In those wonderful days before 9-11, before United bought Continental, before full body scans – back when it took guts to travel. This is a true story of a business trip gone bad.
My flight to Washington Dulles (from luxurious Newark, New Jersey) was scheduled for 5:00pm so dutifully I got to the airport at 3:00pm. I had no idea why. In the history of airports, no flight between Newark and Dulles, on a Friday afternoon, has ever flown within three hours of its designated time. Showing up two hours early was simply a display of anal stupidity on my part. Still, as a traveler, you harbor the hope that this might be the exception to the rule. I heard there were weather delays due to fog, so I figured I might be able to catch the 3:00pm flight. Experience has told me that all it takes is a car backfiring in a three state area to grind air traffic to a halt. There’s a subtle art to navigating delay situations at Newark; one which I thought I’d mastered, but my experiences this particular Friday taught me I hadn’t.
I got my ticket for the 5:00pm flight and noticed that I was now on the 7:45pm flight. That’s generally not a good sign…cancelling a flight and rescheduling me on another flight hours in advance. I hoofed it down to C85 – at the extreme end of one of the three wings that make up concourse C. I was determined to catch that 3:00pm Dulles flight(this was back in the days when you could simply switch flights before an upgrade fee.) I had commitments, as did my wife, that required my physical body back home.
I saw the plane was there, jetway attached, jetway door opened. The monitors showed it wasn’t even loading yet – in fact it wasn’t taking off for ten minutes. Yes! I asked the gate attendant, we’ll call her Jody for the sake of this story, if I can get on the flight.
“No sir, that flight already boarded,” this far-too-peppy Jody replied.
“I don’t want to burst your bubble, but it’s right there,” I pointed. I swear, the plane was there, door open, jetway still attached. I could see the co-pilot chatting with the flight attendant.
“Sorry, we’ve closed out the flight. It’s gone. You can always catch the 5:00pm flight,” Jody replied. Apparently the plane I saw wasn’t really there, some sort of new stealth technology that Continental was testing for the government. Continental’s theory is that if you say it enough, it becomes reality…laws of physics be damned.
“No, I can’t.”
“Yes you can.”
“The 5:00pm flight is cancelled. Listen I don’t want to argue or anything,” a lie, “but the plane door is still open. You can key me in and I can get home.”
“Sorry sir, I can’t help you.” Another lie. It was her turn in the game we were playing.
Lying was a competency that Continental displayed a lot this particular evening. Yes, I had a fantasy moment of strangling Jody right then and there, but I let it pass.
So, my new flight was at C130 – the other far end of the extreme wing of the C concourse. I slothed down there and had dinner. Important tip here – never eat a burrito from a place advertising Hawaiian cuisine. I had time to kill, even if that was spent in a bathroom. You know you are a pessimist when risk stomach cramping simply to kill time. Thankfully I was spared the ordeal of time in the restroom. I powered up my PC, did some work, read a book, worked on writing my new novel, killed time…I had a lot to kill. Remember, don’t leave the gate area because information may change at any time.
At around 7:00pm, while at the gate, I noticed our 7:45pm flight was starting to move, not physically, but through time/space continuum.. Now it was 9:00pm flight – then five minutes later, it became a 9:33pm flight. I cracked up. Here’s an airline that can’t get you pinned down to what hour you’re leaving, somehow know you’re departing 33 minutes after the hour. It was so precise it implied an intelligence I knew didn’t exist. At that point I was still able to chuckle. Anyway, it morphed into a 9:45pm flight a few minutes later. Wow, that 12 minutes difference changed everything (read with extreme sarcasm)
At this point I was ready to switch to Washington National and fly there, catch a cab, and get to Dulles. The board told me that the National flights were also being delayed due to a fog that frankly, didn’t look too bad outside. Best to ride this one out. In the end this judgment call turned out to be the best choice.
At 10:20pm (for the record, our “on-time departure,” was still showing as 9:45pm), we got the word that we would be leaving at 11:00pm. Now we were in the danger zone. I went to the abandoned (at that time) Continental service desk and did some research. The 9:00am flight to Dulles in the morning was already booked. That meant if I flew on Saturday I was getting home sometime in the evening at this point. Options were dwindling.
At 11:12pm the word came down from Gary, a short red-sport-coated man of authority (that’s what the red coats mean, right?) Our flight was cancelled. “No problem. We’re putting you on a flight to Reagan National airport.” Swamped and alone, the other ticket agent working with Gary, seeing the angry mob, grabbed her purse and went home for the night. Another agent working the gate, seeing his plight, abandoned him as well. God bless the American work and customer satisfaction ethics.
I felt bad for Gary until I saw he couldn’t deal with the pressure, snapping at people, making up stuff as he went. I began to see that the red jackets really didn’t mean much. I think he stole his.
Okay, Gary couldn’t process everything at once. Frankly he couldn’t process one thing at a time very well. He finally cooked up a story that Continental would pay for the Washington Flyer bus service to take us to Dulles. As a point of order, the Washington Flyer bus doesn’t run from National to Dulles – and hadn’t for months. I pointed out this lie to him and told him that the luggage agent at National could issue us vouchers for cabs. Suddenly, I became the “Gate Leader and Spokesperson for the Irritated Flyers,” a role I relished. I think I deserve a red jacket, really. I wonder where Gary stole his from? Could I have one?
Gary struggled for 20 minutes processing one person for the next flight. I staged a coup, rounded up all of the people, and we rush to the gate at the other end of the airport, leaving Gary dazed, confused, but happy we were leaving. According to the monitors the National Flight was boarding at, yes, you guessed it, C-85 – the other end of the EWR universe and was going to board any minute. I made a mental note; “next time steal a Cushman cart to help get there faster.” This becomes important later on…
We got there en masse – sweaty- breathing hard, but still clinging to the hope we might actually fly. Substantiating that hope we were all assigned seats. There was a teeming and aromatic group already there. I asked status and was told, by someone I’ll call, “Becky,” that, “the aircraft is here and we just finished fueling it. We’re waiting on your crew and they’ll be here at 11:45pm.”
I point out to her that after midnight, jets cannot fly into Washington Reagan airport due to noise abatement restrictions. Yes, I’ve done this hop before, I know the rules. “Are we really going there tonight?” I kept mentally telling myself that I didn’t want to go to that airport anyway. “Most assuredly sir.” Her lie was cloaked in my belief that she didn’t know what noise abatement was.
At midnight, with no updates, I went to the counter along with a suite of bodyguards/other victims, ready to demand answers. Now things started getting interesting. “We thought we had your plane but when we went down there, there wasn’t any aircraft there. So now we’re waiting on your crew and an airplane.”
Blaine’s comment: “So what were you putting fuel in a half an hour ago?”
Becky, “Huh?” She was a real Mensa Society member – this one.
“Never mind.” Pardoe’s Law Number 227: “Never get into a logic debate with an idiot. It only gives you headaches.”
Five minutes passed and I think she realized that she was caught up in a lie because she seemed to want to get us out of there. Suddenly Becky makes a furious phone call and announces, “Washington National passengers, your flight has been moved to Gate 103 (in the yet unexplored part of C-Concourse during this trip). It departs in 15 minutes. She’s a genius Becky. This was a great way to get us out of there…another lie. I have no doubt she will go far in Continental.
We started to run, then I spotted it – our ride. I commandeered a Cushman cart (those idiots should not have left it charging with the keys in it), and sped our way down to Gate 103 in caravan, (yes, I went with women and children first on the Cushman,) to find a ground crew sitting there eating their dinner, staring at us with confused expressions – confused because we (okay I) had obviously stolen the cart from somewhere in the terminal. (My thoughts were simpler: “I wouldn’t be eating with those fingers.”) Yes, there’s a plane here, I could see it out the window. But no one has any idea why we’re there. Heaven forbid that the staff there go off and get help. As the duly elected spokesperson for the group, I take off and find, 20 minutes later, a red-coated man from Continental who taps the keyboard, then leaves without saying a word. Ahh, this is the kind of service I would expect in, shall we say, a prison? Or a Carnival Cruise ship?
Now at this point, we’re all tired, sweaty, cranky, and one woman has begun to paint her face with makeup as if she were stranded in the jungle. I’m reminded of Lord of the Flies and realize by the time the next shift arrives, we’ll be in loincloths. Two gentlemen (they owned suits) show up from Continental to assure us that there is indeed an aircraft outside (thank God it wasn’t a mirage), and that our crew is at Dulles, on the ground there. They will be taking off in an hour or so and if they land, they’ll transfer to this aircraft, prep it, and we’ll take off for National – an airport you can’t fly into with a jet in the middle of the night.
Needless to say, this story wasn’t adding up. They updated the departure to 1:45am, which was physically impossible given the flight time from Dulles to Newark (our current time was 1:10am). I pointed this out to, we’ll call him, “Sparky,” who assured me that I didn’t understand the laws of physics as Continental airlines did. I confirmed with Sparky at that point in time that the flight at Dulles was sitting on the ground, due to fog now at their end of the travel spectrum. Our “on-time” departure was moved, by Sparky, to 2:00am. I guess that was supposed to satisfy me. Oddly enough it didn’t.
After my carefully crafted lecture on the space time continuum from a kid that was younger than the pair of loafers I was wearing – I contacted our travel agency, the good old boys at American Express. They wanted my emergency code, which I told them I was not going to dig out of my bag. I couldn’t. The guy next to me was dismantling his seat to make a spear. Things were getting ugly. In 10 seconds our Amex guy had my profile up. “Options?”
“Not a lot.” Train tomorrow, then a $100 cab ride to your car. Estimated time home, 3:00pm. Fly home at the whim of the idiot-brigade at Continental and I could be at my car at Dulles, at around 3:30pm. I had family commitments, so I was feeling, well, screwed.
Solution – a rental car. I told the guy at travel this, verbatim, “Dude, you have to get me home. Get me a car that can do that.”
“I’m on it dude.” I swear. We called each other dude. It was a very straight bonding moment in a night when nothing had gone right.
I took the monorail, which was down twenty-minutes for maintenance, to the Hertz rental car place. That trip normally would have frustrated me, but in reality, it was the smoothest part of my night since we were moving, albeit slowly. I dashed into Hertz and standing there was, “Little Korean Hertz Guy”, keys in hand, paperwork ready, and sent me on my way, “You in spot 80 Mista Pardoe…you go now!”
The car – a brilliant orange, brand new Mustang, fully loaded – only missing a gun for signaling lane changes on the NJ portion of the turnpike. A perfect completely non-discreet car when cruising at warp factor seven down the turnpike in the middle of the morning. I’m sure no police will pay attention to me. I would have been only slightly more conspicuous if I had a keg of beer and a stripper pole strapped to the roof.
You see a lot of strange things at rest stops on the turnpike system at 3:00am in the morning. Who would have thought that a Maryland Rest Area was the kind of place to spawn amorous activity? I have enough material for my next novel or two, tentatively titled, “Rest Area Romp.” You know you’re in a Maryland rest area when you stop, get out, and a pair of naked butt cheeks slap up into the steamed up window a foot away from you. I can only wish that I was making this up. That image is burned in my mind to this day. Add in the rain, the damned fog, and countless police officers looking for suspicious vehicles – which an orange Mustang qualifies as, and you have the makings of a bad 1980’s movie.
To answer all of the obvious questions, I got to home at 6:30am Saturday, scaring the hell out of my wife who had almost given me up for dead. Logistically, one tank of gas will do it; it takes three 20 ounce Diet Mountain Dews, a candy bar (Hersey’s) and a bag of Utz extra salty potato chips to travel at that hour with no sleep. The cost was still significantly less than if I had gotten a hotel room at the airport Marriott.
I have long hoped over the years that when United and Continental merged that the characters at Newark Airport lost their jobs. In reality, they probably were promoted. While none of this could happen today with all of the airport security, I will always relish the thought of stealing and driving a Cushman cart of angry passengers around Newark.