01 July 2006

Airline kharma

My airline kharma has been interesting lately. I passed the 50K butt miles mark sometime in May, meaning I've already passed my usual annual mileage, so my upgrade status is coming along nicely. For many of my recent segments endured during nine consecutive weeks of business travel, I've been getting upgraded to business a lot. On Monday it all came crashing down: not only did I not get upgraded, but I got stuck in a window seat trapped in by two middle-aged mainland Chinese tourists who insisted on sleeping nearly all the way across the continent. My impression is that they'd arrived in SFO from China and were continuing to the east coast in what would have to be the marathon journey from hell, poor folks, so I couldn't bring myself to wake them. Finally I climbed over them, traveling by armrest (they're stronger than you'd expect!) to escape for a pee and to get another bottlet of wine.

Later, when I was nibbling on my leftover wildly-hot barbecue rib shreds (I'd deboned before leaving home and was basically extruding the gloppy meat out of a ziploc snack baggie into my mouth, like so much incendiary space food), then unwinding and nibbling through a sweaty braid of traditional string cheese, and washing all this down with my bottlet of airplane cabernet while working on the NYTimes Sunday crossword, I reflected on how I'd observed with some curiosity the unfamiliar and often strange-looking picnics I'd seen people eating on my flights around China last fall and wondered how these folks could possibly be any less puzzled by my meal. Even to me it was a strange one.

Anyway, back to that airline kharma, I'd had a three-hour nap before the plane even got off the ground in SF, because Washington, DC had all those rain storms, and everything in and out of Dulles was all out of whack. I finally landed around 9pm. My 10pm shuttle to RDU was delayed to 10:38, boarded at 10:30, and actually left around midnight, so it was 1:30am by the time I got to my hotel. What's really weird is that I'd hoped to catch the 7:15 shuttle on standby if my long haul had arrived on time (I booked the later one because it brought the fare down $400 and made it possible for me to book United instead of one of the icky airlines), and THAT flight was delayed to 11:45 and who knows when it finally left. Very weird!

Summer afternoon/evening flights from down here are always dodgy, so when my meeting schedule changed on me for the umpteenth time and I had to rebook to the last RDU-IAD shuttle, which has a 45 min connection to the SFO flight and often a terminal change to make that extra aerobic, I warned Victoria that we should probably get used to the idea that I wouldn't make it home until Saturday or Sunday. (I have a 7pm opera rehearsal Sunday, but nothing else scheduled.) Sure enough, when my meetings finished up around 4:30 (wildly successful! yay!), I had text messages waiting on my phone that my 7:35 flight was departing "on time" at 8:40. Huh? How is that on-time? I then spent about 10 minutes trying to get updated flight stati over the web to no avail, gave up and phoned, learned that I'd have a -20 minute connection, checked out my options for Sat-Sun returns, called Bruce and Kathy to arrange a visit ("sure!"), called back to book a Sunday morning departure, called Avis to reserve a car, and spent the extra time typing up my meeting notes so I didn't have to take pictures and transcribe them later.

I got to the airport about 90 min early, planning to find something to eat, only to discover that every last food outlet in that airport closes at 7pm. What's THAT about? Finally I found a plastic chicken caesar and a lousy margarita and settled in with my novel. At 8:40 there was still no sign of our plane, but the unattended gate still had the "ON TIME" sign and the "DEPARTS 8:40" as if that could possibly be true about a 7:35 flight that was over an hour late and still planeless. In a fit of self-amused pique, I pulled out the ONTIME sign and put it back in upside-down. The dozen or so people sitting at the gate giggled and thanked me. I asked the assembled if anyone had some Post-It so we could add a "NOT SO MUCH" sign to their "ON TIME" sign. A remarkably large portion of the group started digging through their bags looking for some. I finally was the one who found some (guess who leads a lot of meetings?), so I made and posted the sign, and by now the little gang of us were all chatting and laughing together.

We were all amused when the gate agent arrived and started doing her thing without touching or even appearing to notice our alterations to signage.

About this time, some salesman-looking guy walked up to some people sitting near us and practically shouted a greeting and introduction of himself, so several of us sort of shouted back to him, "Hi, Shannon, we're everybody else!" He happily greeted "everybody else" back, and by this time we'd all figured out that his volume level had two causes: iPod earphones and rum and cokes. After we all joked around a bit about our plane not even being here yet, he asked if we would mind bellowing, "Hey, Shannon!" toward the bar when it did finally arrive. We practiced, and he was so amused he offered everybody traveling to Dulles a drink on his company. About five of us took him up on it. I offered my little tub of greek olives to the party. About fifteen minutes, the plane was finally boarding, and sure enough, as the check-in line dwindled, about four people yelled "Hey, Shannon" together, and we joined the queue. (We'd been keeping an eye on it, actually, but still!)

It was a happy flight. Late, and I think one passenger of the thirty of us actually made a connection, but fun.

Just before we landed, the flight attendant told us why we'd been late: Dubya was in Memphis with Koizumi, and the whole time Air Force One sat around in Memphis, nobody else was allowed to do anything in the airspace for a 30 mile radius. I hoofed it out Dulles with our pilot, who said it was just standard security practice and mentioned that he'd been involved in "the Clinton haircut" debacle, too: "same deal, both parties--it's just stupid."

And now here I am visiting college friends for a weekend, and the company gets to pay half, since it wasn't my fault.

As for Shannon, I was right--he IS a salesman. I won't name his company, but it's a luxury goods maker I've yet to patronize, because their stores never, ever stock extra fine nibs. Therefore I carry around products from half a dozen of their competitors (because of course I'm one of those high-tech geeks who loves-low tech fountain pens that make big, ungracious, unmodern messes of ink all over my latest, greatest gadgets). I told him as much, and it put him on an absolute tear about how frustrated he is with the stores thinking medium is all they'll ever need. We exchanged business cards and he promised to fix the problem, because he doesn't want me traveling all around the world with those other brands. I suspect what this means is that either I'll never hear from him or he'll arrange an opportunity for me spend a gazillion dollars on an XF in his brand, but you never know!

Like I said, my airline kharma is changing. Didn't say it's getting worse.

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