Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Air Bubba

I've just arrived back in the UK (grrrr) from a two-week visit back home to Virginia. God knows, I needed a rest. To say I was totally ragged out would have been an understatement in the least. So I should be rested and revitalised, right?

Dead wrong.

I'm stressed beyond belief.

The holiday (or vacation as it's called in the States) started badly evened out into relaxation and fun, and ... just when I was totally relaxed and feeling homesick at the prospect of leaving the new, blue Commonwealth of Virginia, the proverbial shit hit the fan, and believe you me, it was a mighty rude awakening.

You know how you can always tell when something isn't going to be 'quite right'? How niggly littel things occur that are a foretaste of something whiffy to come?

The first hint occurred on the Saturday before I left, the last day in February, when I was looking out the digital camera to pack. It wasn't in its case. As I recalled the husband had last been seen with it a few weeks back, taking pictures of the dogs, I asked him where he'd put it.

He insisted that I'd had it last and told me off for never putting things back where they belonged. An argument ensued, of course, after I'd reminded him of where I'd last seen the article. The argument was tabled, with a promise from him that he'd find it the next day. When the next day arrived, he 'suddenly remembered' how he'd taken the camera, the previous week, with him on his daily walk with the dogs down the local canal. He'd hoped to take pictures of ducks. Well, you know the story: He's aiming for a shot, the dog pulls the leash and - Bob's your uncle! - the camera's at the bottom of the canal.

He'd neglected to tell me because I would have lost my temper.

Did I lose my temper? Well, yes, I did. But had he told me when it happened, the hissy fit would have been over and done with, and a new camera would have been purchased.

But that's not all he did.

When my trip was booked, early in February, the husband dissuaded me vehemently from flying directly from London Heathrow into Washington Dulles. Heathrow's a pain in the ass to access and we live closer to Gatwick. The only direct flights from Gatwick were far more expensive than British Airways, so the husband convinced me to fly via US Airways to Charlotte, North Carolina and connect there for Washington Dulles. I wouldn't arrive any later in Washington and I'd only be about 12 hours in transit, with enough time (about 3 hours) in between flights. And all for a cheaper price than BA, the most econimical.

A doddle, right? Couldn't be easier. Well, it looked good on paper.

Of course, that Monday, 2 March, the Southeastern coast of the US was blanketed in snow and the flight from London was delayed. No problem. It would arrive an hour later. The Brit man at the US Airways check-in in London assured me that, although I'd have to clear customs in Charlotte and grab my bags from baggage claim, the connection service was 'just around the corner', 'very swift' and I would easily make my connection.

First piece of misinformation.

We arrived in Charlotte, after 9 hours' flying, at the stated time of 4:30 PM EST. Boarding time for my 6PM flight to Dulles was 5:30 PM.

Normally, when I've flown home, although the line at Passport Control is long, especially with US citizens re-entering, it's faster, because all the Border Control agents have to do is a cursory check of your passport and - bingo! - you're in. It's always been my husband who's left fuming in the 'Non-US Citizens' queue for ages on end.

Not this time.

Sure, there were fewer Brits on the plane, but for some reason (and this must be a legacy of the Bushwacker years), aliens holding Green Cards NOW are entitled to enter along with US Passport holders. Fair enough, except that the Green Carders are fingerprinted on both hands, and photographed assiduously; and this takes an untold amount of time. At 5:10PM, I was still waiting processing and had yet to claim my bag. I started to fidget, muttering that I'd never make my connection. The girl in back of me in the line remarked that she never had this problem when she flew home via Philly, only through Charlotte.

I finally got processed, by which time ALL the unclaimed baggage had been removed from the carrel and was about to be carted away, when I grabbed my bag from the pile and legged it around the corner to the connections' desk. The failed Southern society lady manning the desk, smiled, informed me that my connecting flight had, in fact, been delayed, took my bag and told me that the flight wouldn't be leaving before 7:30 PM. Both the bag and I had ample time to board the aircraft. So I walked the circuitous route to the proper concourse.

Then the second niggly warning occurred. As I ambled toward the proper departure gate, I noticed, all about me, instead of proper seating outside franchise eating places, were white rocking chairs. At first, I thought this a quaint acknowledgement of the relaxed and easy living emblematic of the Deep South. Then I began to worry. A Southerner, myself, I knew full well that that lackadaisical symbol of the old rocking chair was the first sign of creeping Bubbadom and a hop, skip and a jump from Deliveranceland.

I quickened my pace.

I reached the gate, and to my surprise, they were boarding the aircraft, but without any sort of urgency or hurry. I entered the plane, which was almost empty, took my seat and waited as, from time to time, more people boarded. I heard one of the two stewardesses remark to a passenger that she'd been trying to leave Charlotte since 2PM the previous day, but hadn't been able to, due to the snow. Looking out the window, there didn't seem to be very much snow about at all, but I knew that anytime it snowed south of Danville, it was a major catastrophe. We sat there for about an hour until the flight eventually left at 7:30, arriving at Dulles within an hour.

Well, I arrived, my two bags didn't. They never made the plane. In fact, hardly anyone's bags did. So there I was at Dulles, with nothing but the clothes I was wearing, searching for my friend from high school who was going to meet me. She, in turn, was in an airport bar, enjoying a cocktail, because the flight information re US Airways still said my flight was delayed. After about an hour of floundering about and initialising a claim for my lost bits of luggage, Robin and I managed to connect. As my luggage contained a bottle of French wine, we'd planned on imbibing that evening, we hurried to the nearest Giant Foods to purchase some local Virginia vino (surprisingly good Merlot) and an extra toothbrush for me; and after a night of catching up on a year's worth of gossip, I fell into bed, wearing some of Robin's pajamas, at about 5AM on Tuesday morning, with 10 inches of proper snow on the ground outside.

As it happens, my luggage arrived early the next afternoon at my aunt's rural Fauquier County home before I did.

Things settled down after that, although, looking at my return itinerary, I was more than a bit perturbed that there were only 50 minutes between my return flight from Dulles to Charlotte and the flight back to London. So on my last Sunday Stateside, this past one, I rang US Airways to voice my concern about whether or not I'd make that connection, but they assured me that 50 minutes was ample time, that everything was on time and if there were any delay, they'd ring me in the morning and make alternative arrangements. I was mollified.

The next day, when I arrived at the airport, the niggle started again.

I go to check one bag in (prescience told me to hang onto the carry-on bag), and was told by a surly woman on ground crew, who looked like a domestic, to 'use the automatic check-in'. I did, whereupon she reluctantly took the bag and checked it through to London Gatwick. I asked again about the short time between connections and her abrupt reply was, 'It's legal.'

What? Like it's against the law to have a connection interval of less than a certain number of minutes? Or does it mean that it exonerates the airlines from any potential blame?

Well, anyway, boarding time was 5:34PM. But by 5:05, no plane had shown up. Then, instead of a tannoy announcement, US Airways surreptitiously slides the information on his overhead board that 'the flight is delayed until 6:22 PM.' Then '6:38 PM'. No one was on hand at the desk to ask any information or advice, so I phoned the 800 number on my e-ticket and voiced my concern that now the flight wouldn't arrive in Charlotte until around 8PM and my London flight left at 8:25PM. The detached voice told me to seek guidance and information from one of the ground crew at the departure gate.

'But there's no one there, ' I wailed. She directed me to the next gate, where I found the surly woman who hadn't checked my bag originally. She told me to go back to my departure gate and she'd be along in a few minutes. By 6:00 PM a man from Ground Crew showed up. An Indian girl and I were travelling to London and she was worried about missing the connection.

'Not our problem here,' twanged the man, who was missing several front teeth. 'Cain't do nothin' at Dulles. But, don't worry, plane'll be here in a few minutes, we'll turn it right around and head fer Charlotte. You'll make the connection. Concourse D's only about a five-minute walk from where we land.'

That didn't satisfy or comfort me. In fact, it did nothing to instill any sort of confidence in me. It alarmed me.

'Wait a minute,' I interjected. 'What if we DON'T make our connection? What if the plane leaves without us? You see, I've done everything right here, it's not my fault your plane's late. What happens?'

'Not our problem,' he smiled beatifically. Really. 'Charlotte'll sort you out.' (As if 'Charlotte' were a living, breathing person with a heart). 'Mebbe send yer down ter Atlanta and fly yer out on Delta.' He shrugged his shoulders. He wasn't even looking at the other girl and me.

By that time, I was incensed.

'Do I LOOK like General Sherman?' I shouted. 'I don't want a tour of the South, I need to be in London tomorrow morning and at my desk by 10AM!'

'You'll get there,' he purred. 'You'll make it.'

By the time the plane arrived, fifteen minutes later, he'd been replaced by a Chinese man who spoke, at best, unintelligible pidgen English.

'We turn prane round. People off. People on. You go.' I kid you NOT, that's what he said.

In point of fact, 'prane' didn't 'turn round.' It sat there until the designated departure time of 6:38PM, and as we taxied down the runway, I looked sadly at the two British Airways planes, loading for a direct flight to London, and at the Virgin Atlantic plane, doing the same. I could have been on any of those; but I was flying to Charlotte.

We landed at 7:55 PM, but they didn't open the plane doors until 8:05 PM. I legged it. Five minutes' walk? Walking, it would have taken twenty. I ran and made it in fifteen, as they were sounding the final call for boarding. I got on the plane. The Indian girl followed and before she sat down, we were in motion, down the runway, bound for Gatwick airport. At that point, I knew, without a doubt, my luggage was someplace in the bowels of Charlotte Airport.

I was right.

Once again, but calmly this time, I went through the claim procedure. The miserable British woman who served me (customer service people are ALWAYS miserable and curt in Britain), told me my luggage would arrive on the next flight from Charlotte on Wednesday morning, and be delivered to my house, an hour away, by late afternoon or early evening.

By 10:15 AM yesterday, I was at my desk, sorting out a business crisis that had arisen in my absence. It's now 11:45PM on Wednesday evening, and I'm sat here in the same clothes I've worn (I've actually bathed three times, thank God) since Monday. And guess what?

No luggage arrived.

As the reclaim centre at Gatwick closes at 5PM, I had to ring US Airways in Charlotte. It was like talking to Mayberry RFD. The girl was chewing gum and cracking it as we spoke.

'Wale, ma'am,' she drawled, 'I could call the erport fer ya, but sometimes them British doan answer.'

When she said that, I put the phone down.

Bubba Air, Redneck Airlines, has arrived.

The French used to say, about Spain, that Africa began at the Pyrenees. I'm beginning to think that the Kingdom of Bubbadom begins at the Smokies, somewhere south of Danville.

Speaking as a Southerner, the right side won the War.

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