To hell via Chicago

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

I just got back from a great conference in Dallas organised by the chaps on the Visual Communications programme at the University of North Texas. I’ll write more about that when my brain catches up with me – suffice to say I really enjoyed it and met some fantastic people.

But I thought I should share the hellish experience I had on the way back. I wrote this at Edinburgh Airport and haven’t had a chance to edit it – it was one of those ‘get it out of my head in one go’ things…
My thanks to American Airlines for making my journey so, erm, eventful.

I arrived at Dallas Fort Worth airport well before time on Sunday for the flight to Edinburgh via Chicago and Heathrow. When I got there I saw the flight was delayed by an hour (thunderstorms in Chicago – the news was full of floods in Louisiana and other states, quite bad), but as this was the flight to Heathrow anyway it didn’t matter. The poor buggers going to Brussels were given a choice: go to Chicago and hope, go to Chicago and stay over, or stay in Dallas.
For me it was just a case of getting to Chicago and waiting till they’d refuelled.
So the flight to Chicago is packed, mainly with domestic flyers. I’m sat next to a young lad who clearly hasn’t flown before as he asks me all sorts of questions, like I’m the Ancient Mariner or something. He’s going to Jordan.

As the flight lands in Chicago, the pilot tells those of us going to Heathrow that we need to go to gate L8 and get a plane from there instead. So a few of us confirm what we’ve heard and, not knowing what time it’s going (the information screen just, very helpfully, says ‘on time’) we all leg it to L8 which is about half a mile away in the same terminal. You have to go through all the shops and things and step over people sitting down on the floor using their laptops or calling on their phones.
Eventually I get there and discover the flight to Heathrow isn’t going until 6pm, so an hour to kill. So I kill it – having gone to the desk to check this is the right flight. It is.

Come 6pm the flight just starts to board and as the guy at Dallas helpfully moved me forwards in the plane I’m one of the last groups to be called forward. I give the woman my boarding pass, she swipes it and… a red light flashes.
“You’re not on this flight you need to be on AA86” she says. That’s the flight I was on before, the one they told us to change. She shouts to another woman “is AA86 gone?” They’re still boarding, apparently. “You’d better run”.

So I run. It’s half a mile at least and everyone’s really slow and really fat and I’ve got my laptop bag on and my leg’s sore from a cramp that morning, and it’s hot hot hot.
I don’t think I’m going to make it but I run to the desk and see the words ‘Heathrow boarding” and throw myself in front of them, breathless. “Calm down sir, you’re fine” says one of the staff there. I don’t feel fine, I tell her, through gasps.

She scans my pass and checks me in and I go to join everybody else in the departure lounge. I don’t see any of the other people from the earlier flight and I wonder what happened to them.
There’s another flight letting people on and an attendant goes up to the girl and says ‘all done, let’s go’ and they both step on to the plane and I watch the bridge retract, leaving the plane alone on the tarmac. By now I’m beginning to catch my breath and I look around and see another passenger looking at the screen I’d seen earlier. “7.45” she says and I assume this is when my flight is going, which is too late for my connection to Edinburgh. So I get up to go to the desk to check I can make a later flight at Heathrow and I see the words “Heathrow: Boarded”. I look back to the window and I realise: that’s my fucking plane! And it’s going!

There are two passengers talking to a lone attendant at the desk and a religious-looking guy behind him. I decide not to be British and interrupt: “Excuse me, that’s my flight! I’m not in it!” I’m staying calm inwardly but screaming like a madman externally.
“Didn’t you hear the call?” she says. There was no call, I say. I was waiting for the call. In Britain if you check in but don’t get on the flight they shout your name from the rooftops. “I can’t get you on the flight, sir, there’s nothing I can do.”
“But my bag’s on there,” I say, at which point she thinks. The thing that surprises me about the US and Chicago in particular: the security is tight. At DFW I had to go through a body scanner that puffed compressed air at me and made some grinding noises, which interestingly had no one staffing it, so I suspect it was just some bicycle pumps and an old washing machine.
And there are no calls. At Chicago the only calls I heard were that members of the military service were welcome in the smoking area (which is public, so it’s hardly a perk) and that the current threat level is amber. And I think that’s what’s got her concerned so I press the issue: “How can the plane leave with my bag on it? Surely that’s a security risk?” One thing I know after Lockerbie is that they introduced rules that say baggage that’s checked in by a passenger can’t go if the passenger isn’t on the plane. Which is one of the reasons they make all those calls for “Passenger X” to get out of the bar or the duty free shop and get to the gate before they have to go through all the bags to get theirs off.
This hadn’t happened here, and they hadn’t even done a head count: 500 passengers checked in, only 499 on the plane equals, as Dickens might have said, a might cock up.

She took my name and disappeared for a minute, then came back with a man. “You’ll have to get the bridge back out there” she told him and he rushed me to the door. I stopped to gather my stuff, dropping bits everywhere.
Now you know that scene in Star Wars where Luke and Leia are running from Stormtroopers and they come to a retracted bridge? Luke nearly falls in but Leia pulls him back.
Well this was very nearly what happened as I ran after the little fat man but didn’t notice that he sidestepped into a control booth while I clattered towards the open door leading to the tarmac. He started moving the bridge while I steadied myself. Eventually it hit the plane and he, get this, *knocked* on the door! Like he was just popping round for a cup of sugar. God knows what they were thinking inside but after a few seconds the door opened and I fell inside, completely unable to speak, dropping things everywhere. The attendants smiled at me and asked for my boarding pass – but I’d lost it! I only had the ones for the first and last leg of the journey, not this one! “I’m in seat 23H” I said, remembering it from the ticket.
“I trust you” said the head woman – you trust me? It’s bloody amber alert out there and you TRUST me??
Suits me, I thought, and went to get to my seat, still dropping then picking things up.

I get to my seat and I’m sat next to a young woman who smiles at me like “bugger I thought I was going to be sitting on my own” but then an attendant comes up to me and says “that row’s free” and points to the back row in the front cabin, lots of lovely seats all unoccupied except for one American woman who spreads herself over three of them and says “they’re mine” while miming sleep. Fine, I think, and sit down, still sweating from the half mile jog.
After this the flight seems to go smoothly except there’s a screaming baby up the front and across the aisle from me there are four American lads who don’t know the meaning of the words ‘quiet whisper’ who talk and laugh all the way through the flight. The woman next to me knows them (turns out she’s their teacher) and tells them twice to be quiet so others can sleep, which they are for about five minutes. At about 4am UK time I tell them to shut up too and that works for about three minutes. Bastards.

The flight makes up time and we land an hour late. I notice my connection to Edinburgh is actually half an hour later than I thought so I have time to make it. I rush off the plane to get the bus to Terminal 5 (third visit now, still don’t see what the fuss is about) and then through security, which is held up, as last time, by a lack of trays to put stuff in. Unlike last time I don’t have to hold a random baby while his mother folds up the push chair, but I do worry about the large old American lady who’s puffing away behind me while telling the staff she can’t go through the metal detector because she has a pacemaker.
I get through all that and rush to the gate… and the plane’s delayed anyway. Of course.

On the flight to Edinburgh I find I’m sat next to a compulsive throat clearer. But not just a normal bit of throat clearance – he makes a meal of it (well, not quite literally) getting a good run-up to it. Every few minutes. For the full 55 minutes of the journey plus the 20 minutes sitting on the tarmac. But at least I made my flight – I’m going to be on time getting back home despite everything!

The flight lands (during the flight the staff try to wheel the breakfast trolley up the aisle while the plane’s still ascending and all the meals slide out on to the floor, but as I got mine I don’t chalk that up as a personal event in teh catalogue of disasters) and we all go to belt 6 to get our bags. Now I remember joking with the guy at DFW as my bag disappeared behind him. “Will it get transferred all the way to Edinburgh?” I asked him. “It should” he said, “but this is an airline”. I watched it go off fearing I’d never see it again and wondering if I’d been insured for the trip.
Belt 6 goes round and bags appear. Last time I did this the first thing that appeared was a suitcase handle. Just the handle, with the airline luggage tag attached to it. No suitcase. Poor bugger, I thought and, judging from everyone else’s faces they were thinking the same too.

The belt went round. More bags. More bags. Then not so many bags. Then just a couple. Then more bags! But this was the next flight. Eventually I gave in and went to the baggage office.
“Was there any problem with the flight?” the guy asked me. “Any delays?” I wanted to tell him the full story but I thought it might get in the way of any film rights I could exploit, so I just murmured something about delays in Chicago. He typed something in to his computer. “It’s on the next flight” he said, “should be here at 12.30. Do you want us to send it on?” When he learned where I lived he said it wouldn’t arrive with me till tomorrow so I said I’d wait the 90 minutes. “You sure?” he said. “Oh yes” I said and then I went to have a little cry but couldn’t. So I sat down with a cup of tea (a real one! Yes!) and typed this.
I’m going to be writing a brief letter to American Airlines soon to suggest that their boarding procedures might need a little bit of tightening up. And maybe a few useful announcements in the airport instead of telling us we’re good to smoke if we’re soldiers or that we need to keep our baggage with us at all times. I’m beginning to think I learned that particular lesson.

7 comments on “To hell via Chicago

  1. Vikki Miller says:

    FLying is hellish innit. Before this year i’ve never had problems with it. Since, it’s turned into a nightmare. Please tell me your bag came 90 minutes later. What on earth was it doing tagging behind. Silly bag. I can’t believe there was no boarding announcements and that they were going to let your bag fly and not you. that’s madness. I swear. American Airlines are usually alright as well.Have you ever noticed that the American air hostesses are actually the nicest people in the world, then the British ones are actually over make-uped and highly irritating.What a story though. Seriously.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Oh yeah – the bag wasn’t on the next flight either so I held back my tears (all my new Apple toys were in there and I didn’t know if I was insured) and went back to the baggage desk. Turned out the couriers had taken it off the plane thinking they had to get it sent out to me!So I had my bag and got on the bus to Haymarket, thinking I could make the next train. I got there with six minutes to spare, got off the bus and… realised I’d left a bag on it!I ran after the bus and caught up with it at the lights. I banged on the door but the driver ignored me, then eventually pointed to the next stop up the road. I ran with my heavy suitcase trundling behind and managed to catch him. Got the bag and ran to the station with a few minutes to spare.I was parched and went to the coffee booth but she wouldn’t accept Maestro. Then I found a fiver but she didn’t have any water!So I got some juice instead, got on the train (which reeked of BO which I assumed was mine but wasn’t) and that was it. On my way home!

  3. Jonathan says:

    The hostesses were on the whole nice but I found it odd that only the transatlantic ones could make tea. On the domestic leg I just got a cup of hot water and a tea bag and some ‘creamer’ (whatever the hell that stuff is).BA has a better in-flight entertainment system (you don’t have to wait till each programme starts) and the meals are better which I know isn’t saying much…

  4. Michele Wong says:

    wow!! I’m glad you got all of your apple toys seeing how the trip to the apple store was a harsh one as well. I think that you were just meant to stay in Texas to teach

  5. Jonathan says:

    Give me an air conditioner and a kettle and I’m there!Actually I might just take a leaf out of the Mayor’s book and just move the whole university to where <>I<> live!I think I’d miss the rain…

  6. Michele Wong says:

    air conditioner and kettle are waiting for you…and I am making some phone calls to have it rain 3 times a week as soon as you get there. I might get it to rain 4 times…no promise

  7. Qin says:

    poor you…i’ve missed plenty of trains all over the world… not a plane yet, may try it next time 😉

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