Troubles trying to get home

Travelling is never easy. Especially when my best friend Murphy is along for the ride.

I rose late (catching up with sleep lost the night before), and met up with Craig, Jill, and her daughter Jamie in the concierge level for breakfast. Craig did a short presentation on the tools he has for managing the pay-per-click materials for the Hyatt programme. I hadn’t seen it before, so watched with interest. I realized that like with everything else we have, Craig has a great deal to offer for SEM presentations and theory, and that the two of us really need to get ourselves organized within Critical Mass.

Following breakfast was a shower and packing. Over the course of the last few days, I’ve been collecting a large variety of, well, crap. Some of it is product information, some of it is contact information, some of it is competitor information, and the rest of it is swag. I hadn’t honestly thought that I’d really acquired that much stuff. It was only with a great deal of effort that I finally managed to zip up my luggage. Next time, I bring a bigger bag. I just hoped it wouldn’t burst on the flight home.

Jill left for the airport shortly before we did. (As we would later find out, we should have gone with her.) Craig and I went to lunch at a small bistro in the Hyatt Saint Claire, just across the street. A pair of delicious gourmet sandwiches. After all the unappetizing mass-produced sandwiches of the last four days, this was a welcome change.

Then it was off to the airport, a short jaunt away by taxi. Arriving, we found our way to the United desk, and settled in to get ourselves on our flight. We naively assumed that we would have little trouble.

We arrived at about 12:50 for a 14:04 flight. According to the boards, all was well. Just that we were standing in the slowest line I had ever seen. Three desks open, and it was taking at least 10 minutes per person to get affairs in order. For the first 15 minutes, the only advancement we made was because other people were leaving the line. Then it was because all those going to Chicago were ushered to the front.

This seems to be a normal thing in the United States. Slow lines, with groups headed for specific cities being ushered to the front, to the possible detriment of others. Why does this happen? Because people seem to believe that there is no reason to show up at the airport early, with enough time to make the flight. We in Canada are well-trained to show up with sufficient time, just in case of other delays. The guy behind us in line, carting a bicycle packed away in a protective sack, seemed to be one of the few exceptions to the rule.

But I wasn’t worried — so long as the flight was on time, and security wasn’t too anal, we’d be fine.

We finally arrived at the desk at about 13:35. I expected a quick check-in. The alarm in my head went off when I realized that the clerk, Sonya, was searching for other flights. Why would the clerk be looking for other flights when mine was on time? So naturally, I had to ask.

Mechanical failure. The plane was still in Denver and showed no signs of ever arriving today. The flight was effectively cancelled (even though the departure board still claimed it was on time). Suddenly, I became worried.

I need to be at the Calgary Canoe Club on the Glenmore Reservoir by 7:00 tomorrow morning. It’s the annual Calgary Dragon Boat festival. (But you already know that.) I can’t compete with my team if I’m trapped in California. Before I could utter a single plantiff sound, Sonya mentioned something about an alternative. (She’s already said that had we been about 30 minutes earlier — which would have coincided with Jill’s trip to the airport — we’d have been able to transfer to another plane.)

A phone call interrupted her, and for a moment, we thought we’d be in for a long negotiation. She talked about a party of two who also needed to transfer. Craig and I had no idea what she was talking about. Discussion mentioned something about a woman coming to the desk. We had no idea what she was talking about. As if on cue, she then set the phone back in its cradle, and said:

“We’ll get you on a direct flight to Calgary.”

Well, this was a lot better than going through Denver. Less worry about things going awry. Then she added:

“It’s a codeshare with Air Canada. You’ll be leaving from San Francisco.”

San Francisco?! The mind reeled. How the hell were we going to get to San Francisco in time? And going through San Francisco immediately denoted that we wouldn’t have a direct flight, since we were at another airport to begin with.

Of course, lest we forget that San Jose is less than 60 miles from San Francisco. The airports are even closer. A taxi would ferry three of us (Craig, myself, and Cathy, who was also experiencing flight problems; we found out that if we had arrived with Jill, we wouldn’t have known about the flight problems until we’d checked in and gone through security, as with Cathy’s situation) to San Francisco airport, at United Airlines’ expense.

It was a 40-minute, USD$90 ride. Thankfully, free of too many delays and of cost to the three of us. We bid Cathy a safe trip as she went off to find her flight to her destination, Craig and I hiked across the airport to the Air Canada counter, more or less on the opposite side of the airport.

Another line. A long one.

Thankfully, the staff there tended to move a bit more quickly than the United staff had in San Jose. Even then, it was almost a half an hour before we were up at the desk to get ourselves checked in. No equipment failures this time, but there was a bit of a problem.

We were flying stand-by.

This had us both a bit miffed. Craig wasn’t in the same kind of rush to get home — that was my problem. That said, Craig just wanted to get home so he didn’t have to deal with the problems anymore. I wished that I didn’t have the dragon boat races tomorrow. I wished that we could just skip today’s travel and spend a day in San Francisco. If wishes were horses, I’d have a lot of shit to clean up.

Security was a bit chaotic. One of the lines had been taken up with the cleaning crew for a moment, as they’d passed their things through to the other side. (Why they don’t just keep them over there is beyond me.) We had to do the ol’ bag emptying routine, getting our electronics out for inspection, emptying the pockets, prepare to smile and be cordial, and — this was new for me — take off our shoes. Even the sandals. Never gone through a metal detector in my bare feet. It’s a first.

As per usual, the security guard wanted to inspect my larger camera more closely. At least 75% of the time, someone does. They want to swab it for explosive residue (or drugs, I’m never really sure which it is), and make sure that it actually works. No biggie — I’ve done it many times, now.

The gate was empty when we arrived. We would have time to kill before we could ensure that we were getting on the flight. It was 14:45. We went in search of some food.

I wasn’t particularly hungry — when I’m stressed out, I don’t eat a lot. Craig, not under the same time restrictions I was, had to eat something. We found a pasta “restaurant” (more like a cafeteria). I got an apple juice and a chocolate Haagen Daas ice cream bar. I hoped that the influx of chocolate might calm me down a bit.

The gate attendant still hadn’t arrived by the time we returned. Resolving to wait at the desk, we hung around until we were told that we were first in line, and could sit down a while. We read our respective books until someone appeared behind the counter. We handed in our stand-by cards and hoped for the best.

I couldn’t read. I couldn’t concentrate. All I knew was that I might miss this flight, too. I started plotting other plans. Alaska Airlines flew to Vancouver. I could catch one of their flights, and maybe score a WestJet flight. But that was a bit dicey. Maybe I could rent a car! It was at least a nine hour drive, but I’d arrive there in time … really tired, and the rental would be expensive, but I’d arrive!

“Stand-by passenger Sor-ery?”

Never fails. It’s rare when someone gets the name right.

Two passes: one for Craig, one for me. We’d be seated apart, him one row behind me. I had a window, he had the dreaded middle seat. But we had a flight, and that was the most important part. Suddenly, I felt a lot better. I called Alex to update her on my flight status. I realized how much I’ve missed her during my time away.

The flight home wasn’t particularly comfortable. Although smooth for most of the flight (we had a bit of rollercoaster turbulence somewhere over Oregon), I was seated to a rather large man, who made me feel rather packed in to my little seat. The mere thought of getting up to go to the bathroom never crossed my mind once. I resolved to rest until we were safe on the ground again.

Touchdown was shortly after 20:45. We were at the gate not long afterwards, and soon on our way down to customs. For some reason, in Calgary, you have to go through Customs before you get your bag. I’ve never quite understood that. Most other airports make you get your bags before you go through Customs. Maybe it’s just a North American thing, now that I think about it. Either way, two questions, and I was home.

Maybe because we were stand-by passengers, our bags were the first ones out. For this, I was thankful. I was running out of energy quickly, and wanted nothing more than to go home. Alex was waiting for me, and I didn’t want her to wait any longer than she had to. Craig and I exited the doors, and there was Alex’s smiling face. She gave me the biggest hug I think I’ve ever had. It was a bit surprising, really. I did a quick introduction before Craig ran off for a taxi (he, too, wanted to get home, partly so he could go out to the Ship & Anchor for a birthday party).

Alex asked if I wanted a hot chocolate. I didn’t. I wanted to go home. I was about to decline when she said: “Say ‘yes’”.

Something was up. I didn’t know what, but something was up. At this point, I knew I was going to Starbucks, whether I liked it or not. At that point, though, I was just so tired that I really didn’t care anymore.

As we walked down the airport terminal, towards the escalator, Alex finally told me why we were going for hot chocolate: Her father and stepmother were waiting for us. Or more specifically, for me.

Ever get the feeling you’re being let to a firing line?

Yep, it was a sneak attack. But I knew her father and stepmother were in town, anyway, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. Just that I hadn’t been expecting to meet them at the airport when I was run right down as a result of traveling. C’est la vie. I started to practice my introductions, remembering to call her father “Dr. Rev.” the first time, and make sure that I used her stepmother’s proper last name. That was completely thwarted when Alex’s father beat me to the punch, introducing himself as Allen, and his wife as Jean.

So much for first impressions.

I didn’t end up with a hot chocolate. I went for a vanilla bean frappe-something-or-other. Basically, no caffeine content at all. I wanted sleep, and nothing to get in the way of it. The four of us chatted a bit, myself trying to be as lively as possible. After a couple of severely restrained yawns from myself, we finally decided to break for the evening. I needed sleep, and Alex also has to rest up — tomorrow is a dragon boat race!

What do I think of her parents? Well, considering Allen is a highly-educated minister, he’s a lot of fun (and an eloquent speaker). He’s also a little deviant. For example, when we leaving the airport, Allen tried to pull past Alex’s car. When he realized we were next to him, he flipped us the British bird (what we in North America might recognize as the “peace” sign) before trying to drive away from us. Alex would have flipped him back, but she was driving past him a moment later, laughing. I think Jean and my mom would get along like a house on fire…

Alex dropped me off at home and helped me in with all my bags. We hugged for a few minutes on the couch before she went home. It’s off to bed. Tomorrow — nay, this weekend — will be long.