27 June 2007

Hi Honey, I’m Home!

Yes, I was away because I was away. No posts because I did not take my computer along on a professional trip out to Portland OR. For some folks that may sound like, “I went on a wilderness trip and decided to leave my insulin behind.” How could anyone, including an almost daily blogger like me, do without their computer?

Change is good. And though it may seem far fetched, I did quite well without it. My hotel had a work station where I checked email three times in six days. That’s a far cry from checking three times in six hours, which is closer to my usual rate. And strangely, I had almost no mail that suffered from delayed response. Believe it or not, fifty percent of what I get is advertising.

That said, I am home, and back at the keyboard. And what I did is worth noting. But as Tristram Shandy noted long ago (and previously observed here so you know I am not unwittingly repeating myself) it takes more time to write down what happened than doing it. so I’ll confine myself to a few observations, mostly about my own neurotic reactions to things happening around me.

I’ll work in reverse order.

We got home almost a day late. As happened to me back in March when I was also on the west coast, my trip home was an involuntary adventure. It was almost a verbatim recurrence, ending with a train from Chicago. But there are some key differences, and if the devil is in the details, so is the pleasure of the story.

Monday morning we had time (my lovely spouse was with me) before our 3 p.m. flight out of Portland Oregon. I would have preferred to leave earlier but by the time we could make the booking, all earlier flights were either sold or wildly expensive. That’s what demand pricing is about. The cheapest seats are those sold earliest. As the plane gets fuller the price per seat goes up. As my conference had 6000 attendees, many coming from the east, many through Chicago, the seats I had available were vanishingly small. That meant only the worst flights were cheap – those leaving in the evening and flying overnight.

Arriving without sleep is no fun, neither is returning. Of the day flights that were not immensely expensive, the returning flight that left at 3:15 and arrived at 11:59 was the only one below $1000 per person. So that’s what I chose. Yes, I should have booked sooner, but officially it was a legitimate combination of flights, changing in Denver. Apparently, there is enough traffic from GR to Denver to rate regular service.

Anyway, we had the morning free and just as we were thinking about how to spend it when the hotel phone rang and a member from a previous church told me (from Seattle you should know) that a mutual friend from the same church had gone to a Portland hospital overnight and she was worried about him.

It turned out he was in the same hospital as another friend, not from a previous church but part of the wider communion as it were and someone I knew even longer. He too had been felled during the conference, and we had been to see him a already that week. Thus it was no great problem to go out there again. Heck we knew which bus to take and everything.

He was felled by hypoglycemia, being diabetic. The catch 22 of diabetes is that long term high blood pressure will kill you slowly, but short term hypoglycemia will kill you today. That’s why type diabetics tend to prefer to be high than low. But intravenous insulin is a crude tool. It is using a sledge hammer to crack walnuts. Gauging doses, timing them, is never certain. And at night, before going to bed, it is even more tricky.

I suspect that’s what happened to him.

We take the number 6 bus that goes up and down MLK Avenue, and get off at the Nike Factory Store. We cross the street and zig-zag a few blocks east to the Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, first to the emergency room to check on my diabetic friend and then to see my really sick friend. Both are men above 70.

It occurs to me that many of my work related friends are older, mentors and colleagues and such. I should not be so surprised that I am spending time at hospitals even in Portland Oregon. But that veers into the subject of another post. This one us supposed to be about traveling.

We make our visits, come back to our room and have plenty of time to check out and take the lovely light rail out the airport. I thought it nearly insane that New York has only one airport accessible by rail transit. The cabbies would revolt were it to change, though.

Upon entering the place we see right away that our first flight is delayed. Our hearts stop. The connection in Denver is very snug, 45 minutes. We checked the Weather Channel (zen TV is what my brother-in-law calls it) and saw no hint of trouble for Denver. We hear that there was a delay in assembling a crew.

We wait standby for an earlier flight. No go. The gatekeeper for our original assures us we will be there in time. I say we are at the rear of the aircraft, and could be waiting fifteen minutes to get off. She kindly, and sneakily, moves us to the front of the cabin. We breathe easier.

I enjoy watching the land beneath me in my window seat. I’ll focus on that experience in another post as well. Right now, I’ll stick with the Joe Friday. United allows you to listen to radio transmissions between crew and air traffic control. This is very cool as every change is noted before it happens and the reasons for it.

It takes me a while to divine the lingo, so I am not sure I get it right when, nearing Denver, the ATC fellow tells the pilot to slow to 210 and hold. The pilot had just said to the whole plane that we expected to arrive on time, even with the delay. But it turns out thunderstorms had moved into the area.

We circle for about 15 minutes. I pray they are keeping planes from leaving as well as landing. We land and then, third heart stoppage, wait on tarmac for open gate. That’s because the planes are leaving later. Good, I think.

Bad it turns out. Our flight left without us. We arrived at the moment it left. And being GR, there was not another flight that night.

Down the long, long, corridor to customer services. It is not full but we are not alone, and people need lots of help. We wait most of half an hour before hearing the obvious. No flights tonight, and none direct tomorrow. “Can you book us through Chicago,” I ask, knowing United flies to and from there from GR. He clicks and clicks and succeeds. We leave tomorrow morning at 10:31, arrive at 1:45 and leave on the 4:10 p.m.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to find a room. They gave out all their vouchers earlier, so they will reimburse us up to $100. But we have to get the room.

I call Traveler’s Advantage, a service I enrolled in when booking my last west coast trip. They did help get me a room when I was way laid in LA.

“All our agents are busy…” I wait on the line, and wait, and wait. On the way to the terminal (Denver has physically separate terminals that are connected underground like Atlanta) I get an agent. English is not his first language. I explain. He offers me a room, I say yes, but the signal dies on the way. I try again, but as we are now underground, it cannot go through.

In the baggage claim area where hotel phones are located, I am waiting with TA in pone hand while I dial hotels in the other. One after another are booked for the night. I contemplate a night in the terminal.

Finally a place has a room. It is 20 miles away but has a shuttle. I grab it.

TA never does pick up. I remember that they offered me a free companion ticket for this trip that never came, rebates for a rental car that they refused to pay. I am quitting them with extreme prejudice.

We wait for the shuttle, which comes in about ten minutes. It is now after 8 p.m. we ride the half hour down toward the old airport (Stapleton) and find a our Raddison filled with people from the cemetery administrators conference. They are happy people, lubricated and merry to a soul. I wonder why?

The AC is out in the lobby. I am seriously worried. This is, after all, costing me $169.00 plus tax. But the room is fine. I order up a glass of red wine and some cheesecake from rook service. Yeah, it’s weird. The waiter who delivered it said as much. It was a weird day I say. I nod off easily.

We get out on the 7 a.m. shuttle, arriving at 7:30. Our flight is three hours away. We need to buy lunch (as they do not serve it on board, remember?) and go through security.

Denver is a major hub. Security is like Soylent Green - people herded through corrals. It could be “Brazil” or any other grim dystopic cinema I’ve seen over the years. I murmur to a fellow cow (using a different metaphor) “If there isn’t a roller coaster at the end of this line, I am going to be very angry.”

We get through the sluice, find the subway again, climb and ride up to our gate where we are two hours early. Good.

Our plane arrives from Hawaii. It’s a 777, enormous. Never been on one. It begins to load right on time, though I see from the monitors that already 10 percent of flights are delayed, often from late arrivals. It’s too early for the weather to be a factor, isn’t it? I rejoice ours is here.

Ominous bells and sirens suddenly erupt. Security breach. We roll our eyes and sigh. But all is well. Ten minutes and we are back on track.

777’s are sardine packers. Nine seats across, we are an aisle and adjacent seat in the middle in row 45. and there are ten rows behind us. Yes, it's that big.

It is a two hour flight, and I again listen to the pilots and ATC. Usually I can read a bit, but I am still to edgy, remembering last March. Besides the air is like being at 10,000 feet or something. I find myself reading over and over from my favorite brain candy author, Patrick O’Brien. Instead I read USA Today. Then I play bubble breaker on my PDA.

We arrive in good order, with a two hour layover. We check the monitor.

Flight cancelled.

That’s right. Steam shooting from our ears we find the Chicago version of United’s Customer Service Desk. Another wait, and another tale of woe.

“Traffic,” she ways when we ask why. Too many planes in the air, disrupted by weather. Had to trim the traffic. I can understand it rationally. Planes to GR are small. It’s a minor destination away from a hub, a natural choice for them to make.

But here’s my problem. I was supposed to be in GR Tuesday so I could meet with a family whose wife/mother died while I was away to plan the service for Thursday.

“How would you feel if you needed your clergyman after a death and he was not able to get there? Surely, you an book us on another airline that is going to GR?”

No. All flights from ORD to GRR are full (probably from other orphan passengers. I think of the ghost ship that carried Jews from Hitler’s Germany and was turned away from every friendly port.) They can give us a hotel and try, try, to get us home Tuesday.

I call Amtrak. The train to GR leaves at 5:20. We take our leave, and head down town. The CTA is slow, but traffic is slower as thunderstorms pummel the city. I see cars plowing through water on the Kennedy Expressway. Along the way we stop dead for a moment (shades of my trip on the samr train to the same train in march) because of equipment problems. I know we have 2 hours to get there, but we stand and stand. A CTA worker opens the door onto the open track. She peers and peers. My heart begins to thump again.

We do get downtown, and then grab a taxi to Union Station because of the rain. We buy our tickets (I made reservations on the telephone) and some dinner at The Corner Bakery (a local chain I like far too much. Their maple walnut bar is magnificent) and in due time board the Pere Marquette to GR.

It takes four hours, plus one for the time zone, and we arrive at 1030 p.m. A cab ordered by my assistant is waiting and we are at home by 1045, just about 22 hours later than we should be. And about $300 poorer I should add – hotel, room, meals, taxis, etc.

That’s enough for now. Ruminations later. I am so glad for cell phones though, and helpers at my church that ran interference cancelling appointments and rescheduling them. All is well that ends well, and everything ended very well.

One ironic fact to consider, though, in these two tales of travel woe. The first American city to offer scheduled airline service was...

... Grand Rapids.

Yes. The home of commercial passenger flight is among the least of the cities of modern Judah.


Philocrites said...

Wow! I may never travel again. Two colleagues were stranded in Dallas; another barely caught a flight through Denver, and only because she had a four-hour layover on her original connecting flight. I think I'm due.

Glad I saw you at GA!

WFW said...

Waxing abstract, the industry I believe has chosen to inconvienience more people. Not as an end in itself but as an acceptable risk and cost as a result of scheduling so many flights as a way of increasing volume and profit. As the margins have slipped due to price wars, the airline industry has become like supermarkets where the margin of profit is very small and volume is what makes money.

But with increased volume comes increased foul ups. They have decided a higher percentage of failures is tolerable, along with the cost. And what choice do travelers have, really? When we need to go long distances in short times, there is only air.

I do feel a lot more like a pawn than a person, a chit in the business than a customer. That I cannot ever think of people that way, much less treat them that way, and they not only can but do, I find revolting.