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
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
"But it was your fault that we are not on the flight"
"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
"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
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.
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.
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.
After this you may want to read this small article on Travel Insurance