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Friday, January 10, 2014

A Long Way Home

08 January, 2014

0603 Greenwich time
Some of the worst winter storms in recent memory have swept the United States, grounding thousands of flights because of the high winds and extreme cold in excess of -30oC. The flight back was scheduled to depart at 1130, arriving in the states at 1345 (Eastern Seaboard) after five time zone changes, to which I had a connecting flight to the Midwest at 1600. With more than two hours to move three gates down.  And then the first news came.

We arrive at the Dublin airport and wait in line at the check in queue and there are people everywhere, baggage strewn about and airline agents frantically trying to deal with irate travellers. After some time, we learn that there have been hundreds of flight cancellations at JFK International Airport and across the US at large. The flight was delayed for a 1430 departure, to arrive at 1705 arrival.

We are finally able to check in for the flight to JFK, and I hear that, because my connecting flight was not booked on the same itinerary, they would not be able to reschedule it until I arrived at JFK. Alright, worse things have happened. I would be able to find another one there.

Security behind us, a final meal in Ireland eaten, past customs and the second security checkpoint, and we were waiting in the gate.

The plane finally arrives and the previous passengers disembark. While the flight crew assembles and prepare for the 7 hour flight, we begin to form a line outside the gate.

Takeoff. The seat is in the middle and my legs are long, but it is not the worst I have seen. Then I found the not-too-old gum stuck to the carpet right where I have to stick my feet so my knees are not wedged on the back of the seat in front of me. Alright. Stick the plastic of the in-flight headphones on it (which are the worst ever, if you have never had that pleasure) and forget about it. In-flight entertainment is down, but that is what books are for anyway.

Movie time. Groovy.

JFK International Airport, USA
2205 [1705 EST]
Arrival at JFK. From the back of the plane (seat 40 of 41), it took a solid 30 minutes. By the time I was able to speak with the agent at the gate about possible flights, the last one for the day had left 10 minutes ago. After searching around, she found another at LaGuardia airport, about 15 minutes away from JFK that would depart in 2 hours, and it is the last flight of the night. Excellent. Down to baggage claim.

2250 [1750 EST]
Baggage arrives.

2300 [1800 EST]
Embark for LaGuardia. Traffic is clear at first, but the farther out of JFK we go, the worse it becomes. The 15 minute drive turns to 30.

2330 [1830 EST]
Arrive at LaGuardia. I have never been to this particular airport before, but the signs seem to be obvious enough. There is a single building with large letters on the top reading the name of the airline. After getting out and walking up to the windows, I see that it is only the arrivals. Perfect. The plane leaves in less than 45 minutes. So I make my way the only way there is to go, down towards the rest of the airport.

2340 [1840 EST]
I find the desks and get my ticket, check my bag, and make my way through security. On the other side I try and find my gate, but there are only C and D gates, but my ticket reads SH4. I have no idea what that means, and with less than 20 minutes to get to the flight, I find someone. The first security agent has no idea, and neither did the second. After a third, they concluded that it was in Terminal 4. Where was I and why did the ticketing agent not tell me I was in the complete wrong building? No time to think. They said there was an airport bus that would take me there, the A Line.

2355 [1855 EST]
I find the bus stop, and the A Line bus is just pulling away. Bloody brilliant. Fortunately, it stops three feet later because of the traffic. As I run up to it, the bus driver looked at me and I asked through the door if it was the A Line. Of course it was. Then I asked if I could get on it. Of course not. The driver looked back to the road and drove away with me standing there in the -10o winter without a jacket (in the checked bag, of course). Now I have nothing to do but to stand there like an idiot trying to think of a way to get to the other end of the airport. There is nothing for it but to go afoot, and so I did.

2405 [1905 EST]
I eventually forsake walking and get on one of the B Line busses which go about half way there. By now, it is too late to get on that flight, so I try and figure out what happened to my bag. I cannot go back to the original ticketing desk, as there is no one there to ask about baggage claim. The next bus should come in about 10 minutes, so I wait. 5, then 10, then 15, then 20, and still no bus. Over half an hour later one finally comes and I take it about 6km past the main airport to a small building with 4 terminals servicing AirFrance, some other airline, and the one I need that specifically handles flights to Chicago O'Hare. Nowhere in the airport signs does it mention that, or why it is that way.

2430 [1930 EST]
Inside the small outbuilding I went to the desk and inquired about flights out. No luck until the morning. The earliest flight was at 0615 EST. And of course, the airline was less than accommodating. The flight could not be transferred to another nearby airport, for whatever reason, despite this being the fourth flight since the ticketed one. Neither could they provide any transportation or lodging. Other than the wooden bench outside.

0010 [2010 EST]
I find that my bag never made it to the flight it was checked in for. Why? Who knows. It was flagged at being at the wrong deposit location but never touched again. I wish they would have told me that it was not the right location too, before I went through security. I asked if they could do anything to change it to my flight the following day. Of course not. But they would take care of it, they promised. And do I need to do anything? Absolutely not. And it will be on the plane tomorrow? Yes, because it is the airline's business now that it was not on the other flight. It would be taken there as soon as possible, which would be the flight I am ticketed to be on. And I do not need to do anything? No, they have it taken care of. They reassured me, despite everything else. Then they told me that the new flight I was booked for was cancelled. A few minutes later, they realized that it was the day's before that was cancelled, not mine.

0100 [2100 EST]
I find my way to the benches, and there is little more. The one store that was there is being closed down and there are no restaurants. The last meal I had was the in flight meal 11 hours ago. I pass a few hours reading amongst other things. The room is cold and the bench hard, and I need to be up at around in a few hours.

0845 [0345 EST]
Two hours or so of the worst sleep since hiking down from the summit of Mount Marcy in a 4 hour downpour, and I decide any more is fruitless. So I wake up and twiddle my thumbs and wait for the terminal to open. When I finally get through security for the fourth time of the day I can at last sit in a comfortable seat.

1100 [0600 EST]
The plane boards and leaves for the Midwest, for once smoothly.

1445 [0845 Central Time]
I arrive at O'Hare, and move towards baggage claim to see if they lived up to their end of the deal. 10 minutes, then 20, then 30 and I am alone with a sea of luggage with two other passengers who do not have their luggage.

1530 [0930 CT]
After wading through the lines I present the original baggage claim tag for the checked bag, and the lady behind the counter starts typing slowly on an ancient computer. And…the bag was never loaded on the plane. Nor would it be, as it was nowhere in the system to being processed.

1615 [1015 CT]
Finally, we come to find that the bag will be on a flight leaving LaGuardia at 1215 EST, so it will have to be shipped on arrival. Only, there are hundreds upon hundreds of other bags that need to be shipped, so it will take days. Sounds about right for the day.

1725 [1125 CT]

Finally, I am home. Exhausted, ravenously hungry, and in two day old clothes. It was an unforgettable end to a trip of a lifetime, and I am glad to have gotten here however long it took. 

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