Monday, March 12, 2007

A Helluva Trip

So, we went back to lovely Carbondale, IL, this past weekend to throw a surprise 80th birthday party for Pidge's mom, Joan.

To get to Carbondale (which we worked out, by the way, was where Hooterville from "Green Acres" was set) from San Francisco, one flies into St. Louis Lambert Airport, then drives 120 miles southeast.

Because we didn't want to arrive in the middle of the night, we chose to leave in the middle of the night; that is to say, to take the 7:40 flight from SFO to STL, arriving at about 1:15, then arriving in Carbondale sometime before 5, meeting Pidge's brother and sister-in-law for dinner. (There are two other American Airlines flights from SF to StL daily, at something like noon and 3 pm.)
Well, even though we knew we needed to get up at about 4 to make it to the airport in time (including showering, driving, long-term parking, shuttle, and check-in time), we neither us of got to sleep much before 12:30.

But, in spite of our tiredness, things went well. In the terminal by 6 or so, breakfasted and on the plane a little past 7. Things went so efficiently, in fact, that we were going to leave a little early. Pidge and I were in a three-seat row, and since no one showed up to take the window seat, we spread out (Pidge with all her magazines in two seat-back pockets) and removed our shoes.
We assumed our place on the runway ("Second in line," the pilot assured us), and at the appropriate hour, began our taxi down the runway to take off. We're going great guns, and virtually in the air, when there's a loud BANG! and the plane slows down. Everyone wonders what the hell just happened, and the pilot immediately assures us that our right engine wasn't getting enough pressure, so we were going back to the terminal to let the engineers figure out if they could fix it or if they needed to take us all off of the plane. We make it back to the gate, and everyone sits there, trying to figure out if we're getting off or going on our way to the Midwest. After five or ten minutes, the pilot comes back on the intercom and informs us that we are indeed deplaning, and that we should see the agent at the gate to make substitute travel arrangements. When we get off, that agent asks everyone who is connecting in St. Louis to other cities to get in line, and everyone who is going only to the Gateway City to just wait.

Pidge, being the worrywart she is, gets on her cell to the airline and, after finding out it's okay to make the alternate arrangement (they have to get official word that the flight has been cancelled), books us on an 9:50 flight to Los Angeles, and an 11:35 flight from there to St. Louis, so we'll be late, but only by about three hours. It was darned fortunate she did this, since the two other SFO/STL flights and the all the LAX/STL flights were soon sold out. I would wager, though, that almost all of the original St. Louis-only passengers made it onto the LAX flight.
So, 9:30 comes and we all get on our second plane of the day. We again spread out and take our shoes off. The plane takes off a little late, but given that it's only a fifty-three minute flight, it shouldn't be a problem to make our connection.

The flight goes smoothly, and as we reach LA, I'm looking out the window at various landmarks, trying to figure out just where we are. One of the first things I notice is the Coliseum, which we slowly pass over from west to east. I start thinking that the airport is a good 15 miles west of the Coliseum, and I begin wondering we we're continuing so far east and away from the airport. Finally, somewhere over Orange County, we begin a long right turn and head back to LAX. I'm guessing that, coming in at that time of day, we're stuck in some kind of traffic holding pattern and our boarding time is drawing closer and closer. In the meantime, the flight attendant gives a rundown of which gates will be hosting which connecting flights. We hear where the St. Louis flight is connecting, but it doesn't really register. We figure we'll ask the person at the desk or check the monitors.

Finally -- just before 11 -- we land. However . . . I've been going to LAX for over 40 years, man and boy, and have never seen this particular part of the airport we landed at. We're -way- off to the west of the terminals (at least, I'm guessing that from how we taxi), and we taxi and taxi and taxi -- about ten minutes worth. All the time, I'm looking at my watch, and seeing our 11:05 boarding time come closer and rapidly fly away until we at last arrive at the terminal. We stop, everyone shoots out of their seats, and Pidge takes a few cuts (fortunately, we were near the front of the plane) by explaining we're rushing to make a connection. Everyone understands and lets us exit quickly.

We race to the monitors and see that our St. Louis flight is leaving fro mGate 48B -- the very same gate -- and plane -- we've just exited. Feeling like dopes, we look at the sign at the gate and see that the flight has been delayed from 11:30 to something like 11:55. Knowing we're okay, we sit and wait for the plane to empty and be serviced. Finally, we're ready to board, we get on, find our seats, spread out again, and wait for takeoff.

As we taxi down the runway, I notice an odor that smells like something burning. I'm alarmed for a second, but figure it's one of those airplane smells and ignore it.

I spend the first few minutes of the flight, just looking out the window at the amazing number of swimming pools in LA and trying to figure out where we are when, about ten minutes into the flight, the pilot comes over the intercom and mentions that we've had some mechanical problems and need to head back to LAX. We make another long slow turn and make our second landing of the day in Los Angeles. As we taxi back to the gate we'd just left, I notice a couple of fire engines tailing us. The pilot comes back on the com and tells us (again) that they're going to try to figure out what went wrong and if we'll need to deplane or continue on. I keep looking out the window and see a guy in a hazmat suit. Soon enough, the pilot comes back and tells us we need to get off. This time, though, there's nothing mentioned about alternate arrangements. Pidge tries calling the airline again, but since the flight still hasn't been officially cancelled, they can't rebook us.

As we get off, the woman at the desk makes the announcement to hang around the area until they figure out what they're going to do. A little after 12, they tell us that they have another plane and are going to put us all on it. They'll tell us where to go in a little while. A little after 12:30, they tell us they'll have an announcement by 1:15. Finally, about 1:10, they tell us that we all have to change gates, so we're moving down to gate 42. We get there and eventually the woman tells us that since the original flight has been cancelled, they're going to dragoon a plane that's due to leave to Mexico and put us all on it. But since the original flight has been cancelled, we'll all have to stand in line and get new boarding passes for the new flight -- the information about which will be forthcoming. All this time, the message baord in back of her is flashing contradictory information -- that our flight has been cancelled; that it hasn't; that it's leaving at 2, 2:15, or 2:30; that we should be at this gate; that we should be at another gate.

(Allow me to say here that the airline people we great; they kept us fully informed as best they could, even if the information they were getting from upstairs made no sense.)
After about 20 minutes in the new line, they tell us that the Mexico flight we were going to take over was going to proceed as planned, and that we were going to get a whole new plane. (Fortunately, we were at LAX, rather than some smaller airport that had fewer spare aircraft.) But we now all needed to go back to the original gate, although since it was the same kind of aircraft as the original one that had been pulled out of service (it turned out that it had an oil leak that seeped into the air conditioning -- hence the burning I smelled), we could keep our same boarding passes and seat assignments. The problem was that the plane we were getting wouldn't be in until about 2:15 and that, between cleaning and servicing it, we wouldn't take off until nearly 3. That was fine; just get us to St. Louis. (They also offered $10 meal vouchers, but we'd already eaten.)

Finally, the new plane comes in, they get everyone off, and the clock ticks closer to 2:45. The desk woman comes back on the loudpeaker and tells us that, because the flight crew is getting near the end of the time they can work, we have to have everyone on the aircraft, seated and belted up, and the door closed by 3:05, or they'll have to postpone they flight while they dig up another crew. That gets us all panicky, so we rush onto the plane. As we get on, the attendants make an announcement that some folks who were on the regularly scheduled 3:00 flight had snuck onto our plane (good security!) and had to get off -- NOW -- or else. We all do our best to hustle them off , and somehow we get it all done by 3, with five minutes to spare.

This time, we do not spread out, Pidge does not take out all her magazines, we do not take our shoes off. We get in the air, and we all hold our breaths, waiting to see what's going to happen this time.

Well, somehow, nothing does. We arrive at STL at 8:20, only seven hours late (which is actually remarkable, considering all we've been through), and as we head for baggage claim (and god only knows where our checked bags have been all this time), we can't help but notice that the St. Louis airport virtually rolls up its sidewalks early. At 8:30 on a Friday night, all the bars and shops and closed and locked (and, seeing the presence of janitors, seems that they have been closed for quite some time) and that there's virtually no one in the terminal.

We arrive at baggage claim, and after a very brief search, Pidge finds our bags, which had been put on the 12:00 SFO/STL flight. We picked them up, the woman at the desk checked out tags, and out we went to catch our Dollar rental car shuttle. The Dollar desk at the terminal was closed, so we called the number on the sign, told them we were there (we'd phoned earlier to push our car and hotel reservations back), and headed upstairs to the pickup area.

It was a cold and rainy night in St. Louis, but fortunately, the pick-up area was covered over. Fortunate in that after five, ten, fifteen minutes, the guy still wasn't there. Pidge called again to verify we were where we were supposed to be. Twenty minutes. Another couple shows up. Shuttles -- multiple shuttles -- from every other rental company pass us by and still nothing. Twenty-five minues. The guy from the other couple calls the company. "He's on his way."

Finally, after a half an hour, the guy shows with some lame excuse about how traffic was backed up at the other terminal and how he just couldn't make it any faster. (We were dubious, but after seeing how things were this morning, it might have been true.) He takes us to the rentl facility, we are able to get the car -- a Dodge PT Cruiser -- and head off to Carbondale.

Of course, since we're both hungry, we stop at a Jack in the Box to get some snacks and something to drink. That holds us up a little more, and we finally get on the road about 9:50, in the pouring rain.

Unbelieveably, the drive itself is uneventful -- if tiring -- and we make it to the Carbondale Holiday Inn just after midmight -- eighteen hours after we got up in Pacifica.

Coming up next: The Noisiest Hotel in the World

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