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Flying to Greece
The Christmas in Athens That Wasn't

by Matt Barrett

The Scary Flight

Christmas Card from GreeceIt's Christmas day and I am in the first seat of my Delta Connection flight to Kennedy airport in New York and I think I am going to die. Even worse I am not going to make my connection for my flight to Athens and tomorrow night I won't be sitting in the Rebecca Cafe, hiding from my family in a place so smokey only the suicidal or oblivious would set foot in it. The pilot has just given his departure speech, but with a twist.

"Welcome aboard Delta Flight 6347 from Raleigh-Durham to Kennedy Airport operated by Atlantic Coast Airways. The weather is clear in Raleigh. In New York it is completely the opposite. We are flying into a blizzard with 40 MPH winds and lots of snow with visability less than a mile. We will be taking off in a few moments and it will be a little bumpy. Then as we get to 28,000 feet it should be a smooth ride until we begin making our descent in the New York area. At that point there will be a lot of turbulance and we want you to be prepared. But we will do our best to get you to New York as quickly and safely as possible and that will be our Christmas present to you."

As quickly and safely as possible!?! This is the kind of speech the pilot gives the crew of the B-52 when they are flying a dangerous mission over enemy territory and there is a chance they may not come back alive. Only in the case of war he would have given the speech before they got on the plane and then asked for volunteers. Why didn't they say all this at the departure gate before we got on the plane? My 'Christmas present' from a pilot I don't even know is that I get to live? My desire is to ask them to stop the plane and let me off, but the idea of everyone on the right side of the aircraft watching me through the windows with hatred in their eyes as the ground crew go through the bags trying to find mine is worse than the thought of death. I choose death over humiliation nine out of ten times.

OK, we were warned. We saw on TV that a massive snowstorm was bearing down on the Northeast, the same storm that had dumped several inches of rain on us all day yesterday. But somehow it seemed that we would slip in and out of New York before it hit or between the snowflakes. At the gate there were two Delta flights to New York, ours and one to Laguardia which was supposed to leave twenty minutes before ours but was still waiting to be boarded. The North Carolina Tarheels Basketball team was on that flight. Matt Dougherty and the assistant coaches were nervously looking at the weather report on CNN while the players watched movies on portable DVDs. Why were they staying and we were flying into what was looking like the Perfect Snow Storm? Maybe the Tarheels were considered too valuable a cargo to risk. A crash is one thing but a crash involving one of the most beloved basketball teams in America on their way to play a tournament at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day would also be the end of Delta. So while I am here wrestling with my mortality the Tar Heel coaches are already on the phone trying to find a bus that will take them to New York City on Christmas Day.

I am not a good flyer. I am not a particularly bad one. I don't panic and scream, and in bad situations I can quietly pray while others are watching the movie, reading or sleeping, unaware of the dangers I am sensing. On this flight I am starting to accept the possibility that I may die or even worse that the plane is sheared in half a couple rows behind me and my wife Andrea and my daughter Amarandi are among the victims and I become part of some Christmas miracle story in People Magazine. I have enough Kava-Kava in me to relax a small elephant and I would hate to think of my mental state without it. I am listening to every word the cabin attendant is saying, hoping for a sign that everything is OK and flying a 30 passenger jet into a blizzard is all in a days work. I am instantly rewarded.

"I'm from Northern Michigan and our crew is based out of Detroit so snow is not a big deal for us. It is thunderstorms that scare me." He is telling the cute girl in the front row and I am temporarily relieved. I had been letting my fears take hold of me and expecting the worse. The attendant pulls out some cue-cards and begins reading the preflight information that anyone who has flown more than three times knows by heart. "......if there is a loss of cabin pressure an oxygen mask will fall from the panel above you..." (He uses my panel as an example and the mask is dangling two inches from my face, the closest I have ever been to one). "....should we have to make an emergency landing on water your seat cushions can be used as a flotation device..." I look back at Amarandi. That is our little joke because any kid knows you can't land on water because water is not land. They may as well say "If we have to land on water most, if not all of you are going to die because water is not land and a plane is not a boat." But it is nice to know that the cushions will float even if we don't. At least the rescuers will know where to look for us.

The attendant finishes his speech and sighs in relief. "I don't have it down yet. I have only been flying for a month".

A MONTH?! The experienced person that I am counting on to reassure me and convince myself that everything is OK has fewer hours in the air than my 5 year old daughter! My terror begins to scratch and claw its way through the Kava-Kava to the surface of my mind and then I am imagining Jesus, his arms wrapped around me and a consoling smile on his face that tells me that everything is fine, regardless of what happens for whether we live or die now or later in the end it is all the same and there is only love. But as I am slipping into a state of inner peace I catch him looking nervously at the sky and at the attendant and then he says to me "I wonder how much experience the pilots have?"

The scariest thing is that we have not even left the ground yet. In fact we have not left the gate because one of the other planes that has been delayed is blocking us in and we have to wait for him to get out of the way before we can make our way to the runway. Finally we are moving and I know that this is the point of no return so I sit back and try to relax and enjoy the flight. Once we are rolling we don't even stop to wait at the top of the runway, we just keep going faster until we are in the air. North Carolina looks so beautiful from above with lots of pine trees and neighborhoods surrounding lakes and ponds. But my eyes are fastened on a mass of clouds to the Northeast of us and as we make the turn are headed right into.

When we reach cruising altitude the captain turns off the seatbelt sign and we are allowed to move freely around the cabin, as freely as you can in an aisle the size of the one on your school bus. In fact the small regional jets that fly from RDU are more like buses than say an Airbus which is more like a big boat with 90% of the people crammed into steerage. When you think about it flying, economy is as close as you can get to the early days of immigration or even the slave ships where people were packed in so tightly that they had to pass the bodies overhead when they died or else just leave them standing in place, supported by everyone else. There is nothing more uncomfortable than being crammed into economy seats on a ten hour flight, waiting for the turbulence to stop so the cabin attendants can come and get your tray with what is left of the horrible meal that you had been looking foreword to simply because there is nothing else to look foreword to except landing and never flying again. This is how I feel when I fly, and I cross the ocean to Greece several times a year, each journey being my last. But this small flight to New York might not be just my last flight, it could be my last anything, and as we fly past Washington I decline the attendant's offer of what could be my last small bag of pretzels because they have too many carbs, as if it matters if you are fat when you are dead.

Gradually I become acclimated to the situation. I go back and visit Andrea and Amarandi who seem to be taking the whole experience rather well. I use the toilet just to make sure that when they dig our bodies out of the snow mine is not the one that smells like urine. I return to my seat and begin reading Gore Vidal's book of essays that call the Bush administration a Junta, preparing to start the Third World War, getting us all killed so his friends can grab Iraq's oil just as they liberated Afghanistan so they could build the gas pipeline that the Taliban would not allow them to. I begin to feel like things were not so great down there on earth and suspended in the air between the killer snowstorm and the boredom of the holidays in North Carolina is not such a bad place to be. Inevitably we will have to land and face the storm but for now I am quite content to look out my little window into the darkness. It also seems like we have been in the air for a long time. I hear the intercom crackle. " Kennedy airport is being pummeled (he adds emphasis to this word) and no flights can get in and none can get out." (At least half the news is good. Even if we can't get to JFK the flight to Athens can't leave.) "We have been in a holding pattern over Atlantic City for the last twenty minutes and now we are going to fly to Dulles Airport in Washington and get some fuel and see what they want to do with us."

No Fuel? What if we can't land at Dulles? What if there is a big 747 airliner with hundreds of passengers also without fuel that has to land and they have to choose between them and our little plane? As we descend into the clouds and the southern edge of the storm the plane is shaking and I can see the snow in its lights. The sound of the engines seem desperate, like we are on empty and counting on momentum to get us to the runway or the Capital Mall if some F-16 does not shoot us down for flying into a restricted area too close to George Bush finishing Christmas dinner in the White House. I could hear my friends: "I know Matt was against the war but to hijack a plane and try to crash it into the Whitehouse? That's a little extreme even for him." I could picture the wheels of power spinning the story so that we were no longer a small regional flight from RDU full of people who were trying to make their connections to Europe, but a jet full of terrorists trying to make a spectacular attack on the White House on Christmas day. The F-16 pilot becomes a national hero. More money for homeland security and defense and George Bush's poll numbers jump 10 percentage points. Meanwhile George the Famous Taxi Driver is waiting at the airport in Athens wondering why I have not gotten off the flight and not realizing that my delay and the attack on the President were somehow related.

The Safe Landing of the Scary Flight

Suddenly the clouds part and I can see the lights of Washington below. The friendly sound of the landing gear relaxes me for a moment but every so often a gust of wind blows the plane sideways and the lights below all change their position. How are we supposed to land sideways? We are at the edge of the airport and the plane's wheels touch the runway as we enter that state between actually being in the air and safely on the ground where you can almost feel the pilot fighting the controls to keep the plane facing straight ahead while trying to go from 200 MPH to Zero in five seconds. When you fly to Greece this is when everyone on the plane claps as if by applauding that means the show is over and there can be no mishaps between the moment the wheels touch the ground and you get to the gate. Nobody is clapping for this landing but as we slow down I come to the realization that I am not going to die. At least not on this flight. I ask the attendant if we are going to get off the plane, knowing that if the answer is yes that I have no intention of getting back on and that if the answer is no I am getting off anyway. They can send myluggage to Greece. It's just Christmas gifts.

The plane taxis to the part of the airport so remote that it is probably where they park hijacked jets when they are negotiating the release of the hostages, and we sit next to a big Aeroflot jet from Russia. Our Captain gets on the intercom and tells us we are going to wait here for awhile until there is room at the gate since we are not the only flight that has been diverted to Dulles. The door to the Captain's cabin opens and the co-pilot looks out at the line for the toilets and shakes his head. "Give the passengers anything they want" he tells the flight attendant who goes to the back and comes back with a bag of beer and wine which he hands to anyone who wants one. I decline. I don't want to allow myself anything until I know what the next step is. Anyway a feeling of happiness has spread through my body and just being on the ground is intoxicating enough for me. I feel like I could sit on the plane and read about Iraq for the next ten hours and not care.

Eventually we are moved to a more populated area of the tarmac and a giant airport bus comes to get us and bring us to the terminal. The bus is enormous with comfortable seats facing the aisles and lots of standing room. Why can't they make jets like this? We are emptied into the terminal and told by the crew to find the Delta representatives in their red jackets and they will tell us what to do next. Of course being Christmas day there are not a large number of red jackets to be found and we make our way to the Delta ticket counter and get in line without having seen even one.

Having spent a lot of time in airports I am a pretty good judge of lines. I can walk into a terminal and know if I have come at the right time, too late, or if I should not have bothered to come at all. This line looked OK. We were among the first 30 people and as more diverted planes unloaded (there were 27 in all) the line was growing to Tower Air proportions, measured in hundreds of yards rather than number of people. This line defies my estimations. We stand for two hours and move about 10 places. Everyone who gets to the counter is taking a half an hour at least and because it is Christmas there are only three ticket people and one old guy in a red jacket whose voice is becoming less audible by the minute as he was answers the same questions over and over. The answer is always "I don't know. Please get in line and the Delta employee at the counter will be able to help you."

Amarandi is enjoying this. There are a large number of children. One is playing the violin. Three little sisters under the age of 7 have all their dolls on the floor at their pregnant mother's feet while she waits her turn in line. Amarandi becomes babysitter for a two year old named Tom who was on his way to Boston on our flight. There are TV cameras and people being interviewed. I am tempted to leave the line and grab our bags and find our way somewhere or anywhere on our own. But after a harrowing flight a two hour waiting line is a good place to make friends and we all have something in common. None of us had any intention of being in Washington DC for Christmas. We grow more excited as we get closer and closer to the counter.

Finally it is our turn. We give the woman our tickets and explain that we are on our way to Athens. She looks at her computer and punches in lots of letters and numbers and after about ten minutes asks us if we would like to fly from Dulles to Paris on United the next day at 5pm and then two hours later fly to Athens on Air France. That sounds just great to me but knowing what I know about airlines, which is that their first offer is usually what is easiest or cheaper for them and not what is best for you, I ask for other options (like maybe a first class seat on the Concorde leaving in twenty minutes). Another option is Virgin to Gatwick and changing planes there but we would have to sit in the London airport for five hours. The United flight is fine with us. She issues the tickets and gives us a voucher to stay in the Airport Hyatt Hotel.

Outside it is bitter cold and windy. We wait in line for the shuttle bus until I realize that if anyone bumps into my ears they will shatter and fall off in hundreds of un-retrievable pieces, so we get on line to grab a taxi instead. Our driver is from Lebanon and has been going back and forth to the Hyatt all night because of the diversions. He is having a good night. Better than we are anyway.

When we get to the Hyatt there is another line of about 50 people waiting for us, this one at the check-in desk. This line is a much happier one. People have gone to the bar and gotten drinks so it is more like a long skinny cocktail party. Many of the people are from a Quantas flight from Australia to New York who had been flying a lot longer than us when they ran into the storm. Nobody is unhappy even though we are all refugees. I go to the bar while Andrea saves our place in line. I order a red wine for her, a water for Amarandi who is learning to play pool from a couple from upstate New York, and after thinking about it for ten minutes a Makers Mark on the rocks for myself, even though I have never ordered it before. But what does one order when he is a refugee who has just come from a near-death experience? I assume most people drink what they always drink whatever the circumstances are. I try to drink what the situation requires. This was a celebratory one but not as much as New Years or a wedding, so champagne is inappropriate. The beers are big but I know that after the first couple swigs it loses 80% of it's pleasure and it is only rarely that the actual sensation of drinking a beer lives up to the desire and that is usually when it is ninety-five degrees outside or you have just unloaded a moving van or mowed the lawn. The perfect drink for surviving a tumultuous flight and ending up in a luxury hotel on Christmas night is whatever my father would have ordered. I could not call him and ask because he was no longer alive so I had to guess. The Makers Mark tastes right and it makes me feel even better. We get our key to the room and then go to the restaurant which is being kept open even though they have run out of food for the buffet table and are defrosting and cooking anything they can find in the freezer. The restaurant is full as is the hotel which instead of the expected eighteen guests has over seven hundred, nearly all of whom are leaving for New York tomorrow at seven AM. Not us. We get to lounge around the hotel until three and then go catch our flight to Paris.

The Day After the Scary Flight

The next morning I go to the lobby. It is almost empty. There are just a handful of survivors left. Last night seems like it did not even happen. I get the Washington Post and a cup of the Starbucks coffee the hotel proudly advertises they have, and sit on a comfortable chair, talking occasionally to the last couple people from our flight who are flying to Atlanta to make their transatlantic connections. I feel a little cocky because they have to make this extra flight while we can just hang out and fly right from Dulles to Paris. Andrea comes downstairs and tells me that United won't let her order her special meal because they need twenty-four hours notice. That's understandable. After a couple hours I go back upstairs and call United just to make sure everything is OK. It isn't. They have no record of us at all. I call Delta and am put on hold for half an hour. Little by little the anxiety of last night comes back. The Delta agent gets back on the phone. "Yes you were booked on the United Flight but after the agent issued the ticket United sent us a message saying the seats were no longer available. We are trying to get an alternate flight for you. Can you please hold?" Another twenty minutes. "We can fly you to Montreal on Air Canada and then to Paris and then to Athens." I don't need a calculator to know this was going to be a long grueling trip for me (and my bad back).

"That is too long a trip" I tell her. "We have already had a rough flying experience and we want to finish the trip as painlessly as possible. Why can't you put us on first class on the United Flight if they have seats?"

"No. We are not going to pay for you to fly first class." she answers curtly.

"But it was your fault that we are not on the flight" I respond.

"It is not our fault. You were booked on the United Flight and then they sent us a message that they did not have the seats". She is a good soldier and defends Delta as if it is her country.

"Yes but they sent you a message and you did not bother to contact us so we could make other arrangements while we had time. In fact if I had not called United we would not have known we were not on the flight until we arrived at the airport and then we would have been back in that line again."

"That is not our fault either because nobody saw the message," says the Delta agent.

"So nobody saw the message that we were not on the flight until I called you and you looked at it right now? No buzzers went off? No warning lights? We were just rejected and nobody would know until we either show up at the airport or happen to call United?" This was true she admitted. "OK, what about the Virgin-Atlantic flight they told us about?" I don't really want it but am curious why it was not offered since it sounded a little easier than flying to Montreal. She puts me on hold again and comes back in 20 minutes.

"We can offer you a Delta flight to Cincinnati with a connection to London and then a flight from London to Athens." Another winner of an itinerary. I can spend the first week of my holiday recovering from my flight.

That is too much flying and airport time. I look at Andrea in frustration. What are we going to do? Should we bag the trip and go later? She doesn't know and wants me to make the decision. She always does this and then tells everyone how terrible I am at making decisions. The Delta rep is still on hold and I feel guilty even though she had me on hold for an hour and she has been waiting for my decision for about a minute. If only I could call her back but then I have to sit through all those ads they make you listen to when they keep you on hold and the terrible background music that is supposed to make you feel like flying is fun, when we all know it isanything but.

"Sir?" I can hear her voice even though the phone is muffled by the thick quilt on the bed. I break down and pick up the phone. "We can offer the Virgin-Atlantic flight" she says. I think about five hours of wandering around the airport before getting on another flight. It seems depressing. Maybe I am just freaked out from last night's flight and it is coloring my perception and everything will seem depressing until I am back at home with my cat and the guina pigs and my bed and my computer and Chris Matthews on MSNBC at nine talking about the war in Iraq. Andrea is no help. I am trying to weigh out all the pros and cons. Weather in Athens? Lousy but can always get better. Aunt Poppy? She really wants to see Amarandi but if she doesn't she will survive. Every reason has a nullifying anti-reason and vice-versa. I am going through an experience like the Dark Night of the Soul. I see nothing in my future but a long journey to nowhere, whatever I choose to do.

"I think we are going to cancel our trip. What is your refund policy?" I ask her.

"If you decide to cancel we will refund all of your trip except for the segment you have already flown." she says.

"So will you charge us for flying to New York, or Washington or for flying around Atlantic City?"  (How do they decide what to charge someone they were supposed to take to New York but only got them half way there?) Of course by their rules they can return us to our point of origin and we can start all over again or cancel the whole thing like it was just a bad dream and never happened. This sounds the least painful: Complete denial of reality. This trip never happened. It was all a bad dream. "OK. When is your flight to Raleigh-Durham?"

"Five oclock!" she says happily maybe feeling like she has done her job well and kept me in the Delta family at least for a few more hours. "You will fly to Atlanta and then connect for a flight to Raleigh-Durham, arriving at 10pm."

So at three I will get in a cab for the airport for a flight at five that will fly over Raleigh-Durham, traveling another hour or so south, landing in Atlanta, hang out in the Atlanta airport and catch a flight back the way I came but this time rather than fly over Raleigh-Durham we will actually land there and I can get my bags of Christmas presents and find a taxi and be home by eleven. That is an eight hour trip to go somewhere it should take twenty minutes to fly to and under five hours to drive to.

Wouldn't air travel be a lot easier if the airlines were friends with one another and could horse-trade with each other to make itineraries more convenient? What if Delta could call another carrier and say that if that airline will put the miserable family, who lost their holiday in Greece and just want to go home, on a direct flight to RDU then Delta will fly the three nuns who want to get to Atlanta directly there instead of them having to change planes in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Long Journey Home by Rental Car

Finding a rental car for a one way trip is not as easy as you would think. We call ten companies starting with #2 and ending just short of Rent-a-Wreck, each one acting like we must be pretty stupid to think that you can actually rent a car one way from Washington DC to Raleigh, North Carolina. Finally we go back to the beginning and call Hertz who give us the price and the brand of car without hesitation. I guess that is why they are #1. They give us a Ford Taurus for about eighty dollars and we throw our bags of clothes and gifts into the trunk and begin the long sad journey home. I am trying to talk philosophically about the experience with Andrea. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe there is a good reason we didn't go. Andrea just sits there in silence which I interpret as extreme judgment or else an inability to say anything that will make me feel better. She eventually admits she was apprehensive about the trip from the beginning but who knows if it was because something would have happened had we gone or it was because subconsciously she knew that the trip was going to be what it was: a scary flight to Washington to spend a night in a fancy hotel followed by a long boring ride home in the dark through the mountains of Virginia. Amarandi sleeps in the back seat and wakes up wanting to know how long til we get home. She only slept for half an hour and when she hears how much longer we have she is bummed. We try singing Christmas carols but nobody knows the words except me and I can't concentrate on the road, the lyrics and self-pity at the same time. All I keep hearing in my head is Perry Como singing There's No Place Like Home For The Holidays, the same song that has been playing in the back of my mind for the last three days like some kind of warning or premonition from my inner self, only now the song has a new meaning like I am being poked in the ribs hearing over and over again "I told you so, I told you so".

We are starving by the time we enter North Carolina but rather then stop in some quaint roadside cafe or restaurant in the town of Hillsborough we vote to go to the Flying Burrito, our favorite and most taverna-like restaurant and a place we go for dinner after every failed trip to the beach. A restaurant that like the bar in the television show Cheers, makes you realize that holidays are just a break so you can come back and appreciate the people and places you love. But it's closed.

The Moral

We arrive home from our adventure at nine that night, two hours earlier than Delta would have gotten us here (barring any delays or cancellations). The cat is asleep on the couch and looks at us momentarily and puts his head down. It's all normal to him, like we go out and come back every day with two hundred pounds of luggage, haggard and beaten. Andrea goes to greet the guinea pigs who hear our voices and think food. But who knows what they think? What I know is they don't have to make decisions. They don't have to lay in bed and realize that we would be arriving in London right about now and would only have another five hours of waiting in the airport and three hours of travel time before getting to Athens and being able to tell our friends about our big adventure which seems less like an adventure and more like a total failure. Yeah, it seems like maybe I made the wrong decision. It seems like there was something screwy with my whole decision-making process. It seems like that little flight almost to JFK from Raleigh put my whole system of thinking and reacting to the situation out of whack, or maybe it was already out of whack and that flight just made me aware of it. I suppose the smart thing would be to get on a plane again to anywhere just to show myself that it is OK and flying is not a big deal. I don't feel like that would take a major act of courage. I don't feel that the problem is that I am now afraid to fly. But what it would take to get me back on a plane is the desire to go somewhere and to be somewhere else besides here in my house in my room with my computer and the cat and the guinea pigs. Maybe the flight was not really the problem. Maybe the problem is that for Christmas and the holidays there is no better place to be then at home.

Maybe that is not even a problem.

Epilogue

It is now a week since our amazing journey to nowhere. Delta was kind enough to re-book us for the end of March when Amarandi has spring break and can travel again. They have made the experience disappear, like it never happened, no penalties, no hard feelings, as if they treated us to a free ride into a snowstorm and around Atlantic City and a night at a fancy hotel on the outskirts of Washington with a view of jets taking off over the parking-lot. All it cost me was the price of the rental car ($114), meals ($100), phone calls to Greece to cancel hotel reservations and taxi ($50) and the cab to the hotel ($20). Who wouldn't pay $300 for a Christmas like ours?

Of course I went to the Delta website and there is a form for comments, (which I assume means complaints), and told the entire story very much as it is written here, though I was a little more sympathetic to the problems of being a big airline at the mercy of weather and the whims of a demanding public and I left out some of the inner workings of my mind in regard to what I was actually thinking while speaking with the Delta agent on the phone. Just to make sure I also sent one to United.

I have not heard from either company yet. Will I get some kind of compensation? I believe we should. After all, I am a card carrying AMEX Delta Skymiles member as well as a friend to millions of travelers to Greece. Seems obvious to me that in such a situation you would disregard whatever the official policy is and admit you made a mistake and find a way to make it up. Three First-Class tickets to Athens would be nice especially since they should have done whatever they could have to get us on the United flight that they had issued the tickets for, even if it meant buying us all First-Class tickets. I realize the cheerful, smiley voices on the phone and in the airports are only the first line of defense for what is in reality a big heartless machine with only one purpose: Making money. Using skymiles and specials to buy loyalty is like using tax cuts to buy votes. It's nice to have the money and the miles but all it will take is one flight with an airline that really does care about the comfort and satisfaction of their passengers and I will switch my loyalty to someone who is trying to earn it rather than buy it.

In the meanwhile the only airlines that offer non-stop from New York to Athens are Delta and American so I am keeping my fingers crossed that Delta does the right thing and makes me their friend for life. But I stopped using my AMEX Delta Skymiles card just in case they don't.

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