21 July 2008

Our Sunday Odyssey

We started Sunday morning in Bettendorf, Iowa, with plans to drive across Illinois and catch a 1:45 PM flight from Chicago through Cincinnati to Boston, landing by 7:30. Our plans gang agley.

When we returned the car to the rental agency, we learned out the desk agent two days before (who was, to be fair, covering for colleagues on their lunch hour) hadn't coded our order correctly. We'd asked to buy the car's tank of gas so we could return it close to empty. The agency wanted to charge us for a refill--at $7.38 a gallon.

We moved on to the American Airlines terminal at O'Hare and tried to check in through the self-service kiosk. (Yet another way corporations are turning clerical work over to customers to save personnel costs while giving us a deceptive sense of control.) I couldn't find our reservation in the system, or our flight. Then I realized that although I'd bought the tickets through American, the actual flight was on Comair, a Delta Connection airline.

So we trooped down the terminal to Delta and fed the same information into its self-serve computer. And it came up with...nothing. So we asked for help from the attendants. One of them quickly found our names on the computer behind the counter. I guess that reserving the seats through another airline had hurt the Delta program's feelings, so it was snubbing us.

The fully packed flight from Chicago to Cincinnati was an uneventful 50 minutes--which ate up 110 minutes by the clock since we moved east into a different time zone. (The return flight seems like a real time-saver since it touches down ten minutes earlier by the clock than it takes off, but I digress.)

In the Cincinnati airport (actually across the Ohio River in Kentucky), we found the Delta monitors reporting that our flight to Boston was at a gate different from the one stated on our boarding passes. So we went to the new gate, only to see the departure switched back to the original. Then that plane was late arriving because of bad weather elsewhere. When the plane arrived, Boston was socked in by lightning storms, so it couldn't load and take off.

Finally the pilot and crew hustled us all onto the plane in order to beat a 7:22 departure window. We rolled out to the runway, took a right, took another right, and rolled back to the terminal. Along the way, we all had a good look at how the sky out one set of windows was white while the sky on the opposite side of the plane was inky black.

The pilot told us there was no way he was taking off in that weather. Furthermore, he advised parents to carry small children when crossing the gangplank into the walkway because the wind had become so strong. And indeed it was whipping hard. There were also some tendrils hanging down from the dark cloud--not tornado funnels, to be sure, but close enough to be reminiscent.

And we weren't the only ones who thought so. Soon after we arrived back in the gate, the airport staff evacuated everyone in the facility down to the tunnels where one normally catches the trams from one terminal to another. I helped carry a lady's stroller down about fifty steps on a stopped escalator.

After another wait, we got the all-clear and went back upstairs. Lightning had struck the control tower, requiring its staff to shut down and restart their computers before the airport could reopen. It was unclear what had happened to our flight; the plane was still on the tarmac, but the gate desk was listing another city. I was checking the phone directory for local hotels when we got the word that our flight was still on. We were all hurried back to our old seats.

Did I mention that we were seated right in front of brothers aged five and seven, who had been on planes and in airports all day?

The flight to Boston had some bumpy moments, but would probably have been even bumpier if we hadn't button-hooked over Canada and approached Boston via Lake Winnipesaukee. But when we reached the terminal, we discovered that many other flights had come in at the same time. The baggage treadmill became overloaded and jammed, and had to be shut down and cleared at least twice.

It was nearly midnight when we got into a cab headed for the Ted Williams Tunnel--only to find its entrance blocked by a police car. But that blockage turned out to be a temporary; the driver merely had to drive over the bumpy divider to get back into the lane for the tunnel. We resurfaced on the Mass. Pike, and then the skies opened up again. Driving rain reduced visibility to the length of the taillights ahead. Deep puddles appeared in poorly draining roads. It was Monday as I struggled up our steps with the suitcases.

And it all could have been much worse. In fact, it wasn't really that bad.

At the rental agency, the desk agent and I worked out the best deal the computer allowed. The Comair pilot was straightforward about balancing speed and safety, and inspired confidence with his choices. The Cincinnati gate manager remained cheerful despite facing scores of anxious people and a 6:00 AM shift the next morning. None of us customers behaved badly, either. Everyone recognized that the problem was weather--not that that's stopped other airport crowds I've known from getting nasty.

The two little brothers were especially well behaved, considering. They and their parents seem to be temperamentally cheerful. We all got to listen in as their mother read them a chapter from a Percy Jackson book--the one about Percy and Annabeth having a difficult journey past the sirens.

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