So I have been travelling through the US — four cities in 8 days and another couple to get there and back. It has been gruelling and as those at home remarked, “It must be bad, you haven’t blogged about it!” Yep, I’ll usually blog any old thing but I have struggled to find words for the trip thusfar.
When it comes down to it, my issue is the relentnesses of the problems. Deal with any one of these on a single trip and it is no big deal. It is at the level of Jetstar passengers’ recent experiences (see also here). But deal with it day in and day out and one is tempted to feel like Luke Skywalker did on Dagoba; “what are we doing here?”
Let me start on a bright note. I am here in Charlotte (NC) having just come from Charlottesville (VA) on the first on-time flight of my trip. Of course, my next flight is delayed; hence, my time to jot down a few words.
But go back in time and the picture is not so pretty. The flight out of Melbourne was delayed and so I missed my connection to New York. Thankfully, and this is the difference I think between Qantas and Jetstar, Qantas had recognised this and re-booked people with connections on other flights (or at least me which is the important bit). Great customer service. That flight (on American) was, of course, delayed so I arrived in New York a mere 4 or 5 hours late. I was pretty hungry but was staying at a little hotel right next to Wall Street and on a Sunday there is nothing open. Miraculously, and I guess this is what Americans are good for, there was some diner open and they were happy to deliver a sandwitch to me even though the total must have been less than $10. There is no problem getting food in this country, I’ll tell you that.
I had one free day on this trip in New York and decided to spend it walking half the length of it — some 80 or more blocks. Had I known that lack of rest to come perhaps that was a tad foolish. But anyhow there is nothing like a visit to Trump Tower or the Apple store on 5th Avenue to remind you just where you are. It is also fun to be in a place where ‘Downtown’ actually means something because there is a ‘Midtown’ and an ‘Uptown.’
The next day was a seminar at NYU — nothing exciting to report there except the level of security to get into the Stern School. Everything short of a scanner. Then it was off to Ithaca (NY) the home of Cornell University. Ithaca is not a large town and it had an airport to match. My little flight there was a mere 60 minutes delayed (most of this sitting on a runway in NY where we were only number 17 in line! Enough time to get a good look at Trump’s jet just parked there) and I was in time to give my seminar. Again, nothing out of the ordinary.
It was the next day that things started to really fall apart. I was to travel from Ithaca to Savannah (GA) — quite a distance actually. According to my flight plan, I would leave Ithaca at 11am and get to Savannah at a nice 5:30. And Ithaca was a fantastic little airport. Everyone was really friendly and things were extremely efficient. Everything you want from an airport but for one thing. They didn’t have any planes. Airports aren’t the same without them. It was like that hospital on Yes Minister without the patients.
A storm the previous night had caused who knows what and so no planes had arrived to take passengers out. This would all be very well except that I had ‘connections.’ This is not friendly people to help you out but flight connections that have the quality that you need to arrive at your connecting airport before you have to leave. Otherwise, the whole thing doesn’t work.
So the arrow of time was pointing in the wrong direction for me. This gave rise to a heightened stress level (around Orange I think). I was on US Airways going to my connection at New York (La Guardia) but there had to change planes there to one on Delta. There would be no responsible party to guide me the whole way. I was on my own.
That said, the helpful folks at Ithaca could check my bag all the way through. At first I didn’t want this. I’d do it myself. I just didn’t trust inter-airline transfers. But then as the connection time got tighter we revised the plan. I had to check it because I would need the time to get between terminals and couldn’t be weighed down. Apparently, the bags had a more efficient system for doing this than the people.
Well, it became clear after another four hours that my four hour buffer at La Guardia was gone and that the only thing that would get me to Savannah was a similar delay to my connection there. But who could tell as those flights were on another system and what is more Delta didn’t update their website flight status frequently enough to know if there would be a delay. The only plan was to get to NY, sprint between terminals and another security checkpoint and hope for the best.
Well, Ithaca got a plane, 5 hours late. We zipped to NY. I sprinted between terminals. There was no connection between them and I had to bound on what appeared to be a highway to get there and over some hedges and past some people with sub-machine guns. All the time lamenting a quick sub-zero cold snap that had hit the area. I took me 25 minutes to traverse the distance, another 10 getting another boarding pass as they didn’t like the look of the one issued in Ithaca, 15 minutes through security and I was there with 5 minutes to spare before the one and a half hour delayed time. It would be really interesting to see if my bag would make the distance quicker.
Well there was some other delay but we got onto the plane and promptly left NY being only number 16 in the line that time (and yes the Donald’s plane was where I had left it the day before). Having spent 7 hours wondering if I would be on that plane or delayed 24 hours, I was relieved. I was even more relieved when I got to Savannah and there was my bag. I couldn’t have been more surprised if it had been the Queen there to greet me. I would have clothes for the next day; something that would have been otherwise difficult to achieve at 9:30pm at night in Savannah.
Of course, I had to get some food having not eaten really since breakfast. I clearly made some critically bad choice because whatever I ordered didn’t agree with me. I collapsed shortly after and did wake up again for 12 hours; ironically, the same amount of time it had taken me to get from Ithaca to Savannah.
Savannah is in the Deep South and instantly I went from sub-zero temperatures to summer at about 30 degrees. But, in many respects, it was a tourist area and I wasn’t in the mood for that. I had a conference to go to and some industrial economics to hear. Unfortunately, my fellow conference participants were as equally grumpy as myself. A day later and the trip from Ithaca was a nice 15 hours. Moreover, two things were moving in. Some massive, out of season storm on the East Coast that CNN delighted in calling ‘extreme weather’ all the time. And, thousands of PGA tourists to a big golf tournament at nearby Hilton Head.
Those events combined to cause me problems the next day (I think it was Sunday). Flights were delayed and so my connection from Savannah to Charlottesville (VI) which had been a supposedly comfortable 65 minutes in Charlotte (NC) was reduced to a mere 5 minutes. Well, that was optimistic. That happy event would occur only if a plane arrived which it was having trouble doing. If that plane didn’t arrive and that was not certain, the next flight out of Savannah would be, Tuesday! Not a good look and my stress alert level was set above Orange. I had a seminar at the University of Virginia the next day.
According to my travel partners (other economists from the conference), who shall remain nameless because in some sense that tight Charlotte connection was all their fault, so long as we got there, it would all be OK. We waited, the plane arrived, we got on, we went on an extremely bumped flight, we arrived, it was pouring rain and we were outside, we ran to the connecting gate and got in the plane one minute before the scheduled departure. And it departed the gate on time or so it seemed.
That plane had a new problem. It didn’t have a pilot. The pilot was yet to arrive. So we waited in the plane for an hour. It was one of those little propeller planes and so I could hear the baggage cabin door opening and closing. This was all the same airline so maybe that was my bag.
But alas no. I arrived 90 minutes late — after all that — in Charlottesville that night but my bag did not. There was imposed a 30 minute tax whilst I and 10 others (!) registered a claim. I had no clothes for my seminar the next day and what was worse is that the clothes I wore were already on their second day or wearing. I had conducted an audit the night before and found myself one short on some critical items. So I opted to have the travelling day smelly so I would have the next day fresh. That didn’t look like happening.
The bag arrived at 3am — how I am not sure. So I guess according to the metric of my travelling companions things had worked out. But I had not arrived in anywhere near the condition I had left. What was more, the weather issue was threatening my flight the next day (today) back to Australia with two connections in between. That to me was non-negotiable. If there was one thing I wanted to do, it was to get out of here.
Now you know that I am here in Charlotte and that the trip from Charlottesville to here was uneventful. But that didn’t mean that what preceded it was.
As I surveyed my itinerary for the next day, I had two connections. One in Charlotte for 60 odd minutes and the other in LA for three hours. Ordinarily, three hours would be more than enough but with my luck I didn’t want to chance it. So I enquired as to whether I could get that whole deal moved a couple of hours earlier. There was a flight and there was seats but the international connection had the US Airways operator confused and she couldn’t do it. (Key quote: “really, there is a Charlottesville. I haven’t heard that one before.” Thomas Jefferson would be thrilled). I would try my own travel agent when it was light in Melbourne.
Well, I rang Australia and, guess what, it seemed I had been booked on that earlier flight. Except no one had told me. And it was not clear anyone would. Given that it was two hours earlier that seemed weird. But I was assured that I was now confirmed there.
Paranoid that I was I rang US Airways the next morning. It turned out that I wasn’t on that flight. My previous Charlotte to LA flight had been cancelled and I was now scheduled to arrive in LA just half an hour to get to the Qantas connection. Given that I had to pass through international security, this wasn’t going to be possible and my Qantas booking was no longer confirmed and I wasn’t sure what it was. It took me an hour and a bribe of US$100 but I was finally able to move to the earlier flight. It is that flight that I am now waiting for. I have a five hour buffer in LA that is now falling to 3.5 but there is a plane here. Let’s see ….
8 hours later …
Here I am in LA with an Internet connection and so this post might actually get posted. We were 90 minutes late as expected and I seem to have Qantas seats so I will likely be back in Australia tomorrow. I even have my luggage or at least had it briefly. I can’t think of a time I have looked forward to a 15 hour flight more.
As I look back over this post, I wonder why I did write it. It is a little long and I can only imagine that if you have made it this far you haven’t wondered enough about that. All of this waiting did mean that I achieved something I don’t ordinarily do. I read an entire book. I often start out on these trips with 2 or 3 but have never actually got through one. Too many movies on planes.
This time I took and finished Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. It is a travel book and is detailed like this post. Bryson was hiking the Appalachian Trail and I will readily admit this, he had a pretty bad time of it too; far worse than my experiences here. Then again, he had a choice to do the trail. I guess I sort of did to but going around giving seminars and attending conferences is my job and so I feel it to be less voluntary.
The book was classic Bryson right down to statements such as:
One by one the hotels closed down, became derelict or, more often, burned to the ground (often, miraculously, almost the only thing to survive was the insurance policy).
But the narrative had me narrating my own travels and it is that that I have sort of reproduced here; nothing up to Bryson’s standards and unclear why I am practising since I will never travel again.
But there is another point I want to make. In Australia, we have it quite good in terms of airline travel. We have fewer destinations and hence, fewer ripple effects from minor disruptions in one part of the country. Add to that our better weather and you would be hard pressed to construct this tale of woe (Jetstar experiences aside). From what I gather that isn’t the case for those who live in the US. This is a regular experience. It is amazing people fly at all.