Sunday, May 22, 2016
*** Part III
Los Angeles International Airport was not empty at 2:30 AM. Airport workers were everywhere. I walked in front of the Southwest ticket counter area looking for an outlet to charge my phone. There were small pockets of seats and chairs between the entrance doors and each one was already filled with groups of young people who had already commandeered those outlets. Even though I didn’t have to go, I headed to the restroom thinking it was a good idea. Upon walking around the entrance wall, I spotted one lonely outlet above the sinks. I plugged my phone in and then hopped up on the counter and used my carry-on as a footrest.
Even in the quiet airport, women still came in the restroom. I made it a point to smile and say hi as various women entered so they wouldn’t think I was going to rob them or something. One woman who came in, who I thought was a bit chubby, spent a good five minutes throwing up in the stall. It wasn’t until she came back out to wash up that I realized she was actually pregnant. Another woman who came in worked for Southwest and as she washed her hands started chatting with me. She told me she had just finished setting up the ribbons that mark the lines to the ticket counters and she hoped the construction crews wouldn’t mess them up. I asked her about the construction and she said while it was a pain in the ass now, the place would be “spectacular” when it was finished. Southwest and the airport were splitting the cost of the upgrade and she said that as the airport finished its many projects that celebrities would be coming out for ribbon cutting ceremonies. She went on to say that some celebs were helping to fund the upgrade in exchange for getting terminals named after them.
“Yeah, it’s gonna be nice when it’s done,” she said as she left the restroom. Things got quiet at that. Out of boredom I would pick up my phone and look at Facebook posts. I also began texting my brother, who worked the night shift at NOAA in Las Vegas, but he responded that he was too busy to text. I went back to Facebook, but not wanting to waste too much battery put the phone back down. Then five minutes later picked it up again. This went on for an hour.
My rescheduled flight was for 6:30 AM so I figured I would exit the restroom around 4:30 so I could be first in line at the ticket counter. Shortly after 4 AM I noticed more and more women were using the restroom and they weren’t airport workers. I decided I better move. Good thing I did because the ribbons of rows the Southwest gal set up earlier were already full. I lined up behind a group of older women, one of whom was in a wheelchair, and waited. While standing there one of the women in front of me asked if I saw any airline employees around. I said no after doing a brief scan. She then said that she and her friends “found” the woman in the wheelchair sitting in a corner of the terminal facing the wall. She had asked for help as they walked by. The wheelchair woman told them she had arrived at the airport at 2 AM and an airport worker got her from the cab to the inside and then just walked away and left her there.
“That’s awful,” I said. “Yes, it is,” was the reply. The women friends were on their way to Vegas and the woman in the wheelchair was on her way to Dallas or Detroit or DC, some city with a D. The Vegas women were going to help the elderly woman get checked in and then hoped an airline worker would take over from there. They were worried because they knew their flight was already full and since they were meeting other people in Vegas, didn’t want to get bumped.
Pretty much everyone in line including me expected the ticket agents to begin at 4:30 AM. They didn’t. A few walked out from a door behind the counter and began looking around at the computers and other things on the counters, turning things on, unlocking locks and opening and closing drawers with keys that they wore like jewelry on their necks and wrists. Then some went back behind the door and disappeared. It was another 10 minutes before ONE agent opened up for customers. A few minutes later the rest came back and opened up. Slowly the line began to move.
When it was my turn at the counter a smiling woman named Neesi took my ID and I told her I was rebooked on the 6:30 AM flight after missing my flight last night. Since my flight was through Phoenix I asked her if there was any way I could get on the 7:30 direct flight to Denver. She started to say no, but then tilted her head to one side and pointed at her computer screen with a long painted fingernail.
“Goodness, so you’re on the flight to Phoenix, but the flight on to Denver has been canceled.”
“Are you kidding me?” I said as the blood drained from my face.
She tapped her long nails on the keyboard. “Let’s see what we can do here…So I can put you on standby on the 7:30, but there are 10 people already on the list. I can’t guarantee you’ll get on.”
“That’s OK. I’ll take it!” She printed out a new boarding pass for me and I thanked her profusely and hustled to the security line only to wait another 10 minutes because security wasn’t open yet either.
As I walked by the Las Vegas women, I heard the ticket agent say they would get someone to help the woman in the wheelchair so they followed me to the security line.
Because of the construction, the security line actually started at the base of some escalators and stairs. Once up the stairs, the line snaked through a very tight space, but at least it moved. After security I headed to my gate and passed a few food carts. I was starving, but they all had long lines and I didn’t think I could take the time.
Once at the gate the crowd of people was overwhelming. I went up to the counter even though no one was there yet. My plan was to “check in” and let them know I was flying standby. My hope was to not annoy the gate agent while letting them know I really wanted on that plane. When a woman did show up it took her many minutes to get organized. There was a flight leaving the gate before mine so she had to deal with that first. When she was ready for me I politely told her I was on Standby for the next flight and asked what needed to do to get on the plane. She said the best thing for me to do was to stay close because if you’re not there when they call you, they move on to the next person. I thanked her and looked at the café line again. Still quite long, I instead went behind the gate and sat on the floor because every seat was already taken.
I pulled out my phone and realized it was still in airplane mode. After changing it back I began receiving notification emails announcing my flight from Phoenix to Denver was canceled.
Just for the heck of it I got on Twitter and tweeted to @Southwest “Please get me home, almost there.” Within a minute SW followed me and then sent a DM asking my situation and ticket number. I told them I was on standby thanks to Neesi. I received a response that read there wasn’t much they could do, but wished me luck. I told them how great Joey and Neesi had been in helping with a problem that was created by another airline.
As soon as the first plane left I stood up and shook my stiff arms and legs. The moment of truth had arrived. The Denver flight was posted on the gate board. The gate agents began calling first class and frequent flyer members. Then they called Group A. As people moved around the airline agent began calling standby passengers. Every few seconds the agent said a name. None of them mine. I counted the names and when she got to number 10, my heart sank. As she announced names, various people would arrive at the counter and move on. Then she announced that the overhead bins were full so those in Groups B and C would have to check their carry-ons. I was about to give up and go stand in the café line when she said my name. I asked her if she needed to check my carry-on. She looked at my ticket and said, “No. You’re in Group A.”
Not only did I make standby, but I didn’t have to check my bag on a full flight! Thanks Southwest!
I took my Group A ticket and walked by all the Group B people still standing in line. On the plane I saw a middle seat in the second row. I put my small carry-on above and took the middle seat. I have short legs so I don’t mind sitting middle. I sat next to an elderly black lady who asked me if I was getting off in Denver. When I said yes, she said she was flying to Ohio. I asked why she was going to Ohio and she said it was her brother’s birthday.
“That’s nice you’re able to be there for that,” I said.
“Well, since it’s my twin brother, it’s my birthday too.”
“Oh. Happy birthday,” I told her.
I arrived in Denver at 10 AM, 11.5 hours later than I should have been. I called my awesome co-worker and she said she had the store covered and told me to go home and get some sleep. But first I had to pick up my dog at the dog sitter. So I had to pay for an extra day of airport parking and I had to pay for an extra day of dog sitting. What did I get from Alaska Air? A $200 airline voucher for a future flight. So let’s see. Denver is not really a hub for them so my options for direct flights are few and $100 is what I paid in extras. I appealed to the airline for a cash refund and even asked for the lower amount because all I wanted was to cover my fees. The airline, “after much consideration,” said no. So, where should I go next?
Thursday, May 5, 2016
No Sleep 'til LAX
Most everyone else went back into the annex even though the snack bar had closed. I stayed outside. I propped my bag against a light pole and sat down on the sidewalk leaning my back against it. As I sat, a dark green SUV pulled up to the curb and a blonde woman got out. From inside the annex, the woman who had offered a ride came out with her new entourage and the two women hugged.
“Thank you for doing this. You are a life saver.”
“Aw, anything for you sweetie.” The group began to put their bags in the back, but it was haphazard. They had to take the bags out and start over, twice. Third time was the charm and they all piled into the SUV and left. A guy on his cell phone came out of the annex and set his bag on the sidewalk.
“Are you on the van?” he asked me. Yes. “Can you watch my bags? I have to make a phone call and don’t want the van to leave without me.” I nodded, but wondered how many calls this guy had to make? He’d been on the phone since I first noticed him in the ticket line. I could hear his conversation despite the wind. He was calling Avis Rental Car trying to find out if he could pick up his rental after midnight. To me this sounded like a simple question, but to whomever he was talking to it wasn’t because he had to repeat the question more than once. He also had to explain why he wouldn’t be there at his scheduled time. He turned away from me and I couldn’t hear anymore. The scent of smoke from the wildfires was starting to infiltrate the air.
At 8:30 PM a large white van towing a small black trailer pulled up to the curb. I stood up and grabbed my bag. Cell phone guy also grabbed his bags, but was still on the phone. The rest of the group poured out of the snack annex. The van driver, a young guy with a goatee wearing a white long-sleeve t-shirt, got out. He held a piece of paper in his hand. He had us gather around the trailer and read our names. With every name somebody said yes. There were two Asian names he had trouble pronouncing, an older married couple that pronounce their names for him. After reading all the names the grey-haired lady who complained about not being offered a ride earlier said she didn’t hear her name. The driver ended up having to go inside the terminal to figure out what was going on. The woman, who said her name was Lorraine, followed him. The rest of us were left waiting on the sidewalk.
Minutes later both returned and the driver said something about confusion over another woman who had decided to stay in Mammoth, but still had her name on the list. The Driver loaded our bags in the trailer.
Cell phone guy took the front passenger seat; didn’t ask, just took. Lorraine said something about needing a lot of leg room because she had a bum knee. Four people, all guys, filled the back seat, the Japanese couple and I sat in the middle row and a grey-haired man, a young woman and Lorraine took the front row. The Driver then got in, but before turning on the van he told all of us that the van had a DVD player and he held up a black bag filled with DVDs. Lorraine said, “Can’t we just try to relax on this ride. Why do we have to watch a movie?” The Driver then handed the guy in the front row the DVD bag, started the van and pulled away from the curb.
The van turned onto Highway 395, a four-lane divided road. The mountains in this part of California were still green (the only ones not on fire that summer) and smoky clouds glowed gold in the twilight, the haze of the wildfires intensifying the colors. The man with the DVD bag pulled a movie out and asked if anyone wanted to see Silence of the Lambs. Seriously?!? No one said anything. Then the young woman sitting next to him said sure, why not? And I thought this couldn’t get any worse.
I put my earbuds in and listened to music I had stored on my phone so I couldn’t hear the movie. I closed my eyes, but the light from the TV screen seemed to seep in through my eyelids making it impossible to sleep. I also put my phone in airplane mode to conserve my battery for the six hour ride.
I must have fallen asleep at some point because I was startled when the van stopped. I looked out the window to see we were in a Carl’s Jr. parking lot. The Driver said this was a good place to stretch, take a bathroom break and get some food before we hit the interstate. We all unfolded out of the van and walked like zombies into the restaurant. I had no intention of eating or drinking anything. I made that plan back at the airport. Not knowing what the restroom situation was going to be over the next six hours, I wasn’t taking any chances. Once inside the restaurant I began scouting for an outlet to charge my phone. It didn’t need it, but I wanted to anyway. Couldn’t find one. Our little group had already formed a line for the restrooms so I got behind. The young woman who sat in front of me bumped me with her elbow and said, “Oh my god, I can’t stand bugs.” I glanced in the direction she was looking. The glass doors, floors and ceiling of a corner the restaurant were crawling with black box elder bugs. I grew up with box elder bugs and know they’re harmless so I ignored her, but have to admit it was odd seeing a pile of them in the corner by the door. I asked the woman if she knew where we were, but she didn’t. Then she said, “Bugs are gross!” and actually tried to lean on me for support.
A worker was cleaning the women’s restroom so we all had to take turns using the men’s. It was one of the most disgusting restrooms I’ve ever seen. When I came out some in our group were ordering food. It was a little after 11 PM when I turned my cell’s airplane mode off so I could look up the location. My phone said Big Pine, California. I posted a quick tweet. “Stopped in Big Pine, CA. Still have four hours to go. #nosleeptilLAX.”
Switching my phone back to airplane mode, I went outside and stood with some others next to the van. That’s when I noticed the bug situation approached horror movie level. The bugs were everywhere including flying around in the air. I looked up at a street light and it was dimmed because of the number of bugs covering it. The parking lot was covered with what looked like black dipping dots. The white van had spots on it. Then the Driver walked by me to the passenger door and his white T-shirt was also covered with black dots. I made it a point to keep my mouth closed.
The Driver did a head count before opening the door to let us back in. As soon as I returned to my seat I could feel bugs crawling on my shin. Then there was another one on the back of my neck. As the van rolled out of the parking lot I pulled one off the top of my head. I also saw two bugs crawling on the inside of the van door and another on the ceiling. Unfortunately the movie wasn’t over yet so I had to put my earbuds back in and keep my eyes closed to avoid the bright TV light. Every few minutes I had to shake a bug off of my ankles. I wondered how many bugs crawled around in my hoodie.
I wasn’t really asleep, but I wasn’t quite awake either as I listened to almost every song I had on the phone. The movie had finally ended and we were now on the interstate; “The 5” as Californians would say. What looked like a combination of truck stops and suburbia flew by the windows. My phone said 1:30 AM. I wondered how the driver was doing. Would he fall asleep and roll the van? I could see one side of his face in the rear view mirror. He was drinking a giant can of Monster or Kickstart or something like that, which he kept on the van's dashboard. Most everyone else in the van appeared to be asleep; I could hear someone snoring softly behind me.
I looked out the windshield and some familiar names began to appear on the overhead highway signs, LA street names that have been mentioned in countless songs, movies and TV shows. First was the exit for Sunset Boulevard, then Wilshire Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard and finally Ventura Boulevard. I could see palm trees lining the highway. We had made it to Los Angeles.
Shortly after passing the Boulevard exits, the Driver took an exit that had the airport symbol on its sign. We were now on the 405. After many hours of quiet, the Driver spoke up asking us what airlines we were flying on so he could figure out where to drop us. Most everyone in the van was on United and the Japanese couple actually needed to be dropped off at their airport hotel. The wife said they were flying out in the morning. The Driver would take them last. I was on Southwest and lucky me that was the first airline we drove by.
The Driver stopped to let me out. He opened up the trailer and pulled out my bag. I thanked him and handed him a tip. As he took it, he slapped the side of his neck with his other hand.
“Damn bugs!” he said, half laughing. “I’m still finding them.” I laughed a bit as I walked into the airport. My phone said it was 2:30 AM. The third part of my ordeal was about to begin.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
No Sleep ‘Til LAX
An Ordeal in 3 Parts - Part I
My eyes are closed, but I’m not asleep. I knew going in that there would be no sleep tonight. I’m trying to focus on the music streaming through my ear buds while enduring the thumps and bumps of my vehicle seat. It’s not working. That’s because I’m in a gigantic white van lumbering down a dark highway with 12 total strangers in it. This ordeal began hours ago, but the part that’s keeping me awake is that when we finally reach our destination, I still don’t know if I’ll be able to get home.
I had just spent a fantastic four days in Mammoth Lakes, CA, a wonderful Sierra Nevada mountain town and the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park. For four days I was a professional travel journalist on a press trip learning what makes this town of only 8,000 year-around residents one of the West’s best tourism spots. I was wined and dined and met many amazing people who make the town the charming place it is. I went on guided hikes and was chauffeured to the area’s most beautiful spots. I took notes and photos and recorded interviews. I stayed in a fabulous studio suite at the Westin Monache Resort.
I was still savoring these newly made memories when I arrived at the tiny Mammoth/Yosemite Airport. My ordeal had already begun, but I didn’t know it yet because I pre-printed my boarding pass from Alaska Airlines at the hotel, so when I arrived by hotel shuttle the appropriate two hours before departure, I got straight into the security line with a group of six other people. A long line of travelers were standing on the other side of the room waiting for a ticket agent to print their passes and check bags. Those of us in the security line were chatting when a woman wearing a drab green shirt and pants with a bright orange vest approached us. She told us our flight – the only flight– was late due to a mechanical issue and wouldn’t arrive until 8:30 PM instead of the 6:30 PM it was supposed to. The flight would arrive in Mammoth long after my Southwest connecting flight in LA would leave for Denver.
The woman in the vest said we should head to the annex building where there was a snack bar and TVs while we waited for the flight. Everyone in the terminal wearily walked into the annex, a large sterile building that looked like a metal barn. The snack bar was on the opposite end of the doorway with a crowd of wooden tables and chairs and two restrooms in between. A giant flatscreen TV blared CNN above one of the restroom doors. I spotted an unoccupied electrical outlet across from the TV and took it. Since I was now at the mercy of the airplane gods, a full cell battery was vital.
First order of business was to text a coworker because I was supposed to work my day job the next morning. Even if I got to LAX, there was no guarantee I’d make it to Denver. Fortunately my co-worker could cover. After that relief I called Southwest Airlines to see if there was another, later flight from LAX to DEN. I talked to a woman named Joey and she said there was no other flight tonight, but there were flights leaving first thing in the morning. Joey found a flight leaving at 6:30 AM, but it would fly to Phoenix first. It would arrive in DEN by 10 AM. With good traffic I could be to work by noon. Since I only had a small carry-on, bags were not an issue. Joey said she would book me on the flight anyway even though I had no way to LAX yet.
After my phone call, a group of people sat at a table next to me. A woman at the table talked a bit loudly and provided a lot of insight into the workings of Mammoth Airport. I learned that she and her husband lived in LA and had a second home in Mammoth. They had another couple visiting with them along with the woman’s mother from Ohio. The woman said that there was only one flight in and out a day so if that flight doesn’t make it, there wouldn’t be another until the next afternoon. Also according to her, this was a regular occurrence. She told the other couple they used to fly from LA, but previous bad experiences now cause them to drive back and forth.
“You’ll see, they’ll cancel this flight,” she said. “Keep your eyes on the board. If it gets canceled we have to rush over to the terminal to get her rebooked.” By her, she was referring to her mother. Shortly after this conversation, it happened just like the woman said it would. The board changed showing the flight canceled and everyone, myself included, jumped up from our chairs to get into the terminal. I ended up in the middle of the ticket counter line. Behind me was a couple from Virginia who told me they had a 10:30 PM red eye from LAX to Alexandria. The wife mentioned they didn’t have to be back to work until Monday (today was Thursday), so they considered staying in Mammoth another night, but worried flights to the east coast would be full on a weekend. They also had two young kids staying with grandparents at home whom they hadn’t seen in a week.
The woman with the vest walked by and the couple asked her what happened to our plane. She said there was a mechanical issue that they thought was fixed at the airport before the plane left. However, the issue came back during the flight. She then said Mammoth Airport doesn’t have a mechanic so the plane, which was actually beginning its descent into Mammoth, had to turn around and go back to be repaired. Myself, the Virginia couple and now the man in front of me began bombarding vest woman with questions about what Alaska Airlines was going do to help us. She said the airline would be renting some vans to drive people out, but that there wouldn’t be enough room for everyone.
“WHAT?!?” We all asked in unison. She told us to stay in line and they would come around and take our names for the van rides. The four of us began weighing our options. The guy in front of me lived in LA and was a construction manager of a project in Mammoth. He spent four days week in Mammoth and went home to his family for three-day weekends. He thought out loud that he could just go back to the apartment the construction company rented for him and stay another night and see his family tomorrow. The Virginia couple discussed calling Uber or a taxi service and began searching on their smartphones.
A woman at the ticket counter then announced that a van, and only one van, had been rented and she would take names for it. The van would only hold 13 people. There was at least double that number of people in line. Doing a quick count I put myself at 15. Over the buzzing talk of people on cell phones a woman near the front of the line grabbed her bag and walked to the middle of the small terminal with two other people following her. She announced to everyone that she was getting a ride to LA from a friend and they had room for one more person. Myself along with five other people raised our hands. An older man standing next to a much younger Asian man told everyone that the young man was a foreign exchange student and needed to a ride to LA or he would miss his flight home to China for school break. Feeling that story trumped ours, construction guy and I both lowered our hands. The woman offering the ride said come over. Suddenly a grey-haired woman a few places ahead of me loudly said “Well, that was mean!” Everyone in the terminal turned in her direction.
“That was awfully cruel of you to offer only one seat then not even take the rest of us into consideration.” In my little group of people all our jaws hit the floor. This woman didn’t have to offer anyone anything. Why talk like that to her?
That little event took four people out of line. I now had a shot at the van. Basically the airline was offering a night in a hotel and a flight out tomorrow or a seat on the van. I didn’t like either choice. The woman with the orange vest reappeared with a clipboard. She was taking names for the van. After each name, that person would grab their bags and leave the terminal. She slowly worked her way toward me. When she got to construction guy I could see a long list of names on her paper. Construction guy was #13.
“So I’m on the van?” he asked her.
“Uh, no. There’s only room for 11 people.”
“They said 13 earlier.”
“Yeah, they couldn’t get the larger van.”
“Why don’t they rent more than one van?” I asked. “If you got 20-odd people that were supposed to be on that plane, they should get enough vans for everyone who wants a ride. It’s their fault, not weather.”
“That’s just how they do it,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous.” I signed.
“I know,” she responded. She took my name anyway, just in case. Just then two people came over to Vest Woman and said to take their names off; they were going to spend the night in Mammoth. Construction Guy became #11. I sighed again. So close. Then the Virginia couple asked me and the two people behind them if we wanted to pool together for an Uber ride or car rental. I said sure. Then the wife stepped in front of me and tapped Construction Guy.
“You know, you should let her (pointing to me) ride on the van since your final destination is LA,” she said. Both of our eyes widen in shock. He grimaced.
“Southwest re-booked me on a flight first thing in the morning. If I miss it, I won’t get back to Denver until late tomorrow night or maybe even Saturday.” Yes, I tried to sound desperate, but I was not lying. Joey had told me on the phone almost every flight to Denver was booked for Friday.
“Go ahead,” he said and waved vest woman over. “Take my name off the list and put her on the van.”
“Oh my god, thank you!” I almost started crying. Virginia wife patted me on the back. I grabbed my carry-on and went outside because my body temperature had skyrocketed with all the stress I had just endured. The cool wind felt good on my face. I looked at the Sierra Mountains and saw a beige smoke cloud creep over the ridge from the summer wild fires. The time was 8 PM. My ordeal was only just beginning…