Tuesday, March 14, 2006

your flight has been cancelled

On Saturday I found myself early in the afternoon in the Nashville Airport, awaiting a flight home to Charlotte. I arrived in plenty of time for the connection, and watched UNC lose to Boston College in one of the restaurants. I soon learned that my flight, at 4:30 p.m., had been delayed. Why, I asked. There is fog in Charlotte. In the meantime, some of my friends had reservations on the 6:30 flight, also to Charlotte. In time it arrived, and departed. No comment from the airline staff. Then the Philadelphia flight arrived, and departed. Again no comment from the airline staff, who were deeply involved with their computers but oblivious to the people. 6:30 p.m. came, 7:00 came. I asked the young guy standing there if he could let us know what was happening. The airplane is on the way, he told us. But I could talk with the supervisor.

I found her at another station, where she could also interract with her computer, although by now there were very few flights and almost no one in the airport. I asked about a provision for a meal. Oh, they didn't give you a meal voucher? They should have. She printed one out, but by now all of the restaurants in the airport were closed for the evening. There is a candy machine, one of the helpful security folks told me.

I asked the supervisor if there was anything she wanted to tell me about the 4:30 flight. She looked at me as if I had asked an unexpectedly unusual question, as if I had inquired about a Faulkner novel or human genome research. By now it is after 7:00 p.m. I had hoped to be back in Charlotte to have a (late) dinner with my wife, but this was not going to happen. She called Charlotte. The plane had not left the airport. There was no crew. A few minutes later the flight was cancelled.

Why, I asked. Had the later flight made it through whatever fog existed? She couldn't say. She placed me, as a backup, on the 6:00 a.m. flight the next day. Remember, I am a minister, so a Sunday morning flight is not a good thing. I explained this to her. You'll make it for the early service, she said, matter of factly.

I returned to my gate, where I met the other silent partner/employee. I went up to her. I was the only one there. Can I help you?, she asked. It was as if we had never met, although by now we are old acquaintances. It had been a long day. Yes, I responded. I am on the 4:30 flight. That has been cancelled, she said, as if this might complete our discussion. When I did not leave, she asked a question: Did I have a place to stay that night? No, I replied, I don't live here. She began interracting with her computer again, complaining that it was doing strange things that day. She put me on the morning flight, and then made a call to someone, which turned out to be a reservation at a Comfort Inn or Best Western, she could not remember which. It is one of those, she said. Just look for the van near baggage claim. I realized that she was probably functioning as well as she could. She put her hand on her neck, as if she were checking her pulse. My flight would be at 6:00 the next morning. The hotel had a shuttle beginning at 5:00.

I did fantasize, in an odd moment, about how different life might be if our president had come from the airline industry rather than the oil business. Maybe the airlines might not all be going bankrupt, perhaps they might be making record profits and putting some of that money into the airline business itself, maybe actually flying the planes that are scheduled. And maybe the oil companies might be on the verge of bankruptcy. Then I awakened from this odd fantasy.

So, I wrote down Comfort Inn or Best Western on a sheet of paper, and walked to baggage claim. There in the office of the airline (I am trying to avoid mentioning it's name) was my bag. Of the four employees I had encountered in my five hours at the airport that day, the woman at the baggage office was the most surly. Maybe she had passed a personality test that qualified her for this particular role. I took the bag and went out to wait for the van, either Comfort Inn or Best Western, or maybe both words would be on the same van.

A few minutes later the van arrived. Another couple joined us. They had missed their flight to Miami, their home, because the wife was smoking a cigarette outside somewhere and had gotten the time mixed up. They were stressed out, to say the least. We arrived at the hotel, one of the more rustic ones near the airport. I am sure the hotel had been chosen by some financial person in the corporation who would never have to actually stay there. I asked for a non-smoking room, but there were only smoking rooms left, unless I wanted to pay extra. The airline would not pay for it. I would need to pay the difference.

It has been that kind of day, I thought to myself. I wondered about the future logic of driving from Charlotte to Nashville, maybe renting a car, on my four meetings a year. I asked for a wakeup call at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, and reminded the guy at the desk that I would need to leave promptly at 5:00 a.m., my flight being at 6:05 a.m. I would be cutting it close. 15 minutes to the airport, 5-I0 minutes at the ticket desk, 10 minutes going through security, maybe 5 minutes getting to the gate. If everything went well, I would arrive 20-30 minutes prior to departure, assuming the flight actually existed, or left on time. By now I am paranoid about the whole experience. I must admit that I did not have full confidence in the hotel employee, who was, I am guessing, from some place in eastern Europe. He did not strike me as especially competent or focused on the work.

I did remember, several times, to pray the serenity prayer, the part about the things I could not change.

I woke up the next morning at 4:00 a.m., having slept perhaps three hours. I got my things together, and went down the lobby. A nice Asian woman was staffing the desk now. The hotel did have a restaurant, which offered a complimentary full and delicious breakfast, but not at 4:30 in the morning. I was able to eat some raison bran, and had made coffee in my room. I waited for 5:00 a.m., along with the couple from Miami. 5:00 a.m. came. 5:05 came. At 5:07 the driver arrived, we went out to the van, put out bags in. I am guessing that he was hispanic (although most drivers I have encountered are Haitians). He pulled out his notebook, recorded the mileage, how many passengers, made some other calculations and notations, etc. He then drove less than the speed limit on the almost deserted path to the airport.

I arrived back again at the same ticket counter I had passed through the day before. Thankfully, I was ahead and not behind what looked like a high school soccer team. I got the ticket. Did I want to check any bags, I was asked. No, I am keeping them with me, I replied. I tried to remember that no one I was meeting had anything to do with what had happened the day before. I passed through a fairly busy security line. Like grocery stores in the middle of the night, most lanes were closed, and the people who staff them are more about compliance that customer service. I made it through. It was now 5:45 a.m., Nashville time.

I boarded the plane and continued to work on a Sunday School lesson that I would teach a little later that morning. We left, more or less, on time. The last passengers aboard were an assertive/aggressive couple with a young baby, who came in at the last minute and demanded (in a questioning way) if someone would rearrange themselves to accomodate them. A fellow moved to the seat across from me in this shuffle; he had an earring and his hair was bleached. It turns out that he is a country music television producer. We talked about Merlefest.

I read a little, drank the complimentary coffee, and looked forward to seeing Pam at the Charlotte airport. We landed safely at 8:20 a.m., having lost an hour on the 50 minute flight home. We stopped at a Bojangles to have breakfast, and there I changed into my church clothes.


Blogger tnshill said...

I had been so excited about catching a glimpse of you nodding off during the sermon. You know - when the preacher does so it somehow excuses the others. Well this story just wrecks that concept. Now I'll have to live with the guilt again.....It's a great albeit familiar story though. As they say - I know the feeling. And a lot of times when you're in those airports and you see others who are going through those "times", it's easy to relate to and sympathize with them.

4:53 PM  

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