Monday, December 03, 2007

Airports and Angels

December 1, 2007

I came back to Boston today, after having known the helpless feeling of possibly being stranded at the Los Angeles (LAX) airport where I was coming from and maybe having to spend the night and probably even the next day there. When I saw the crowded departure lounge and learned that the flights were fully booked, and that many flights were either delayed or cancelled, I knew my chances to find a seat on a low-priority, non-revenue buddy pass that I received from a friend were slim.

In my mind, I was trying to imagine Tom Hanks in the movie “The Airport,” and strategizing what I would do to make my stay as comfortable as possible. I checked out the eating-places – Starbucks and an unfamiliar deli offered not very appealing food and beverages choices (for me, anyway). The most accessible ladies’ room was under renovation, making me feel that my “bathroom” facilities were not “ensuite” – another inconvenience. There was wireless Internet, but to be used with a prepaid card – so that was an activity I could not do that night. Besides, my computer needed recharging and I didn’t know where I could plug for electric juice. I also surveyed the chairs at the departure lounge to choose one where I could park my body for the night, if need be. They did not look comfortable and were not the kind that could be reclined. How I wish I were at the Changi Airport instead - the Changi airport has a special lounge for air travelers who may need to spend the night at the airport which has fully reclining chairs with alarm clocks and all sorts of bells and whistles (my vote for the world’s most user-friendly airport readily goes to Singapore’s Changi airport but that’s another story altogether). But I settled in to wait and, despite the possible discomfort, accepted that it might be an adventure worth writing about if I got stranded.

I approached the ground crew at the gate every now and then, just to remind them that I was still there waiting to be accommodated, but at the same time, making sure I didn’t appear to be a pest. Knowing how important it is to be on their good side, I did what I could do to earn their sympathy, and avoid their ire.

Aliz, my friend Gay's friend, who gave me this free ticket, called at 11:00pm, worried that I may not get on. She asked if my friend from LA (Henry) was still there and I said no. I told her that I had asked him to just drop me off. She had been monitoring the flights and was told that it was almost impossible for me to get on. (She works with ground crew at the Boston airport and knew the real score). I assured her that I was fine and more willing to wait than to go back to the city and then go through the hassle of airport security screening again. Besides, it was a good hour driving to and from the airport, and I didn’t want Henry to have to go through that. She had called everyone she knew at the LA airport, and there was nothing more that she could do. Again, I re-assured her that I was fine, and that there was nothing to worry about.

While I believed that being stranded at the LA airport is not going to be my worst nightmare come true, still, I believe in prayers, and I prayed to get on the plane. I alternated between meekly pleading and having complete faith that my request would be granted, remembering to say thanks as if God had already given me what I was asking for, and scolding myself for now and then doubting. I tried some visualization techniques too, imagining myself receiving the boarding pass, going through the tube, going through the aisle, and finding my seat.

The plane was delayed to start with - it was supposed to leave at 9:10pm but the announcement at the gate said ETD 9:40, then 10:40, and then back again to 9:40pm. The ground crew finally started to board passengers at around 10:30pm. Before they could assign me a seat, they had to call some other passengers who were on the list but failed to board- maybe their connecting flights were not yet in, or they were wandering around in the airport. There were quite a few of us "stand-bys," including a pilot still in his uniform (there was no way I could get on before he did!). I could have a chance if passengers would not show up, so as they called out the names of the missing passengers, and as they trickled in, my chances dimmed. But my prayers were answered, and after they packed everybody in, including all the other stand-bys, there were two seats left on the plane, and I was told that I was free to choose which one I wanted. When I got in a little after 11pm, there was not even space in the bins for my carry on. I tried to stuff them – my computer bag and my silver photo-display bag under the seat in front of me, but the two 26” high angels that I was carrying in one of those bags were too long to put under the seat. (The angels are “pasalubong” for my two Boston angels – Aliz and Gay).

The plane was not given immediate clearance to leave. The weather was fine at the LAX airport, but the Las Vegas airport - where we needed to make a stopover before going to Boston - was heavily backlogged due to weather delays. We were told to wait, then told to refuel, so we would have enough fuel to fly at a higher altitude, in case we needed to fly above the troublesome wind and clouds (not sure if Nevada was having thunderstorms). At 11:15pm, the pilot acknowledged that some passengers had expressed their intention to leave the plane, but asked for their patience. No one moved to leave, but after another 30 minutes, some passengers actually started opening the bins to claim their carry-ons, and walked out of the plane. Aha - I suddenly had space for my own. Not only that, one of those passengers who left was my seatmate (I had the aisle seat, he was in center). After another 15 minutes, we were done with refueling and just had to queue to take off. We flew out at midnight. Too bad for those who opted not to wait. Now, I know, patience is truly a virtue.

As for the connecting flights from Las Vegas, we were told that most of the flights were also late, and there was a great probability that our connecting flights - wherever passengers were going after Las Vegas- were waiting for us (or late themselves), but our plane crew did not have information for all the connecting flights of the passengers on this plane. There was nothing I could do but to wait until we got there.

As soon as we arrived in Las Vegas, I inquired about the flight to Boston and was told to go to gate 14. I rushed from Gate 10 where we landed to Gate 14 (another cluster, not quite that near) and found the other Boston-bound passengers still waiting to be called. The board stated the scheduled flight and the new estimate time of departure – about two hours late. Thankfully, Gate 14 was not as crowded as the one at LAX.

Now, the Las Vegas airport's departing lounges are like no other. At the center of each cluster of gates are slot machines! Not that I would be enticed to gamble, but it would have been entertaining to watch people play (if we were stranded). We left at 1:50, about two hours later than originally scheduled.

By the next morning, we were taxiing in at 9:30, instead of 7:59am, our cumulative delays shortened by the force of tail winds. There, as soon as I exited from the plane, at the entrance to the tube, was Aliz, who gave me a big hug and was demonstratively excited that I managed to fly on that flight. She had monitored the flight as late as 11pm the night before (before I was called to board) and as soon as she reported for work at 7:30am and knew by morning before I flew in that I made it. Aliz was excitedly chatting with me, all the way from the tube to the baggage claim area. One of her colleagues at the gate reminded her to "hold it in" - I suppose that meant to keep her voice and excitement down, but it felt good to be so warmly welcomed.

It was also the right time for Gay, with whom I am staying, to fetch me at the airport, as she gets off from work at 9am (from 5:00am!). Those two gave me royal treatment, with Aliz escorting me from planeside all the way to Gay’s car, on the driveway just outside the arrival area. The two would not even let me carry my luggage. Talk about red carpet treatment! Friends and relatives have received me warmly at many airports around the world before, but this morning’s welcome was the warmest ever. Maybe it had something to do with the drama of almost missing my flight, and possibly being stranded at an airport.

My plane pass may have been low-priority, but you would never suspect that from the royal treatment that I received from my two angels, Gay and Aliz, at the Boston airport. Their welcome really warmed my heart.