Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Planes, Marines & Automobiles

I've had some adventures traveling before. This past weekend topped them all. I'm including the full story here, so that those who have heard abbreviated versions can enjoy the full tale. I'll do my best not to embellish (because really, none is needed) and recreate relevant conversations as best as possible. So, here it is, the story of how I got home last weekend:

I had an 11 a.m. interview in St. Paul on Friday morning. To get there I was taking a 6 p.m. flight from D.C. to Milwaukee, with a connection to Minneapolis/St. Paul leaving Milwaukee at 8, arriving at MSP around 9. When I arrived at National Airport around 4:30 my first flight had already been delayed to the point at which I would not be catching my connection. No biggie, I thought, I bought an early enough flight just in case something like this would happen. I walked up to the Air Tran Airlines counter to try to get myself scheduled on a different connection out of Milwaukee.

"The earliest we can have you there is 4:30 tomorrow afternoon," the lady said.
"What? But I have an interview at 11 a.m. I need to be there."
"There's a 9 a.m. from Milwaukee, and that gets in at 10:40, but it's totally booked. Sorry."
"You don't have any other flights to Minnesota?"
"Well, how about going through other airports? I'll fly through Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, wherever, just get me there tonight. Please." I was willing to try anything.
"Sorry sir, we don't have any other openings."
"You aren't going to check?"
"It's not our fault sir, so we can't do anything for you."
"It's because of air traffic control. The delay is because of them, not us. We can't change your ticket. You can take the flight at 3 tomorrow."
"No. I can't. I have an interview. At 11. What about getting me a ticket on one of your partner airlines. I know you can do that. Airlines have done that for me before."
"Again sir, because air traffic control delayed the flight there is nothing I can do."

At this point, I was pretty annoyed. I said something to the effect of, "please don't tell me that you "can't" do what you very well could, please be more accurate and say that you "won't" or "don't" help your passengers.

I asked again what time we would be getting to Milwaukee - we were scheduled now to get in around 8:30 - and then I headed for the other ticket counters in the area. First I hit up Northwest, asking how much it would be to get from Milwaukee to MSP that night. $610 was the answer. Ugh. Then I checked Midwest.

"What's the latest flight from Milwaukee to Minneapolis tonight?" I asked.
"How much?"
"$160," she answered.
"Can you put me on that plane please?"
"No problem."
"Thank you so much."

So I spent $160 bucks on a second flight from Milwaukee to MSP, but I figured I was in the clear. Even if our flight from D.C. was delayed another hour or more I still had time. I made my way through security, sat back and listened to some music while I waited for the flight. After a while the flight crew showed up, and did pretty much the same. I ended up chatting with one of the pilots for a while. He said he'd been told the delay was because of the weather in D.C., though the day had been pretty nice with the exception of a 20 minute storm three hours earlier.

Eventually we got on the plane. Just as we were pulling away from the gate a new front of weather moved in. This storm was a doozy. We sat on the tarmac for an hour; no planes were taking off or landing. Finally the pilot came on and said that we'd been cleared for take off, and we were 12th in line. An hour late, but I figured I still had an hour to catch my flight once we landed in Milwaukee.

Only that's when things got bad. The pilot fired up the engines to pull into the line of departing flights but the plane didn't move. Eventually he came on the intercom to let us all know that we were stuck in a "manhole or some sort of hole in the tarmac, and we'd need a tug to push us out." 50 minutes left to catch my new flight out of Milwaukee.

Eventually the tug made it over to us and gave us a push. 35 minutes left.

The engines roared again, but the plane still didn't move. "Ladies and Gentlemen," said the pilot, "it appears the problem wasn't with the tarmac. It seems our brakes are sticking, and we can't move. We're going to get maintenance over here to take a look. 15 minutes left.

A little while later the pilot got back on the intercom, "maintenance needs to take a closer look. We're going to have to pull back to the gate, so we'll wait for the tug to take us back." 0 minutes.

The tug showed up and pulled us back. -15 minutes.

We're told to depart the plane, and we walk back into the airport -30 minutes.

The same ticketing agent from before is standing at the gate. She instructs us all to get into line and they'll help us one by one to get us to our final destinations. I finally get up to the lady about a half hour later. -1 hour.

"Maybe this time she'll be helpful," I think. I'm deluded. Missing not one, but two, flights out of Milwaukee has given me some sort of delirium. I step up the lady. As I do so I hear her turn to a co-worker and say, "People are so stupid. They just don't plan for delays." Yeah. Guess how helpful she was? Not at all. They told me they'd get me to Milwaukee at some point that night, once the plane was fixed, and then reconfirmed me for the 3:00 p.m. to MSP, arriving 5 and a half hours after my interview. They did put me on the standby list for the one arriving at 10:40.

I figured that if I did get on the 10:40 arrival I could maybe call my interviewer and push back the time slot a little. It didn't look good for getting onto that flight, but it was worth a shot. I also decided I would call Midwest again, to see what they had. There was one that got in around noon. Again, I figured that it would be better than getting in at 4:30, as it would still allow me to reschedule my interview. It cost $100 to reschedule the flight I was currently missing from Milwaukee to Minneapolis. So, all told, I spent $260 on an extra flight because Air Tran couldn't get me to my destination in a timely fashion.

Finally, around 11, they got the plane fixed. They pulled away from the gate to give it a test run, made it about 5 feet, and then announced to all of us that it was still broken and that we'd have to wait another hour for a flight from Atlanta to come in, and then we could take that plane.

Meanwhile, all of the passengers were waiting in a closed airport. National is not a huge airport, and we were in the tiniest terminal. It doesn't even have vending machines, and all 3 of the little shops were shut down so you couldn't even get a bottle of water. I had eaten at noon, and then had a muffin around 6, but that was all I'd had that day. Here we were, nearly 12 hours later, and it was pretty obvious that lots of people were in similar positions. There were several elderly persons who were having a tough time, and my heart really went out to a mom who was traveling alone with a 9-month-old. I offered her any help I could, and she took me up on it, having me keep an eye on her stuff while she saw to her kid for a while. All of the passengers were really nice to each other; lots of conversations between strangers were breaking out and people were pitching in with whatever anyone else needed.

Too bad Air Tran wasn't being equally helpful. They did give us all a future round trip ticket (which I think they might have been required by law to do), but a lot of people had spent money on other flights or different arrangements, or were working to do so. Some people asked about hotel rooms once they got to Milwaukee, since some of the flights left the next evening. Finally, after a number of people had asked, the ticket agent got on the loudspeaker to announce that "We're being more than generous by giving you a free round trip ticket. We will not give you anything else. If you want a hotel room, or to rent a car, or you bought another ticket, that's not our fault and we will not pay for it. You're already getting a ticket, and that's more than enough."

Needless to say, I will be calling Air Tran's customer service line this week.

I ended up meeting a Marine who lives and works in the same neighborhood that I do, and who was also heading to Minnesota. He had a wedding to get to early Friday evening. He'd actually bought the same Midwest ticket that I had, as a backup, when Air Tran announced their first delay. We really hit it off. Eventually we decided that once we got to Milwaukee we would just rent a car and drive the 6 hours to Minneapolis.

There was, of course, a problem with that. When we got into Milwaukee it was going to be at least 1 a.m., and no rental places would be open. Drat. The Marine had been calling his brother throughout the night, since his brother was supposed to pick him up in Minnesota. He mentioned the rental plan, and the brother - a twenty-something who owns his own contracting business - decided that he would drive out to Milwaukee to pick up the Marine. The Marine in turn offered me a ride (of course checking with his Contractor brother), and I accepted, figuring I could always back out once we got to Milwaukee.

The plane from Atlanta finally landed (late, of course), and we took off around 1 a.m., arriving in Milwaukee around 2 a.m. (we gained an hour going from East to Central time). Landing, the Marine and I walked out towards the main part of the Milwaukee airport, looking for a place to crash for a couple hours, or get some coffee, or anything. Fortunately there was a small stand open all night, and they had sandwiches and salads and such.

"Let me buy you something to eat," I offered.
"Sure, sounds good," said the Marine.
We each grabbed a couple items and went to check out. As she was ringing us up the clerk noticed the insignia on the Marine's bag and asked if we were military. "I'm not, but he is," I said.
"That's ok, you're together. I'll give you the military discount."
"Even though I'm paying?" I asked.
20% off! First time in my life I've ever gotten a military discount!

We ate and found some chairs to catch a rest in. His brother (and now his dad as well) were on their way, and would be there around 4 or 4:30. Just before they were to arrive I went to the bathroom to clean up, since it looked like I'd have just enough time to get to the interview.

I took my suit out of my suitcase, pondering the amazing packing job my wife had done. I asked her to put my suit in for me, just in case I didn't have time to get it pressed (the plan was to take it to Men's Warehouse for their free pressing service (which I use all the time when I travel, and absolutely love. Seriously, buy your suits at Men's Warehouse.), but if that didn't work, I didn't want to be too wrinkled.). There were some creases, and I did my best to get those out using the hot air blow dryers in the bathroom. It didn't work too well.

I brushed, got dressed, and headed back to find the Marine. After almost no time the Contractor and his did showed up. It was the moment of no return, and I decided to chance the ride with the strangers. As we were walking to the car the Marine turned to me.

"Oh yeah," he said, "this might be awkward. Or maybe not. But you should know, my dad is deaf."
"No problem," I said. It really didn't matter to me.

Or at least it didn't matter until the Deaf Man did about half of the driving. I don't know how much being deaf affects a person's driving. He wasn't really a good driver, but that probably had less to do with him not hearing the sounds from the road and more to do with the fact that he was carrying on conversations in ASL while driving.

The Contractor wasn't a much better driver. Though he was very fast. And actually pretty skilled at swerving between semis. We made a nearly six hour drive in five. I did my best to sleep along the way, since I hadn't been able to sleep on the plane. I managed about 3 hours. I'd had a cold that was getting better before this whole experience, but by the time we got to Minnesota I was back to a severe cough. Ugh.

The Marine, the Contractor, and the Deaf Guy (sounds like a joke, right?) were nice enough to drop me off at my brother's. I had just enough time to shower and get dressed again before he took me over to the interview.

The interviewer knew I was coming from D.C., and the first question she asked was whether I'd had a good trip. I gave her an abbreviated version, but even then I think she got the impression that I really wanted the job. After all, I bought two different plane tickets, missed two connecting flights, stayed up all night, bought a man a meal, got dressed in a bathroom, and made a six hour drive with three total strangers all just to get to the interview.

I'll let you know how it goes.

I may be limping
But I'm coming home


Quinn said...

Wow. "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" comes to mind, but that's an incredible story. I've had horrible delays at Dulles before, but yours takes the cake.

joel. said...

That was...phenomenal. I'm pretty sure I told you the story about Andy, my aunt, and me trying to get back from Europe (5 planes, 30 hours, one calendar day), but this takes the cake. Easily.

Justin Gannon said...

This travel story has the potential to attain "EPIC WIN" status.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Wait, has the potential? Isn't it either an Epic Win or not? What does it need to actually reach that status?

Jeff said...

Penguins. It must have penguins.

brendan said...

and of course going to milwaukee from the east.... you must have been asleep all day and awake all night, hungry at 4, ready for the local news at 5.

joel. said...

And reset your watch! I know how much you hate to reset your watch.

Justin said...

It's not complete. You left it at a cliff hanger without any resolution.