March 17, 2007

Moderate pellets

So I have a 420pm flight on Fri March 16 out of Baltimore-Washington International airport (BWI), going to Atlanta and flying on west from there. Snowstorm's dumping on the northeast, I'm worried, so I check and check again: all morning, both my flights are reported to be leaving OK. Reassured, I leave my friend's home in Washington at 1pm. I have to fuel up my rental car, drive up to BWI, then go catch my flight: just under 3.5 hours strikes me as enough time.

It's raining steadily all through the drive; visibility is low and traffic is slower than normal. But it moves along. Without much of a problem, I reach the rental return place by 245pm, hand over the car and take the shuttle to the terminal. Check in, go through security (laptop out, shoes off). Wander slowly to my gate. Just before 4pm, we begin boarding. I'm in my seat and the doors are closed by 415.

Announcement: weather is bad but we can take off, but regulations require us to "de-ice" the plane. So we'll push back from the gate, de-ice and be on our way in five or ten minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, announcement: OK, we're starting the de-icing, you can look out the window and see them doing it.

Thirty minutes later, announcement: bad news. There's rain and moderate ice pellets coming down outside, and we are not legal to leave in this weather. It doesn't look like it will get better for several hours. We're going to take you all off the plane. But please stay in the gate area in case things change and we get a go-ahead to leave.

Groaning and despondent, we all get off the plane. Cellphones are suddenly active in every hand. Man asks attendant as we leave the aircraft, who will pay for a hotel? Attendant replies, you.

Thirty minutes later out in the gate area, announcement: Those making connections, please form a line in front of the counter, we'll help you with those. I walk over, but the line is already 40 people long. It promises to be a long wait.

Fifteen minutes later, announcement: Bad news. The flight to Atlanta stands cancelled. Your baggage will be returned to you downstairs. If you want to make changes to your flight plans, please see a ticket agent or call our toll-free number.

I head for baggage claim, trying to call the toll-free number as I go. There's a voice-recognition system in place, and when you put together poor reception, high levels of ambient noise, my walking along and my obscure Indian accent, the system cannot understand a single word I say. I'm sorry for all the trouble, it finally says in a confident female voice, I will connect you to our next available representative. Five minutes later, I lose the connection. I curse.

Long lines at the counters. Huge crowd at baggage claim. I find a payphone and decide to try the toll-free number from there. This time the voice-recognition system understands my monosyllables and puts me on hold waiting for the next available agent. Suddenly I see one of my bags sliding by on the nearest carousel. I drop the handset, run to pick up the bag, come back to the handset. Suddenly I see the other of my bags sliding by on the same carousel. I drop the handset, run to pick up the bag, come back to the handset. No worry, I'm still listening to music, interspersed with various messages.

In fact, I learn that my airline is expanding to Shannon Ireland and Bucharest Romania, that they appreciate my call and somebody will be with me as soon as possible, the I should not forget that I can earn two miles for every dollar spent if I use some particular credit card to buy my ticket, that the airline knows that air travel can sometimes be hectic and that's why they offer several options to speed me through the airport. I learn all this because I hear all this at least 15 times each, interspersed with music, that they want to know if I'm travelling to the Caribbean soon.

I mean, I am on that phone for the next two and a half (2.5) hours. On hold.

Enough time for me to set my bags on the floor so I can lie down on them, to take off my shoes and socks, to finish an entire magazine and many pages of the book I'm reading. Enough time to call various people who need to know my flight status.

When a human voice finally makes its appearance, she is extremely helpful and solicitous. She tells me that she cannot get me on any flight to where I want to go until Monday afternoon. And that that applies to the other two Washington-area airports (Dulles, Reagan) too. Are there any other airports I would like her to try?

She finally puts me on a flight from Richmond to Orlando on Saturday afternoon, connecting to another flight from Orlando to Salt Lake City, connecting to yet another flight. 11 hours, airport to airport. Leaves me with the headache of finding my way to Richmond, but I'll deal with that later.

830pm, I walk out of the terminal to the bus-stop where I can catch a bus to the Greenbelt Washington Metro station. There's one other person waiting, friendly Maria McFadden, back from a Spanish interpretation job in York, PA. Next bus is not till 858pm, so we have half an hour to wait. We are soon joined by Alessandra Buonanno, physics professor. We get chatting. Others trail in. But the bus doesn't. At 920pm, we finally run to catch a shuttle to BWI's Amtrak railway station.

At 950pm, we are there. Next train that for which we can buy tickets is scheduled at 1023, but is 15 minutes late. Soon, that 15 minutes delay is updated to an hour's delay. But luckily (for once) we don't have the time to groan, because an earlier delayed train's arrival is announced, and we decide to take our chances getting on even though it is supposedly fully reserved.

And that train arrives, and we get on, and half an hour later we are at Union Station, and we take the Metro. The company of these two friendly women has made the last few hours bearable. And at the end, I have a 15 minute walk in the sharp cold and across fresh snow, carrying my by-now-unbearably-heavy bags, back to my friend's home.

At 1145pm, nearly 11 hours after I left, I walk back in. Fruitless, exasperating day.

And I'm not comforted by the knowledge that in 6 or 7 hours, I have to get going again, find my way to Richmond and onto a plane there in the hope that it will not be grounded by moderate pellets of ice.


Samir said...

Last time something like this happened to me, the chaps on the phone weren't very helpful but the folks at the counter were more flexible and put me on a different airline.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

lends some perspective to flight cancellations at Delhi and domestic airline service overall.