Thursday, January 26, 2017

How NOT to Plan Your Flight Overseas

Yet Another Air Travel Tragicomedy 

 ACT ONE 

December 29, 2016 – 3:30am  I’ve been curled up on the floor since quarter to two, in the makeshift futon my mom always puts out for my family when we visit. It’s comfortable. It’s warm. It’s not helping my pre-flight insomnia.

I can never sleep the night before flying overseas. It used to be excitement that kept me awake – a single guy, off to explore yet another foreign land, no responsibilities except for himself and even that was debatable. It’s different now. Now I fly with four other people, meaning five airplane tickets, meaning boo-koo bucks meaning I have to find the cheapest flight out there. Which leads the to unenviable prospect of another low-priced, high-tension Chinese airline experience.
 
The Plan: Limo from home (A) to Newark Airport (B). Fly to Raleigh-Durham (C). Fly to Washington Dulles (D). Fly to Tokyo-Narita. Total flight time: 17 hours. Total layover time: About 4 seconds. This should be interesting.

I’m excited to get back to Japan. I always am. But tonight it’s that unenviable potential for disaster that’s keeping me awake.

And this time I can’t even blame China.

Our return trip to Tokyo involves three flights: Newark to Raleigh-Durham, then up to Washington Dulles, then the big plane over the Pacific. Our first layover is a whopping thirty minutes. The second’s a luxurious sixty. One minor delay, one smart alec (Baldwin) on either of those first two flights and poof. We’re looking at fifty hours in the same underwear, I'm paying exorbitant late fees at the parking lot near Tokyo-Narita Airport, and I can add booking flights to the list of things the wife no longer trusts me with.

Last night I bought a case of Yuengling for the fridge in the basement, to replenish (half) what I drank over Christmas. I’d pour four of them down my throat right now except I have to drive my sister to the airport in an hour. This is also my fault, thanks to the deal I made with my mom’s husband after dinner yesterday, in a chocolate-induced funk of generosity.

“I’ll wake up and take sis to the airport at four-thirty,” I said through a mouthful of dark ganache and raspberry, “if you can be ready to follow us to the airport at six. Which you may not have to.”
 
He was over the moon with the Dutch caramel, he probably would have agreed to anything.

I knew he’d have to. Last year the limo company we hired sent over a freelancing mom with an SUV to take me, the wife, three kids and five hundred pounds of luggage (I weighed it) to Newark Airport. She took one look at that mountain of suitcases and hyper-taped cardboard boxes and pulled out her cell phone.

“Ain’t no way I’m gonna fit all this stuff,” she said to her dispatcher. “You gonna need a second car or something.”

Before I even had a chance to ask, my mom’s super-husband was grabbing his keys. “Put some of your stuff in my truck,” he said. “I’ll follow you to the airport.” I think he was kind of expecting it.

“Wait, no,” my mom protested in bathrobe and slippers. “This is the limo company’s responsibility!”

True. No time. Bye Mom, love you.

We’re using the same limo company this time. (“They’re really great,” my mom said for some reason. “And cheap!”)(That’s probably the reason.) So our three-flight circus should get off to a lively start.

I bury myself deeper under the futon blankets.

My alarm is set for 4:15 – approximately the time my wife will stop snoring.

The Previous Night, 8:00pm  I’ve got everyone’s clothes and the kids’ Christmas loot and a hundred pounds of miscellaneous crap all packed up and piled in the garage. My wife has the kids all bathed, brushed and in their pajamas. This has got to be a pre-flight record for us.

The wife is going to read to the kids and, if history holds true, fall asleep before they do. But my night is nowhere near over.

I still have to draft two travel articles I’ve been commissioned to not plagiarize. And I have to go buy a pair of trail running shoes. Yes, have to. Japan doesn’t stock a lot of size elevens. And trail running is an integral part of my Sanity 2017 program.

“Mom, can I use your car one last time?”

It takes me thirty minutes to drive to REI and trade a hundred and thirty bucks for a pair of Salomons. Across town at Willie’s Liquors it takes thirty seconds to trade another twenty dollars for a case of Yuengling. Back at mom’s, showered and caffeinated, I spend four hours researching and writing and uploading those two travel articles. For this I will be paid exactly what I just gave REI.

The fridge in the basement is humming, boring deeper and deeper into my consciousness as the clock ticks past 1:30.

Damn that raspberry ganache.

December 29 – 4:15am  I’m still awake when my alarm goes off. (Right on cue, my sleeping wife goes silent.) I pull my clothes back on and shuffle down to the kitchen – to find super-husband sitting at the table.

“Couldn’t sleep,” he says, code for I got up in case you couldn’t.

I pour coffee on my cereal as my sister gets ready.

5:00am. Outside Terminal C a stagnant river of brake lights casts a red glow on people pulling wheeled suitcases through the dark. The cars are backed up three deep where we sit, tapering to a bottleneck halfway up the hundred-yard drop-off area. At the far end the curb is empty.

Typical Jersey.

“This is fine right here,” my sister says, and jumps out of the car. “Thanks Kev!” she calls out as she yanks her bag from the trunk. “See you guys this summer!”

“You got it,” I yell back, though I had no idea we’d be seeing her this summer. The wife, I suspect, was busy making air travel plans for next year while I was out spending that ticket money on sneakers.

5:45am. Wife and boys are ready to go.
 
Daughter is pushing her oatmeal away, insisting our flight is not until tomorrow.

6:00am. Car shows up. Toyota minivan. Perfect if we could leave a suitcase and one kid behind. Our driver is sure we can pack everything in. I think he’s from a place where there are few traffic rules, no taxi regulations and no known phrase for maximum seating capacity. I appreciate his friendly fervor.

SuperStepdad ambles into action, car keys in hand. Mom says her good-byes from the garage and goes back to bed.

6:40am  Terminal C drop-off is now a four-lane logjam. “Go to the far end,” I say to my driver, who doesn’t look as comfortable with the chaos as he should, considering where (I imagine) he’s from. Maybe he doesn’t understand why people here keep waiting for their cars to come to a complete stop before jumping out.

I pop my seatbelt off and open the door as we’re still pulling up to the curb. (Mr. Minicab either doesn’t mind or doesn’t notice.) The side door opens automatically. And way too flippin’ slowly. I funnel my family out into the cold, polluted morning. “Stay on the sidewalk!” I tell my kids. They want to help with the bags. I want to help them not get hit by a car.

I’m pressing some cash into José’s hand (be honest, the chances are pretty good his name isn’t Sean) as our second car pulls up.

“Grandpa!”

“STAY ON THE SIDEWALK!”

6:43am  Through the glass walls of the terminal building I can see a bloated, snaking line of people and suitcases. Behind them the lights of the check-in counter beckon with all the charm of that lamp over the dentist’s chair.

Out here on the sidewalk there’s not a single abandoned luggage cart in sight. And I refuse to pay seven bucks to use one. This is mainly out of principal, although if the wife really is making plans to fly somewhere this coming summer I’m going to need that seven bucks.

My sons are standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hands on our wheeled suitcases, ready to take off running on their next ill-fated adventure. The wife is readying my daughter’s new three-wheeled all-terrain stroller (My Jeep, she says). She’ll balance my daughter’s walker on the Jeep’s pushbar, stick my daughter’s ladybug backpack in the net thing underneath, plop our daughter in the seat and sling her handbag over her shoulder.

That leaves me with two suitcases, a huge green duffel and five overstuffed boxes. And still no abandoned carts. My boys are on the starting line. My wife suddenly decides to pull out her camera. I want to put on my new Salomons and take off into the blackness.

“Help with your bags, sir?”

I look up. The voice is coming from a 6’4” 300-pound teddy bear dressed all in dark blue. He’s walking toward me, pulling behind him a luggage cart the size of a small flatbed trailer. I look at our luggage. I look at his flatbed. My mom’s husband is long gone.

“Let’s load ‘em up!” I say like he’s now my best friend. Which he is.

We roll through the massive revolving door and I turn toward that bloated snake. “Uh-uh,” he says quietly. “This way.”

I don’t know where this way goes but I tend not to say no to 300-pound bears.

This way leads far away from that snaking line, down to the far end of the floor and a row of check-in kiosks being used by exactly zero people. Behind the nearby counter three airline agents are hanging out, nothing to do but chat and sip coffee and hope nobody comes by to check in.

Did I say teddy bear? I meant angel.

Our 300-pound angel takes our passports and confirmation papers and taps his way through an automated check-in process that would have taken me until 2017 to figure out.

Did I say angel?

I hand the God of the Airport two carts’ worth of cash, shake his hand and wish him a happy new year. He smiles like he just put one over on me.

At the check-in counter our woman does her job in between sips of coffee and glances at her smartphone (facebook). Next to her a guy in blue slacks, a white dress shirt and no undershirt attaches long white stickers with codes for three airports to our ten bags and boxes. I get a weird shiver with every piece he launches onto the conveyor belt.

“You’re all set,” the woman sings as she hands us fifteen boarding passes.

I inhale a bit of her enthusiasm. For a guy who’s been awake for twenty-four hours and has another twenty-four to go, I feel pretty good. All checked in, bags on the way and plenty of time to get through security. Even the kids are doing great. Smooth sailing, at least for the immediate future.

“I’m hungry,” my daughter says.

 INTERMISSION 

For those not up to speed, my four-year-old daughter requires a walker to get around. Someday, we firmly believe, she will walk on her own like any other kid. Until then she’s got that walker and, thanks to the generosity of a college friend, her Jeep for when she runs out of steam.

When we fly we don’t check her walker and stroller with the rest of our luggage. We hold onto them; roll right up to the gate and all the way to the end of the jetway, three steps from the door of the plane. Only then do we fold our two contraptions up and lean them against the wall. And that’s that. When we step off the plane however many hours later there they are again.

On occasion we have to wait for them, but never more than a minute or two…

 PART TWO 

7:25amI show the 20-year-old TSA guard boy all fifteen of our boarding passes. Not because I think he needs to see them all. I’m just trying to garner some sympathy so maybe he’ll point us toward some special express lane.

“Kind of flying all over the place, huh?” he says. His smile doesn’t contain any malice but I do sense a bit of derision. No matter how lowly a person’s position, the chance to laugh at someone will come along eventually. For this kid the chance probably comes along a lot.

“Yeah, this is going to be interesting” I say. And I pat my closest child on the head… and let out a long, exaggerated breath… and I wait...

“All right, have a nice flight. Flights, I mean.”

Punk. “Yeah, thanks.” And I turn away.

“Wait, excuse me,” he says.

And I turn back. Express lane here we come!

“Is that water?” He points to the plastic bottle in the tray of my daughter’s Jeep.

Crap. Are we really not allowed to take water on these short little shuttle flights? Seriously, if someone is going to go through the trouble and risk of blowing up a plane do you think they’re going to pick a puddle jumper to Raleigh-Durham?

I motion to the mass of people on line ahead of us. “We’ll drain them before we get to the front.” I pull two more waters from under the Jeep and hand them to my boys.

“They might let you bring them through,” he says. “At least one should be all right.”

I study the kid’s face. I don’t know if he’s being nice or if he’s messing with me. Either way I want to remember him.

The large female TSA agent at the front of the line wasn’t messing with anyone. “Toss that,” she tells me, pointing to my water then to the trash can over by the wall.

“Can we take just one, for all three kids?”

She doesn’t even look at me this time, she just jabs another finger at the can.

Saying TSA agents can be callous is no newsflash. (Note: I’ve come across plenty of nice ones. At least two.) But they’ve always been accommodating when they see I have to help my daughter walk through the metal detector.
 
Their decisions on dealing with her wheels have been less consistent. Today I have to fold up her walker and send it through the X-ray machine. They want me to put her Jeep through too, but even folded up it’s too big.

Solution, TSA Style: Make me and my daughter stand off to the side, along with my younger son just for the hell of it, while they temporarily confiscate the Jeep. They check it for explosives residue by wiping it down with those little acne cleansing pads which they analyze, one by one, in a machine that may or may not be plugged in. Then they push the Jeep aside and proceed to wave eighteen more people through the metal detector gate and right past us.
 
I think they forgot we were there. I remind one of them that we are, and that person has someone with medical gloves come over with more acne pads. She wipes our six hands with them and throws them directly into the trash. Another guy comes over to tell us to go get our stinkin’ Jeep out of the way.

They never wiped my wife or my older son for traces of acetylene or C-4. Is there some federal regulation that prohibits checking (ahem, profiling) entire families?
Rule 405.3.8(b)(7)(t): TSA agents, in the interests of guarding against hurting people’s feelings, including those suspected of ties to terror organizations and/or the Libertarian Party, must not subject to reasonable examination more than sixty percent of any one family, and within such family agents are to examine no more than one person old enough to assemble a pipe bomb and no fewer than two children too young to even hide a booger.

8:55am  At home I don’t like my kids drinking soda because of all the sugar. On a plane I don’t like them drinking soda because of all the throwing up. I can smell the stench just looking at my four-year-old chugging a can of Coke in her seat.

“Sorry guys, it’s still morning. Have apple juice. Or orange.” (Awwwww, Daaaad!…)

My wife is seated next to our daughter. The boys are right behind them, playing rather ominously with their barf bags. I’m across the aisle, next to a woman who seems about to die from a recurring state of disinterest until, half an hour into the flight, I open my mouth.

I wish I could remember what I said so I could make sure I never say it again. Because this woman who was just a second ago about ready to dissolve right into the seat cushion is suddenly alive and all irritated about her job and her mandatory meetings and the twin evils known as United Airlines and the Raleigh-Durham Airport.

“Nothing is ever on time with these people,” she says. “Ever.”

9:40am  My friendly armrest partner is now talking in intermittent fragments about her plans to visit Italy with her daughter. I’m checking the time and glancing out the window, hoping that’s North Carolina down there.

A click and a static buzz and the captain comes over the PA.

“We’ll be landing in about fifteen minutes, folks, which means we should be pulling up to our gate right about ten o’clock …”

Which gives us ten minutes to get off this plane and onto our next one.

There are 29 rows on the plane. We’re in Rows 27 and 28. In front of us then are 26 rows times four people who will no doubt pop up out of their seats and clog the aisle as soon as Captain Ten O’Clock turns off the seat belt sign. Why are people so eager to stand in a cramped aisle when they know – they know – they aren’t going anywhere?

I grab our back-of-the-bus flight attendant. (Not literally of course, this was back before Trump’s inauguration when such things were still unacceptable.) I tell her quietly about our predicament and ask if it would be possible to let us slip off the plane first – or at least not 105th to 109th out of 116.
 
She says she’ll see what she can do.

By the time she’s buckled in for our descent, up there at the front of the plane, facing all those people dying to clog the aisle, it’s clear she will be doing nothing.

10:04am  Captain Inchalong dings off the seat belt sign and a hundred and eleven people jump up like the plane is on fire – which I wish it was. We’d get off the plane a lot faster.

Walker and Jeep are noticeably not there when we step off the plane. “Maybe up at the gate,” I tell the wife. I don't think so, I just want to move everyone closer to our connecting gate which, it turns out, is thirty seconds away for someone herding a family through a crowd of people who won't move because they're all staring at their phones. I leave my family at our new gate and tear back to the first one - eight-seconds running full-speed through a crowd of startled people.

Outside in the light drizzle Larry LuggageHandler is walking back and forth, hauling our wheels and two other people’s strollers to the bottom of the metal stairs leading up to the jetway. I try to open the door and yell out to him “Just put the walker and the Jeep on that plane over there!” It would save him a bit of effort.

Apparently that type of thing is against United’s “Let the Parents Sweat it Out” policy.

I shouldn’t say that. The two women checking us in for our second flight are wonderful. They even let my wife and kids board as I run back and forth (twice) to get our walker and then our Jeep, thus ensuring that at least 80% of us will be getting to Washington Dulles on time.

11:00am  We’re flying over Virginia. I hope. The kids didn’t put up any real stink about the juice thing on the first flight, but they’d been so good for the six hours they’d been up (five and a half for Little Miss Oatmeal) and I didn’t want to risk ruining it so I caved to their pleadings for a round of Cokes.

The wife is over there dozing off. I don’t understand. She’ll lie awake all night worrying about whether the kids need to bring spoons to school for lunch yet she can sleep in the middle of this ongoing catastrophe in the making? Doesn’t she know we still have another connection to make? At Dulles no less, which, according to the woman next to me (related to the woman next to me on the first flight I reckon), is the Worst. Airport. Ever.

I hope I sit next to a Japanese woman on the flight to Tokyo. Their negativity is so much nicer to listen to.

11:40am – That flight to Tokyo is scheduled to depart from Gate C28. At least it was when we got our fifteen boarding passes and parted ways with our Newark Airport teddy bear angel god. I’m looking out the window as Captain SpeedLimit taxis around in the rain.

Terminal C! For the love of God, PARK IN TERMINAL C!

Or Terminal D, which is in the same long skinny building. Parking at Terminal A or B would mean we have to ride across the tarmac in an amphibious-looking monster truck whose eight wheels are bigger than the plane’s.

We’re in the second-to-last row again (though the kids are on the right side of the aisle so that’s exciting). I don’t even bother grabbing the flight attendant. If worse comes to worst and we pull up to Terminal B I’ll push the family out the jetway door and down the metal steps so we can intercept the guy with our walker and Jeep and make a run for it across to Terminal C.

Though that probably goes against another United “policy”.

12:00 noon, in the lounge outside Gate C28 – My kids are going bananas in anticipation of our flight home to Japan: thirteen hours of unmitigated in-flight entertainment and Cokes as far as they are concerned. My wife is watching them from one of the four seats she’s commandeered for us. She looks well-rested. I’m good with that.

We’ve got thirty minutes till boarding. I still can’t believe we made it. I look at my family, so comfortable and care-free in the moment. I’m happy for them. I’m happy for me, though the morning has gone well in spite of me, not because.

Well maybe I did keep one or more of my kids from throwing up.

Of course we’re still a long way from Tokyo, where we’ll pick up our luggage (I hope) and hop into our van for the four-hour trip to my wife’s parents’ home in Fukushima.

If there’s Yuengling on the plane my wife’s driving.