The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Thursday, August 21, 2008

New Brunswick - I hate planes

I went to New Brunswick for a couple weeks. It was great, because I did next to nothing. Ate a lot of good food (thanks to the culinary ability of other people!), watched a lot of TV, did a tiny bit of studying, laid on the couch. It was extremely relaxing. I'm so relaxed right now that I don't know how I'm ever going to go back to work.

Anyway, it was a nice visit. Also, I found out that my cousin in Texas had her baby, which was great news that has everyone quite excited. We're all looking forward to seeing some baby photos soon.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and I had to leave Moncton yesterday. But it seems that my bad luck when it comes to planes hadn't quite run its course*. Just after takeoff, I noticed that the plane wasn't gaining any altitude. The plane seemed to be banking around over the city in some kind of holding pattern. I remember thinking to myself, "This doesn't seem right..." Pretty soon the captain came on and announced that there was a problem with the instruments and we were going to have to go back. We wheeled around again, and came in for a landing. Because we were in a small, regional jet, we were being buffeted quite a lot by the winds, and the plane was bouncing and yawing around. I was sweating and feeling quite nervous, to be honest. We got closer and closer to the runway, when suddenly we powered up and started taking off again. If you've never experienced this, I have to tell you that it's fairly nerve-wracking. We gained some altitude, came around in a big circle, and (much to my relief) finally landed.

We then sat on the tarmac for another 45 minutes or so while technicians tried to fix the problem, and refuel the airplane. What with all of our messing around, we no longer had enough fuel to get to Montreal. We finally got off the ground over an hour late, so I knew I had missed my connection.

In Montreal, I tried to contact my sister-in-law, who was waiting for me in Toronto, but it was basically futile. I think that airlines need to have some way of notifying relatives of whether or not individuals got on a certain flight or not. The system is entirely computerized, so I'm sure it's feasible ... and people could select, at the time that they book their flight or something, whether or not they want that information made public.

Anyway, I finally got into Toronto about 3 hours late. My sister-in-law had been patiently waiting, with 5 kids (!) for me all afternoon, not knowing when I was going to show up. As you might expect (because, really, aren't airline people notoriously unhelpful?) she didn't get a lot of information from the staff at the airport until she had asked and asked and been directed to several different places.

And they say that air travel is just going to get worse. With rising fuel costs, airlines are cutting back on flights, so the remaining flights are going to be more congested AND more expensive. Service will likely decline; customers' tempers will get shorter, and there will be more conflict in the airports. The whole experience is going to become more unpleasant.

I also learned from a friend that Air Canada is no longer going to have any direct flights from Toronto to Tokyo after this fall. Let's hope I'm not doing much travelling after this year.

*Let's hope it has now, since I'm flying to Tokyo in 2 weeks!

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Ghastly Ordeal of J.H.B.

I'm back in Canada, but just barely. Things started bad and just got worse. Allow me to explain...

My first problem was a mistake in booking my ticket. I had to book it quite a long time in advance, so maybe I wasn't thinking very clearly, but I made a mistake and booked my flight the day AFTER the last day of my contract. I had to move out of my apartment on the last day, which meant that I had nowhere to stay for one night. I got a hotel with convenient access to the airport, but it cost me $80. Plus, my company only re-imburses travel to the airport if it's done on the last day of one's contract, so I had to shell out $20, putting me $100 down because of my own stupid mistake.

I got to the airport with plenty of time, hoping that I could get a good seat on the plane. Well, as it turns out, United Airlines now charges more for seats with extra leg room, so I was stuck with a regular seat. [Aside: economy air travel is getting to be so unbearably awful, while business/first class is so luxurious, it sometimes seems to me that the airlines are actually trying to make economy travel miserable in order to drive more people to pay for the better class seats.]

We were only about 15 or 20 minutes late leaving Tokyo, as I recall. The flight was pretty bad. As soon as we got up to cruising altitude, the captain warned everyone to stay in their seats, and we began experiencing heavy turbulence. At some points, the plane would lurch upwards and then plummet down like a roller coaster to hell. Some of the more excitable passengers were screaming; I wanted to scream, but couldn't because I was clenching my teeth too hard. We did eventually clear the turbulence, but it kept coming back. As it was, we were forced to remain in our seats for almost half the flight.

The other nice thing was the woman in front of me, who rammed her seat back onto my knees. I tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to raise her seatback. She did, but half an hour later, she tried to lower her seat again. I tapped her on the shoulder again, showed her my knees, which were brushing the back of her seat even with me sitting bolt upright. A couple hours later, she did it a third time. I tapped her on the shoulder again, and asked her to raise her seat; her answer was a whiny, "But I'm tired..." I just kept picturing the headlines: man decapitates woman on international flight using plastic knife.

I'm completely unable to sleep on planes, so I entertained myself by imagining her murder, with Sudoku, and by watching "The Chronicles of Narnia" three times (there were no other good movie choices). In this way, the 12 hour flight only felt like 18 hours.

When we landed in Chicago, the captain informed us that another plane was in our berth, so we would have to wait until that plane was cleared out of the way. That took about half an hour. Let me tell you, sitting in a plane on the ground is way more tedious than sitting in one that's flying. And because you're taxiing, you still can't leave your seat, no matter how much you might have to go to the bathroom.

We finally got off the plane. I hurried to try and be the first person from our flight to get through US customs. I was 5th in line off of our plane, but it made absolutely no difference because there were about 1000 people in line ahead of us. I had 2.5 hours to make my connection to Toronto, and I thought maybe, maybe I just might make it, but no luck. I was in the line for about 3 hours. In 3 hours, you get to recognize a lot of people in line, and I started to notice that some people like to try and jump the line. They make some excuse to leave the line first: maybe they have a small child with them, and keep going in and out of the line, ducking under the cordon, as if they are taking their kid to the bathroom. Or, they hold up a paper and sigh in exasperation, as if they mistakenly took the wrong customs form. They make it so that everyone is used to seeing them moving in and out of the line-up, but every time they come back to the line, it's ahead of where they started. In this way, the woman who had been sitting in front of me ("But I'm tired...") went from being about 50 people in the line behind me, to about 100 people ahead of me.

And then there was the loud, unwashed group of about 10 French-speaking men who were about 100 people behind me, and whom I kept passing as the line snaked its way through the hall. At some point, I noticed one of them starting to try and pass me. I said to him, "Hey, you weren't behind me before!" and he just said, "Okay, Okay." I insisted: "No, it's not okay. You have to go back!" and he muttered, "Okay, buddy. Okay," but stayed in his place. The young Japanese man behind me, who he had butted in front of, politely said to him, "Why don't you go back to where you were? You passed all these people. It's not fair." The man just sneered at him, stuck out his chin, and said, "Speak French!" Va te faire foutre.

The airline officials were almost as bad. A psychotic-looking man with a clipboard was jumping around by the entrance and angrily yelling, "Aer Lingus! Aer Lingus! Are there any Aer Lingus passengers?" and practically fell into a rage at one point, yelling, "I have no idea, because I DON'T WORK FOR THAT AIRLINE! Now are there any Aer Lingus passengers?!" A girl with a heavy Russian or Polish accent was checking our customs declarations card and berating anybody who had filled it out incorrectly. I hated her immediately as she began abusing the Japanese kid behind me, who hadn't filled out some blank field somewhere. But then she met up with the filthy Frenchmen, and they got into a shouting match with her, so I was reluctantly forced to take her side.

Tensions in the line were pretty high, and I guess that the majority of people who had connecting flights missed them, given that the wait was 3 hours. The problem is that customs and the airlines are completely independent of each other, so they don't make any effort to work together.

Having finally cleared customs and dealt with a year's worth of ignorant, angry, rude people, I had to find my bags. They told us to go to carousel 9, so of course, I found my bags in a heap beside carousel 8. I had to avoid being struck by a flying suitcase (I'm not making this up) which was being violently flung, along with all the other baggage, off the carousel by a drooling, 6'7" (possibly lobotomized) airline worker, who seemed to be the only person in the airport enjoying himself.

One man - a grown man, mind you - was having some kind of temper tantrum or emotional breakdown, and was yelling to no-one in particular, "Goddamnit, damnit, damn, you can't trust anybody anymore!!! Just go back to China then! Goddamnit! Where's my suitcase?!" About a second later, he grabbed a suitcase from the pile (I do hope it was his) and screamed, "Finally! Goddamnit!" and stalked off.

I couldn't find where I was supposed to go, so I just followed the angry cursing to a knot of bored-looking security officers who signed my customs form without looking at it or me, and then I proceeded to a baggage receiving area. A very nice man took my suitcases, told me where I should go next, and then passed my bags to a couple of distracted looking young men who were discussing "that bitch" and "what she done did" and what "I'm about to do to her" and the like. I knew that I would never see my suitcases again.

I went and got in line to get re-booked onto another flight. There were only about 20 people in line, so I was quite surprised when it took 2 hours to get through it. The woman booked me on the 9:30 pm flight to Toronto (my original flight was supposed to land at 9 in Toronto) and made no apologies or comments about me having missed my flight. If you were looking for sympathy from anybody, this was not the place. Two men in front of me were re-booked onto a flight to Montreal that was leaving at 6 a.m. the next day; they told me that the airline wouldn't pay for their hotel for the night, because it was the fault of Customs, not the airline.

I went through security (again) and was yelled at by the guard: "Shoes OFF! Shoes OFF! All footwear comes OFF!" as if I was the dumbest animal he'd ever met. I thought to myself, a sign, prominently displayed and perhaps saying something like, "Please remove shoes" would be an awesome idea in a place like this, I wonder if anybody's ever thought of it? I removed my shoes, stuffed them into my bag, then was ordered to remove my laptop from my bag for inspection, and to present my passport and boarding pass (again). By this point, I was entirely discombobulated, and I was holding up the line, so I grabbed all my stuff, zippers hanging open, staggered off in sock feet to a quiet corner, and got my stuff together. At this point, I had a panic attack because I thought I had lost my passport and boarding pass, but it was just that I had stuffed them in the wrong bag in the confusion.

Once my heartrate dropped back to a sustainable level, I realized that I had better call the airport and leave a page or message or something for my dad because he would be waiting for me and I wouldn't be on the 9 o'clock flight. Let me present the following in point form:

-no money: find an ATM
-can't find an ATM: ask at information
-ATM down there, sir. I go down there, cards don't work.
-try another ATM. Card works! Withdraw $20.
-go get change. Can't get change. Buy a drink, get change from that.
-go to phone. Try to dial information to get number of Pearson Airport in Toronto.
-"Please deposit another $4.50 to continue with this call." Only have $3.
-Stick in credit card, enter credit card number, expiry date, security code, billing address zip code. This is 26 digits in total. (*)
-Get a number for Pearson. Go to (*) to make another call.
-Call the number; it is out of service.
-Go back to (*), call directory assistance again, get another number.
-Go to (*), call the number; it turns out to be a Fax number.
-Go to (*), call information for the third time.
-Say, "I'd like the number for Pearson International Airport, BUT...", woman connects me to automatic voice system before I have a chance to say anything. Get the first (useless) number I got before.
-Go to (*), call information, but explain that the first 2 numbers didn't work. Get a 3rd number.
-Go to (*), call the number, it is also not in service.
-Give up - I have been calling for 30 minutes and it's time to get on my flight.

I proceeded through O'Hare airport and found my gate. About 5 minutes after boarding was scheduled to commence, I notice that most people who were there before are gone. Where did everyone go? What the hell? Another passenger checks the board and notices that they have changed the gate without telling anybody! They changed the gate, and there was no announcement! Fuming, but too tired to actually be angry, I trudged to the gate. Of course (of course!) our flight was delayed, so I hadn't missed anything.

One poor woman was working the gate by herself, and loudly complaining about it. "Why I gotta do all this bullshit by myself ... it's always like this ... I don't know ... " etc. Finally, almost one hour late, it is time to board the plane. She screams at the passengers, "Open your passport to show your PHOTO! Have your passports ready! I am all ALONE up here! I have to do everything by MYSELF!"

By this point in the proceedings, I was absolutely exhausted, and the flight to Chicago was like a dream. It was absolutely smooth, no problem. Off to the east of us, we were treated to a spectacular light show from what was, without a doubt, the most active lightning display I have ever seen: constant lightning, 2 or 3 flashes every second, for 10 minutes or more, lighting up entire cloudbanks. It was amazing. I wish I could have filmed it.

We landed in Toronto, and the final insult: as I expected, they lost my bags. I came out of the gate at 1 a.m., 4 hours late, and found Dad waiting there in the empty arrivals lounge. I was expecting him to be in a bad mood, but he was just happy to see me.

As of this writing, I still haven't received word about my bags. I slept away most of the day today, so didn't phone, but I guess I'd better hassle them tomorrow.

Let me leave you with a last thought: America is a cess-pit. Too many Americans are assholes, and a lot of people from other countries are even worse. United Airlines definitely sucks. For all its problems, at least Japan is a place where you are rarely yelled at by customer "service" people, and other people know how to keep their place in line. I would rather ride a packed Tokyo subway train every day for a year than go through what I went through in one day of travelling by United Airlines through the U.S.