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Archive: 6 January 2005

Continental Yin/Yang

Since my father moved to live an hour north of Orlando this past spring, and Kat’s parents moved to the West Palm Beach area in the fall, we headed south for the holidays.  Our flight down left two days before Christmas, so that turned into a bit of an adventure.  My fellow Americans might remember what it was like two days before Christmas.  The top news story of the day was, in fact, the bad weather and how it was messing up everyone’s travel plans.

For years, I’d shaken my head and chuckled ruefully at all those poor suckers who were trying, against all reason, to fly at the busiest time of the year, which was in the dead of winter to boot.  Now I was one of those poor suckers, and my family as well.

When we got up that morning, things looked pretty bad, but the Continental web site said our flight was on time.  I didn’t figure that would hold true, but thought it a hopeful sign that we’d depart fairly close to on time.  Just before we were to leave, the site updated the flight status to say it was being delayed an hour.  We decided to head for the airport anyway.  Once there, we checked the boards and talked to someone who said that, yes, our flight was probably going to be delayed an hour or so.  We got through security and down to our gate… and that’s when things started to go south, and not in a good way.

What we found out was that Hopkins had in fact been closed to flight operations all morning, and so all the planes that were supposed to be there were in other cities.  Our plane was still in Newark, for example, and still ground-stopped.  So in order for our flight to happen, the flight from Newark had to happen; that way we’d have a plane for our flight to Orlando.  Thus, the absolute soonest our flight could leave was two hours after it was allowed to take off from Newark.

And when would that happen?  Nobody could say.

So we found a play area with some other kids and let Carolyn run around.  Every so often, we’d check back in with our gate to see what was up.  No change; our plane was still in Newark.  The projected departure time for our flight kept being pushed back, hour by hour.  A 1:30pm departure become 2:35pm, then 3:35pm, then 4:30pm.  And it was still only 1:00 in the afternoon.

Somewhere around 2:15pm, just as I was about to go check on the flight again, Kat wondered aloud if anyone had gotten out yet, and if maybe they could switch us to an earlier Orlando flight.  So I asked about our plane (still in Newark) and asked if they could switch us to an earlier flight.

“The only flight before yours was a 9:00am flight”, he said.

“Right.  And has that flight actually left yet?”

“Um, good question!”  He started tapping on his keyboard.  No, it hadn’t, and they actually had a plane on the ground, and there were seats available.  But I’d need to go talk to them at their gate, half the concourse away.

So I told Kat where to meet me and headed to gate 21, wondering how on Earth they could still have any seats on the flight.  When I got there, I made my way to the counter and asked if we could be transferred over.  The man behind the counter told me there were seats available, and he’d get us moved over, no problem.  This guy was a little slow with the computer, and needed some help figuring out how to put in a baggage-transfer order to get our bags from our original plane to the new one.  I don’t know if he was new or what, but I was starting to become concerned that we’d arrive with nothing but our carry-ons… and believe me, when you take a 12-day trip with a 13-month old, you have a lot of checked baggage.

He apprised me that they’d try to get the bags transferred but there was no guarantee, and if any got missed we’d have to wait (or come back) to get our bags from our original flight.  As he worked to assign us seats, I mentioned that we’d been on First Class standby on our other flight, and if he could put us on standby for the new flight, that would be great.  I felt kind of stupid saying it (and said so); I mean, we were probably going to get to Orlando on this flight before our original plane even took off.  And I should still be worried about where I sat on the plane?  But to my surprise, he handed me first class tickets just as the boarding process started.

So there we were, sitting in first class and really feeling incredibly lucky.  At that point, I figured that if half our checked bags and the car seat showed up in Orlando with us, we’d be in clover.  We pushed back from the gate just past 3:40pm, less than an hour after borading had begun, so I figured it was a pretty good bet our bags were on the original plane, not the new one.  For us, this was a three-hour delay from our 12:30pm flight—but the plane we were now flying had originally been scheduled to leave at 9:00am.

As the 737 taxied toward the runway, I couldn’t see it.  The whole airfield looked like it was an unbroken field of snow, including the tarmac over which the plane was (bumpily) rolling.  As we continued to cross the airfield laterally, I wasn’t seeing any exposed concrete.  I started to wonder if we were planning simply to drive to Orlando when I saw it: our takeoff strip.  Except it wasn’t a strip.  It was a stretched-out series of barely-there irregular patches of pavement largely encased in snow and ice.  And we were turning toward it.

“Takeoff’s going to be a bit bumpy,” I said to Kat.  We held hands and our daughter, and said “I love you” to each other, as the plane accelerated down the runway.

(Which sounds all dramatic and fear-of-death-like, but actually it’s just a ritual Kat and I developed over years of traveling together.  At some point we looked at each other just as the engines fired up for takeoff, and said “I love you” in unison.  It was a moment of affection that we decided to continue, at both takeoff and landing.)

The run-up to liftoff was definitely jarring, one of the roughest I’ve ever experienced, and I entertained some half-serious concerns that the plane wouldn’t reach V2 and would slide off the end of the runway, as happens every few winters or so.  Once the wheels lifted, though, the flight was smooth and uneventful.  We got to Orlando in the usual amount of time, and—here’s the part that still blows me away—all of our bags had been transferred.  Every single one.  We were able to load up the car and get to my father’s house in time for dinner, only a few hours later than scheduled.

So while Continental definitely started the day on our wrong side, what with the complete lack of information about the true nature of our flight’s delay prior to our getting to the gate, they definitely made up for it by day’s end.

January 2005
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