lose the great airline meal, since they are not available anyhow.  Southwest does serve chips, cookies, pretzels and peanuts, and a complementary beverage. So if you expect to have a long flight, it makes much more sense to bring your food with you. Just don’t expect them to let you use their microwave.

What do I get?

  • Low prices. This is the main point. “Low” is relative, of course, but they consistently beat the competition, often by thirty percent or more.
  • Mostly predictable flying. Their planes seem to fly more predictably, probably because they are better maintained.
  • Faster ingress and egress. Their boarding system may seem a bit squirrely, but it works and it’s fast. No other airline can get people on or off a plane faster.
  • On time flights. Flights are usually on time; they have one of the best on-time ratings in the industry. My one experience with a delay recently flying back from Phoenix was that if your flight is delayed, they will hold your connecting flight if possible.
  • More legroom. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough where a tall person like me can sit comfortably. I can’t tell you as a tall person how painful it can be to spend hours with your knees pressed into the seat in front of me.
  • Better seating choices. In fairness, Southwest does offer an “Earlybird check in” where for $10 you can get a boarding pass 36 hours before a flight. Otherwise you must wait until 24 hours before the flight. In practice you don’t have to pay $10 to get a good seat. If it means enough to you, you will spend the money or take the time to make sure you get an early boarding pass.
  • Equality. No snobby walled off business or first class section. We are all equal in the eyes of Southwest employees, and are treated this way.
  • Free baggage. The first two bags are free. This means in addition to saving on airfare, I save my business typically $50 on baggage fees.
  • 737s. Give me one aisle and three across seating. It’s ordinary but it works just fine. These generic aircraft, perhaps because there are so many of them, tend to be more reliable than wide body aircraft.
  • Less marketing. Southwest of course has their frequent flier club and credit card, but they don’t relentlessly hawk it.  It’s a feature, not an attraction.
  • Chicago-Midway. They pretty much own the airport, which makes connecting flights so much more predictable than crowded and terminally flight-delayed O’Hare.
  • Locations. Southwest mostly flies where I want to go and now that they have more flights out of Washington Dulles I can get there without the hassle of driving to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Southwest is hardly the ideal airline, but it delivers on what matters: convenience, value and predictability. I no longer care about how many theoretical airline miles I have with United. I’m glad to trade them all away for the no-hassle flying that Southwest offers.

jetBlue: A civilized airline

The Thinker by Rodin

One of the downsides of traveling on your employer’s dime is you rarely get to choose a decent airline. Since most of my business travel takes me to Denver, I am usually on one of our contract flights between Denver and Washington Dulles, which means I am on United Airlines.

United is one of these airlines which, if I were to grade it, would rank somewhere between a C and a D. Sadly, most of the domestic airlines here in the United States would rank between a C and a D. The good part about flying United is you pretty much know what you are going to get. Since my employer will not pay for business class, I will be back in economy. Since I am six foot two inches, I know my knees will be rubbing up against the seat in front of me. Trying to check in, whether online or at the airport, and I will be nagged to purchase “Economy Plus” seating. Because they can, United will also charge for bags: $15 for the first bag, $25 for each additional bag. These baggage fees have become quite popular and essentially are a way to raise your ticket prices without broadcasting it.

Fly United and you expect that the airplane is likely to be dirty, except in business and first class. If you want a meal, expect to pay $9 or so, assuming they are offering one, and do not expect it to be large or particularly memorable. Otherwise, all you get is a beverage service. Movies are scattershot, and generally available only on the longer flights, but at least they are free. Their wide-body aircraft generally have personal TV screens where you can select from some canned entertainment; otherwise, you are left to your own amusement. While their skies are not exactly friendly, they are not overtly hostile either.

Which is why my short flights on jetBlue to and from Boston last week was such a noticeable change for the better. Since I could not find a contract flight, I had to book an out of network flight instead, and jetBlue had the most convenient time and the best price. Given its low-ticket price I was expecting something like United Airlines or worse.

I could not have been more surprised. jetBlue is a civilized airline. First, there is no artificial distinction between coach, business and first class. As with a few other airlines like Southwest, there is only one class available. It was weird to walk into an airplane with no artificial bulkhead between premier seats and those of us in the cattle car section. The seats were all three across, upholstered in leather and actually left a few inches between my knees and the seat in front of me. Nor was the seat artificially narrow. Not that it was wide, but it was comfortable. Some airlines (and Northwest comes to mind as a particularly egregious example) will torture you by trying to jam you into 22 or 23-inch wide seats.

At least for my flights, the cabin was absent the usual detritus of napkins on the floor and reminders of previous passengers in the seatback pocket. The welcome boarding the plane seemed at least half-heartfelt. I never felt that on United. Settling into my seat, I found that I had my own personal TV with several dozen satellite channels available. If I did not want to watch satellite TV, I had XM satellite radio to choose from instead. This suited me just fine and I settled into the XM National Public Radio channel.

On-time departures are problematical with any airline, but my flights left a minute or two ahead of schedule and arrived on time or a little early. On the brief flight, we had a choice of either chocolate chip cookies or jetBlue’s proprietary blue-tinted potato chips. The beverages are announced at the start of the flight, and are usually somewhat limited, but include bottled water.

On the longer flights, if you want to see a movie you have to pay for the privilege, although there is plenty of entertainment on the satellite channels, just rife with commercials. You also have to pay $2 for earphones if you do not own any and want to listen to the entertainment. Overall, my experience on jetBlue was what passed for a high quality airline experience these days. It was weird. It was like they actually cared a bit about my flying satisfaction.

Southwest was the only other airline where I have felt something similar. Granted this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Southwest used to be infamous as the cattle car express, and they still have a bizarre policy where there is no assigned seating, meaning that you tend to arrive extra early to have the first chance to board. Even so, Southwest is at best a B- of an airline. jetBlue ranked a solid B.

If there are A-rated airlines out there, they are likely foreign carriers. Since I do little foreign travel, I have little to compare but I was impressed with IcelandAir a few years ago. Most domestic airlines seem to be flyer-hostile, or at least exhibit a passive aggressive side through tactics like usury baggage fees and premier seating that simply means your knees have an inch or two to spare. On jetBlue, the first bag is free, providing it does not exceed fifty pounds. (The second bag is $30. The third is $75.)

The only part of the jetBlue experience I found annoying was the commercials. JetBlue will commandeer your TV at certain points during the ascent and descent and subject you to annoying ads. You cannot turn the TV off, but you can at least unplug your headset and look elsewhere for a while.

Those of us older travelers cannot help but feel wistful for a time when the standards were much higher. In the early 1980s, I would annually fly Delta Airlines to Florida. Back in coach we were served real breakfasts. The food was provided hot in ceramic containers. You got real silverware and linens too, as well as a choice of meals and condiments. Moreover, all this came with the price of a ticket. There were no baggage fees at all for the first couple of bags. (This year I flew Delta to Salt Lake City and I can assure you they are busy emulating United Airlines.)

Those days are likely gone for good. Meanwhile, if you have to travel domestically and do most of your traveling back in the coach section see if you can fly jetBlue. You may at least get a hint of what real airline service used to feel like. When I have a choice, I will be booking jetBlue in the future.

A tale of two airlines

The Thinker by Rodin

Mostly I fly United Airlines. Since I generally cannot escape United Airlines when I fly on business, I joined their Mileage Plus Club. After three years of flying United on six to eight trips a year, I finally earned a free business class upgrade on a recent trip to Denver. The seats were wider in business class and there was much more leg room, but otherwise I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Their breakfast was nice, but it was no better than I used to get back in the 1980s flying on Delta in coach. Times have changed in the airline business and clearly, standards have slipped too.

My family’s recent trip out west was on our own dime. It was an odd trip. We flew to Phoenix, stayed there for a few days, then flew to Las Vegas, spent a few more days, then flew back home. Trying to figure out how to do it at an affordable price was challenging. We ended up getting there and back on Airtran. We made the hop between Phoenix and Las Vegas on Southwest. I had never flown Airtran before, and was curious whether they were just another discount airline or not.

Airtran’s major hub is in Atlanta, so we had to fly through Atlanta going both east and west. Airtran is an airline that takes penny pinching perhaps a bit too far. Their airline fare consisted of the world’s tiniest bag of “gourmet” pretzels and a beverage service. On the reverse side of the bag of pretzels were suggestions that told you that you could enjoy your pretzels more by ruminating on all the money you saved flying Airtran. In saving money though, they skipped on a few more things than the pretzels. For example, they could not be bothered to clean the airplane between flights. The floors and seat pockets were littered with the residue of other flights. I guess to turn a profit they have to turn over their flights quickly, so that left little time for niceties like cleaning the plane. Saving money also meant no in-flight movies. It was more a three and a half hour haul between Atlanta and Phoenix, which was a lot of time to read books and magazines. Perhaps to make up for the lack of movies, Airtran offered XM satellite radio instead, and provided complementary headphones. This made my long flight endurable. It also gave me an appreciation for the world of satellite radio. This was my first flight where I could actually listen to news live during the flight. As a news junkie, I appreciated the satellite radio, particularly the public radio channel.

It had been years since we had flown Southwest, and my last experience had not been a good one. This short flight between Phoenix and Las Vegas though changed my opinion about Southwest. Unlike all our Airtran flights, this plane was clean for this flight. I was impressed by how efficiently Southwest got us in and out of the plane. The lack of reserved seating is actually something of a bonus, because it reduces the time it takes to get on the plane. The flight attendants were not particularly friendly, but neither were they surly. I rather liked their offbeat orange and blue uniforms. Female flight attendants should dress business casual more often; the hose and heels look standard on the major carriers is so 1950s. Your bag of peanuts was small, but at least they were honey roasted. At least on this flight the flight attendants were glad to hand out additional bags of peanuts. Moreover, unlike the other airlines I have flown recently, Southwest seems to have the airline business down to a predictable science. There were no last minute stragglers trying to claim that last empty seat on the plane. We pushed away from the gate a minute early. I was also surprised to find I had sufficient of legroom. This is hard for me to find, since I am a tall man. Moreover, their seats were upholstered with real leather. This was almost classy for an airline with a no-frills reputation.

Southwest was not quite the cattle car that I remembered. To fly Southwest I have to go to an airport an hour away from my house. If they start flying out of Washington Dulles Airport, near where I live, I will look forward to flying them more frequently. As for Airtran, their prices were definitely lower than other fares, but not dramatically lower. We had to endure two-hour waits between flights in Atlanta. While this made it difficult to miss a connecting flight, it also made us see much more of Hartsfield International Airport than I wanted to see. I killed time by getting exercise walking between terminals.

So thumbs up for Southwest, but thumbs sideways for Airtran. Moreover, thumbs down in general to all airlines (including United) that cannot build time in to their schedules to clean their planes between flights. No matter what airline you fly, you should at least have the expectation that you will not find trash by your seat or stuffed into the seat pockets. If it takes raising the fares a bit, I will gladly pay for it, and I bet you would too.

The Short Night

The Thinker by Rodin

It is not every flight where the captain speaks in Norse. Yet it was Norse from the captain on the intercom our Iceland Air flight, followed immediately by a translation in English. Nor is it every flight where the flight attendants walk up and down the aisles anxious to hand out the latest copies of local paper in Reykjavik, Iceland (written in Norse, of course). From the moment we boarded our Iceland Air flight from Baltimore to Reykjavik, we had a feeling we were not in for a standard airline flight.

It takes an international flight on a foreign carrier for us Americans to realize just how dramatically our domestic airline industry has declined over the last couple of decades. For all the nice words that you hear on American airlines about how much they appreciate your business, you are treated like cattle. I suspect the service we have come to expect on American airlines would rate internationally as a C or a D.

I would like to report extra legroom in the economy class on Iceland Air, but it was as tight back there as in any American airline I have flown. Norse Class (their business class) looked much more inviting: each seat came with a personal DVD player. Otherwise, there was little to complain about during our trip on Iceland Air to Paris, via Reykjavik. Dinner was served shortly after our 9 PM departure. Warm rolls from the cabin’s oven were passed out in a basket for us to enjoy with the meal. The dinner itself, which was not large, was surprisingly tasty. The flight attendants were multilingual, extremely courteous and made numerous trips up and down the aisle offering hot tea or coffee. The flight attendants were also overwhelmingly young, female, attractive, thin, blonde (like I assume most Icelanders) and impeccably well groomed. They seemed less concerned about saying all the right words before takeoff and landing, but did check to make sure we were securely in our seats, had our bags properly stored and had our seat backs straight up. Whenever they talked in English, they sounded decidedly continental. The lounge music used before takeoff and landing may have been a bit bizarre, the animation showing us how to buckle our seat belts and don oxygen masks a bit lowbrow, but otherwise it was an enjoyable flight and by American standards, classy.

We left Baltimore at twilight and took the Great Circle route to Iceland. In case you are wondering, this is northeast. The airline provided complementary earphones for those who wanted to watch the movie. Steve Martin’s version of Cheaper by the Dozen was not my cup of tea, but it was apparently uproariously funny to many passengers. I made a futile attempt to doze but their laughter and the bright cabin lights destroyed any possibility of sleep, despite my forethought to bring both earplugs and blinders for my eyes. Our plane flew north across the St. Laurence Seaway, northern Quebec and Newfoundland. By the time that we passed over Newfoundland, what passed for our short summer night had ended. It was a little after midnight in Baltimore but there was already a rosy glow on the northern horizon. We passed over the Labrador Straits and brushed the southern tip of Greenland.

greenland_small.jpg

Greenland is an island so far north and so remote that I figured I would never see it in my lifetime. Yet there it was out the port windows in the early dawn. It was not the least bit green of course, but riveting nonetheless, as the picture shows. Looking at just the tip of this glacial world from our airplane filled me with a sense of awe. I have heard climatologists warn how much sea levels would rise if the glaciers in Greenland melted, which sadly appears to be well underway. I now appreciated just how much water that is, and was staggered by the volume.

The skies remained clear and the day brightened as we approached Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. In early July, there is no night in Iceland. Before we knew it our five hour flight was over, and we were deposited at Keflavik International Airport, which is somewhat west of the capital and next to the northern Atlantic Ocean. Through the airline window, I caught my first close up look at tundra in my forty-nine years, parts of which were alive with a purplish flower I could not name. In the distance, the occasional thermal vent threw up steam into the atmosphere. Although practically at the Arctic Circle, there is outdoor swimming in Iceland near some of these thermal vents.

It may have been just a little after six a.m. in Iceland, but there were many customs officials on duty to handle the influx of Iceland Air passengers. Most were from the United States. (The early flights were mostly for passengers traveling east.) Iceland Air, as you might expect, carries the bulk of air traffic in and out of Iceland. The customs officer solemnly stamped our passports. Afterwards we were forced to go through their airport security. This seemed pointless since we went through security in Baltimore, but we were not in a position to argue with another sovereign government.

The terminal in Keflavik International Airport is relatively small as international airports go, modern and could have used more seats, particularly near the gates. We were able to purchase bottled water with American dollars in their duty free stores. We puzzled over their restrooms, which were peculiar by American standards. It took me a full thirty seconds to realize you had to press a big white button behind the toilet in order to flush it. This was just one of many small adjustments that I would need to make to adapt to life on the continent.

Our time in Iceland was short, and we were soon on a connecting flight to Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside of Paris. This flight included brunch. There was little to see and no sleep to be found on this flight. Clouds covered the northern Atlantic and the east coast of Ireland. It was not until the pilot announced we were over the English Channel that we knew Paris was not that far away.

Our daughter, who had the window seat, gazed down on France in a daze. Going to France was her consuming passion all year. Our trip was her reward for a year of hard scholastic work. Yet rather than look excited she seemed dazed. Our lack of sleep made us all feel dazed. Our landing was smooth and the weather was sunny and hot by Parisian standards.

Charles de Gaulle airport lacked some of the comforts we expected in American airports, like a fully functioning air conditioning system. Its architecture was modern by the standards of the 1960s, but looks shopworn now and is in places quite dirty. Your shoes will likely stick to the tiles. Moreover, the French seemed in no hurry to connect us to our baggage. It took more than an hour and many false attempts before our baggage lackadaisically arrived at baggage claim.

Unlike the Icelanders, the French had no desire to stamp or even look at our passports. Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us in the arrivals area. We blearily followed him up a packed elevator to a minivan that took us to our hotel. While my wife and daughter dozed in their seats, I tried to appreciate this very old, but for me very new country. Although our driver only spoke Pidgin English, it was better than the half dozen or so words that I knew in French.

It was the middle of a Thursday afternoon in Paris. I quickly discovered they had serious traffic in Paris, just like in Washington. Apparently, gasoline at 1.45 euros to the liter did not discourage drivers: the roads were congested. By American standards, the traffic lanes in Paris were narrower. Cars were not afraid to get within inches of each other in heavy traffic, nor to muscle ahead of each other. Yet it was done in a benign and almost polite way. Those on a motorcycle or motor scooter were of the opinion that lanes were for cars only, and happily weaved between car lanes as suited their convenience. Outside I could see the Parisian suburbs, which had something of a second world look to it. There were many tall apartment buildings, with clothes hanging off the balconies. I assume this was where the many “guest workers” of French Muslim decent lived.

Apparently, one must traverse inside Paris’ version of the beltway before you feel like you are in the classic Paris. Finally, around 4 PM we were deposited at our hotel, the Best Western Nouvel Orleans at 25 Avenue Du General Leclerc, deep into Paris’ Left Bank. We were sweaty, stinky, dehydrated and desperate for a bed. We rested for an hour, but evening was already approaching. Seeing sights would wait for tomorrow, but it was too early for sleep. We found a tiny Pizza Hut takeout place just fifty feet from our hotel window.

With our daughter and French student acting as our translator, we were able to order a pizza, consume it indelicately in our room and shortly thereafter crawl into bed. The sun had not yet set and it would not be fully dark until around 11 PM. The sound of motorcycles accelerating very loudly and rapidly came through our open windows, which we needed open to cool the room. For this night at least we were impervious to the noise and even the inadequate air conditioner in our room. We slept around the clock but awoke rested, over our jet lag, and ready to engage Paris.

In the Airline Twilight Zone

The Thinker by Rodin

When all things are optimized our nation’s airline system is still quite a marvel. Yes, airlines may be cutting costs left and right. Yes, the security is a frustrating hassle. But it’s still a marvel that much of the time and you can get predictably from point A to point B. However when things are not optimized then airline travel quickly goes from marvel to frustrating Chinese water torture. Like the spouse who is usually sweet and sunny but goes into a manic phase every now and then, the same is true with our nation’s airports, airlines and air traffic control system. Sometimes they conspire together to produce the perfect storm.

And that was my unfortunate situation. The way that things should have worked was I would have caught a 12:40 nonstop flight out of Denver yesterday and arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport around the dinner hour. I would have the evening to unpack, reconnect with my family, eat a healthy dinner and vegetate on the computer. Oh how I wanted to vegetate. My cat would be purring contentedly on my lap while I read my email, caught up with my forum and hit my favorite web sites. And then I would be leisurely off to bed. Because I’ve been on business travel all week I have been largely denied my comforting activities. I ache for my mundane daily hobbies.

But the usually sunny Denver was beset by rain and thunderstorms. I don’t begrudge residents of Colorado the rain. In the dry west you can never get enough of rain. But I do begrudge United Airlines for sloppy communications. My flight was canceled for mechanical reasons. I can understand that. Still I was a bit piqued that I was never notified. Although I was signed up for a service that should have notified me by cell phone of this flight cancellation I received nothing. Nor were there any notices in my email inbox. I got to work (in this case the Denver Federal Center) but before dashing off to a meeting I did a quick flight check on the web. And that’s how I found out that my flight was canceled. Of course I immediately started trying to reroute the colleague I was traveling with and myself. I was offered a connecting flight through Indianapolis. That seemed acceptable: arrive around 9 PM instead of 6 PM. Not ideal, but acceptable.

But after making the reservation changes my phone starts to ring. Now I am getting automated voice mail from United Airlines. It informed me that my new flight would leave an hour later than scheduled. And that meant that I probably wouldn’t make the connecting flight. So I call the airlines again and ask for what seems to be a more promising connecting flight through Minneapolis. We were booked on it.

But rain and thunderstorms caused flight delays at the Denver airport. It’s not a good sign when pilots cannot berth their aircraft because the gate crew is not allowed to go out and direct them in. So we left the gate about a half hour late. But we had ninety minutes between connecting flights. I figured we’d make the connection.

But of course just because we were pushed out of the gate didn’t mean we were actually anywhere near being airborne. No, we sat there a couple hundred feet from the gate.

And sat. And sat. In a driving rain. And we hear thunder. We get murky reports from the pilot on how long we were going to be there. But he’s decided it will be a while so he turns the engines go off, along with the air conditioning. The heat inside the aircraft builds. We start to sweat. Man, I hate sitting on the tarmac. You are effectively in prison. You cannot get out. You cannot go anywhere except possibly to use the bathroom. And you have no idea if you will be there for five minutes or five hours. Well at least we were allowed to use our cell phones so I can phoned home to complain. About ninety minutes later we were somewhat mysteriously allowed to leave. A 12:53 PM departure was actually 3:30 PM.

But at least it was smooth flying to Minneapolis. It was good to see the sun again. Of course because we were late getting out of Denver we missed our connecting flight. We snagged a friendly United Airlines employee and followed some passengers to a booking room in the United First Class Club. Our one hope was to get on a US Airways flight to Charlotte, and then hop on a commuter flight into Washington Dulles. It should get us home at 12:05 a.m. We discussed spending the night in Minneapolis. But there was no guarantee we could get out in the morning. All flights were booked.

So we grabbed it. At least we’ll be 250 miles from home instead of 800. United Airlines was helpful in working with US Airways. They pulled our bags from the plane and moved them to the new plane. It was a bit frantic but we made the flight. But there was no time to grab any dinner. And of course there was no dinner on the flight. This is after all de riguer for American airlines in the 21st century. Even so this plane left the gate about a half hour late.

The weather in Minneapolis was partly cloudy but there were thunderstorms all along the Eastern half of the United States that were causing traffic delays. So again here we were pushed off from the gate and we found ourselves sitting on the tarmac. And waiting. This pilot though was more communicative but his estimates were still way off. We actually left at 8:20 PM for a flight that was supposed to leave at 6:45 PM.

I purchased a snack box for $5 on the plane. It had to suffice for dinner, although this sure wasn’t health food. Chips. Salsa. Pretzels. Candy bar. Guzzled down with apple juice. We arrived in Charlotte at 11:10 PM. Even before we left the aircraft we were informed that our connecting flight had already left. So we could either sleep in the terminal or opt for a discount hotel. In either case we could not get a flight to Dulles until early afternoon the next day. We opted for the hotel room, which turned out to be a Ramada Inn five miles from the airport. We were one of many disgruntled travelers in the same boat. But the airline flat refused to give us our baggage. I was out of clean underwear. And the hotel was not free. Weather delays were not their fault, US Airways said, but we could get a discount rate of $53 by calling this toll free number. We used pay phones to rebook our flight and took the packed courtesy van to the hotel.

This is a faux three star hotel that maybe qualifies as a two star motel. The driver of the courtesy van informed us that there is a gentleman’s club next door is open until 3 AM. This gives us an inkling that maybe this isn’t a top of the line hotel. We arrived at the hotel after midnight. It was steamy outside and inside. Music from a club in the hotel was loud and annoying. Barflies wearing what looks like lingerie passed us by on their way to the club. I’m thinking: this is the exciting nightlife in Charlotte? I’m wondering if a swingers’ convention booked most of the hotel. I strongly suspect that this is the sort a place where I could easily find anonymous sex for the price of a few drinks. Fortunately my radar kept me far away from these tramps. And all I really wanted to do was sleep.

The hotel smelled musty and unclean. The hallways were hot and stifling, likely because they have no ventilation. The plastic key they gave me was coded incorrectly, so I had to trudge back down to the lobby and get it replaced.

I was given Room 4334. The room was not hot but it was icky. Curious: a previous occupant had children. There were Goldfish cracker crumbs under the bed. The maid couldn’t be bothered to clean them up. The couch had crumbs on it too. The bathroom counters and tub were chipped. The sink stop was broken. I washed up and climbed into bed. Ick again! These sheets were not fresh! Someone had slept in them before me. But it was past 1 AM and I was too exhausted to do anything about it. I tried to sleep but the bed was not comfortable and smelled funky so I only managed about four hours of sleep. I woke up around 6 a.m. wishing, but unable to get back to sleep. I could not tune out the smell of the unclean sheets. I took a shower and washed my hair. I missed things that were in my suitcase, like a comb for my hair. But I felt reasonably clean even in day old underwear.

We found a nearby IHOP for breakfast. My companion is from India and a vegetarian so it was particularly challenging to find food he will eat. We arrived at the Charlotte airport with more than two hours to spare. Both of us were selected for intrusive “special screening”. Grrr. Another happy result of the Patriot Act: ordinary people like me get to be shaken down like we were suspects. Every item in my overstuffed computer bag is carefully examined. Happily our flight to Washington Dulles airport was only fifteen minutes late. But when I added on the time it took to find our suitcases it was 3 PM before I was home. In short, I had arrived home 21 hours later than scheduled!

No moral to this story. This was just another bizarre adventure in the airline Twilight Zone, probably similar to some many of you have taken too. While it was not exactly hell it sure did feel like some form of purgatory.