Standby Status

For the last leg of yesterday’s three-hop trip from Boise to Columbus, I was on “standby status.”  My flight from Salt Lake City was to get in to Detroit at about 7:20 p.m., and there was a flight from Detroit to Columbus at 7:55 that was sold out.  I was put on the standby list for that flight, and the ticket agent told me that I would be number two on the list.  If I didn’t get on the standby flight, I was confirmed for a seat on a flight two hours later.

metro_airport_inside_mcnamara_terminal_20130916171656_640_480Standby status is weird.  It’s by definition contingent, of course, but it immediately spurs analysis of the key factors that will affect whether you will make it on the standby flight, as well as lots of wishful thinking.  I knew the Detroit airport is huge, and the 35-minute time period between landing and taking off was ludicrously tight, requiring the incoming flight to be on time and the standby gate to be within reasonable sprinting distance of the arrival gate.  (Reasonable sprinting distance, that is, for a 61-year-old guy who doesn’t jog for exercise.)  If I was going to make it, all of those factors, none of which were under my control, had to go my way.

But even if those dominoes fell, I still needed some confirmed passengers to not show up for their flight.  Well, sure, that could happen, right?  After all, I was only number two on the list.  Maybe some incoming flight would be delayed by weather or mechanical issues, or a few of the confirmed passengers on the standby flight just wouldn’t show up.  I found myself hoping that some of the faceless passengers on the confirmed flight would just miss their flight so I could get a seat.  I was a bit ashamed of hoping that fellow travelers would experience such misfortune, but the urge to get home two hours earlier overwhelmed all basic instincts of human kindness and brotherhood.

When the pilot on the flight from Salt Lake City announced that we would arrive in Detroit early, it looked like the dominoes might just fall my way.  But when I emerged at my gate, ready to run, I learned that the standby flight was itself delayed and wouldn’t be leaving until after my confirmed flight.  Alas!  I therefore immediately shucked off my standby status and strode forward into the Detroit airport as a confirmed passenger, wishing nothing but good for the world.

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Today’s Travel Tribulations

The travel day started uneventfully.  I got to the airport in plenty of time for my flight to Newark.  The plane loaded and left on time, and actually landed in Newark about 20 minutes early.

Then, it all went horribly wrong.

5644ef75112314303e8b4807-750-563Because we were early, and because the airlines never want to leave a gate unoccupied, of course there was a departing plane at our gate.  So we waited for the plane to leave.  Then the captain announced that there were a bunch of other planes looking to use the same runway, so we would have to wait for the runway to clear.  Then — and this was the unbelievable part — the captain came on the intercom again and let us know that the captain of a plane in front of us had pulled into our gate by mistake, and the ground crew would have to back that plane out and reposition it before we could be towed into our gate area.  All told, we sat on the ground at the Newark airport for almost an hour.

It wouldn’t have been so bad but for the guy sitting next to me.  He was one of those guys who answers his cell phone using his hands-free option, so everyone around him can hear his incredibly important calls.  He was upset to begin with, because we all got to hear that there was some kind of billing snafu at his business, and as the delays mounted he got increasingly agitated — first muttering, then loudly complaining, and finally throwing around f-bombs that didn’t exactly have a calming influence on the other passengers.  We all were inconvenienced by what had happened, but this ticking time bomb had to act like it was all about him.

Then my fellow passengers acted like jerks in the scrum to get the gate-checked bags, milling around rather than lining up and not caring if they blocked everybody behind.  And when I got to the taxi stand, a loud altercation between the cabdrivers broke out because one driver was accused of cutting in line.  As I settled into my cab, with a driver who’d just been engaged in a red-faced, gesturing shouting match featuring an unknown foreign language, I wondered what might happen next:  volcanic eruption?  earthquake?  Cats and dogs living together?  Mass hysteria?

I’m going to have to ask the Jersey Girl whether flying into Newark is always like this.

Boarding Pass Breakdown

Anyone who travels much spends a good part of their travel day clutching their boarding pass.  We get it when we check in on-line, we make sure we’ve got it as we head to the airport, we present it to the TSA agent who peers intently at it for a nanosecond, then scribbles on it as we go through the security line, and then we give it to the gate agent.

american_airlines_boarding_pass_aa_198But how much attention do we really give this document that is, briefly, very important to the successful completion of our travel plans?  Other than glancing at it to remember our seat assignment or boarding group, does any traveler actually read their boarding pass?  For most people, at least, it’s as casually ignored as the tags on mattresses or the detailed agate-type agreements you immediately click yes to when you log on to the internet in a hotel.

The New York Post has an interesting article about some of the information on boarding passes — and specifically, how flight numbers are determined.  It turns out that, typically, airlines assign the lowest numbers to their most prestigious, long-distance routes.  Flights heading east or north usually get even numbers, and flights heading west or south get odd numbers.  Flight numbers with four digits starting with the numbers 3 and higher indicate flights operated by airline partners. And some airlines assign special numbers to reflect the destination, like American Airlines assigning the number 1776 to its flight from Boston to Philadelphia.

But I think the most interesting fact is that airlines at least give a nod to superstitions in assigning flight numbers.  If you’re flying to Asia, you’re likely to see an 8 in the flight number, because that number is considered lucky in many Asian cultures.  The numbers 13 and 666 are avoided, and when a flight crashes, the flight number gets quietly retired and replaced with another number.  The airlines might be superstitious, or maybe not, but they at least recognize that some of their passengers are.

Just something to think about the next time you’re twiddling you thumbs at the gate, waiting for your flight to board.

Avoiding An “Airplane Cold”

If you travel much, you’ve probably encountered the scenario where you’re seated next to somebody who is obviously sick.  They’re sneezing like crazy, constantly blowing their noses, or coughing like they’re about to eject lung tissue, or you’re sitting there, acutely conscious that you are in an airborne metal tube where the air is recirculated and every tiny droplet ejected by Typhoid Mary is ultimately coming your way.  And you wonder:  will I leave this flight with an “airplane cold”?

1-101A recent study conducted by Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology tried to scientifically analyze the chances of catching an “airplane cold.”  The researchers on the study took transcontinental flights, tested the air and surfaces in the cabin for strains of cold and flu viruses, and carefully tracked the movements of passengers and flight attendants during the flights.  Although the data compiled during the study is limited, and the researchers did not find as many coughing or sneezing people aboard as they had expected — lucky them! — they reached two key conclusions.

First, there is a clear risk of catching a cold from a sick fellow passenger, but the zone of contagion is effectively limited to the people sitting next to the sick passenger or in the adjacent rows to the front and rear.  Those unlucky folks have an 80 percent, or greater, chance of becoming infected, whereas the probability of infection for the rest of the cabin is less than three percent.  And second, if you want to improve your chances of avoiding infection — understanding that you can’t control the identity or wellness of the random stranger who might be seated in your zone of contagion — book a window seat and don’t move during the flight.  By sitting in a window seat, you’re eliminating one of the seats next to you, and by staying put you’re reducing your movement through other contagion zones in the aircraft cabin.

I’m a bit skeptical of strategies to reduce the chance of an “airplane cold,” because so much of airplane travel is pure random chance and you’ve just got to grin and bear it.  I do think the study’s conclusions about the movement patterns of passengers, however, are quite interesting.  The study found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seat, 38 percent left once, 13 percent left twice, and 11 percent left more than twice.  Really?  Eleven percent of passengers left their seats more than twice?  Don’t pea-sized bladder people know you should go to the bathroom before you board the plane?

And by the way:  why do those 11 percenters always seem to be in my row when I’ve got an aisle seat?

What’s Wrong With Our Airlines?

Every time you turn around, it seems like you are reading some disturbing new story about a poorly handled incident on an airline.  The latest is the story of a puppy that a United Airlines flight attendant forced into an overhead bin — where the puppy died.

united-airlinesThe incident happened on Monday, on a United Airlines flight from Houston to New York.  The dog was in an approved pet carrier device when a flight attendant required the dog’s owner to put the pet carrier into an overhead bin.  The flight attendant now says she didn’t realize the dog was in the pet carrier.  Another passenger on the plane, however, says the dog’s owner resisted and told the flight attendant that there was a live dog in the carrier, but the flight attendant insisted and the dog’s owner eventually complied.  When the pet carrier was retrieved at the end of the flight, the dog was dead — perhaps from lack of oxygen.

United Airlines has apologized, and a statement from a spokesperson said:  “This was a tragic accident that should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

In this instance, perhaps the flight attendant was at the end of a long shift and at the end of her rope, or perhaps she was confused about whether there was a live animal in the pet carrier.  (Of course, why else would somebody take a pet carrier on a plane as a carry-on item?)  Whatever the cause, the story is extremely troubling, because it’s another example of airlines treating passengers like cattle.  We’ve seen incidents where ticketed passengers have been forcibly removed from planes, including one instance that raised such a ruckus that United’s CEO sent an email out to me and other United passengers that spoke of passengers being “treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect” and that the airline intended to try to live up to “higher expectations.”  I guess that effort still has a ways to go.

 

Air Unfair

Yesterday Kish and I had one of those star-crossed travel days that make you want to grind your teeth into powder and curse the airlines with your dying breath.

The day began with a 90-minute delay of our flight from Bangor to Philadelphia.  OK, no problem — we’d wisely factored in some weather delays, given the fact that we’re in February and it is winter, and we still had plenty of time to make our connection.  We got to our gate in Philadelphia, checked the sign and saw that boarding was supposed to start in something like “42 minutes,” and found a seat and camped out.  When a plane arrived, everything was looking up.

02xp-pilots-master768Then the delay notices and announcements started.  First the flight out was delayed by 90 minutes, then another hour.  We groaned and went to get something to eat, and when we returned they’d changed the sign above our gate to show that the flight for the new time would be boarding in a new, reassuringly specific time, like in “58 minutes.”  They also made an announcement that, due to some kind of special fuel need regulation, they would have to load the plane with additional fuel and, as a result, the flight was oversold due to weight restrictions and some people would need to volunteer to take a later flight.  And, still later, a gate agent was actually giving us a kind of play-by-play about the incoming flight, to be arriving from Richmond.  First she announced that the incoming flight was at the gate in Richmond, then it had pushed back, and finally it was taxiing down the tarmac, ready to take off.

And then, only moments later and after our hours of waiting in the Philadelphia airport, American abruptly cancelled the flight.  Fortunately, we were seated near the gate, so we were able to get in line immediately, where we learned that there were no other flights out and the airline had helpfully booked us for a flight leaving Philly at 1:09 p.m. today.  (Hey, thanks, but I actually work for a living and Monday is, regrettably, a work day.)  No offer of a hotel room or a voucher, either, apparently because the cancellation was deemed to be “weather related,” even though the weather in Philadelphia was just fine.  When we left the gate agent, the line stretched back onto the concourse and was about 40 people long.  I was glad we were able to get the bad news quickly, at least.

So we bagged the flight, rented a car and drove from Philadelphia to Columbus.  Seven hours, a hefty rental car fee, and an outrageous, state-sanctioned-monopoly-gouging “toll” of more than $33.00 to drive from Philadelphia to New Stanton on the Pennsylvania Turnpike later, we rolled into Columbus shortly past midnight, bitching all the while that if the airline had just cancelled the flight right away or at least been honest with us that a cancellation was likely or even possible, rather than providing absurdly hopeful and totally misleading announcements and impending “boarding times,” we might have gotten home at a more reasonable hour.

I understand weather-related delays in winter, and that with such delays crew schedules can become bollixed and combinations of crew service regulations, maintenance issues, and other considerations can cause a legitimate cancellation.  What really galls me, though, is the lying and the misstatements.  Why can’t airlines just be honest with us?

Advances In In-Flight Breakfast Snack Technology

Meet the “Stroopwaffel.” It was handed to me by a flight attendant as the snack item accompanying my cup of airline coffee with cream on my United flight this morning.

What, exactly, is a Stroopwaffel? The package describes it as a “soft, toasted waffle filled with caramel, cinnamon and real bourbon vanilla.” It even comes with instructions: you’re supposed to put it on the top of your coffee cup so the steam emanating from the cup warms the Stroopwaffel. This presumes that airline coffee is piping hot, which is a questionable assumption indeed. I tried this technique this morning, and thereby warmed the Stroopwaffel to about one degree above room temperature. Because the size of the Stroopwaffel is almost precisely the same as the size of the top of the airline coffee cup, I also strongly recommend that you not try to warm the Stroopwaffel if your flight encounters even mild turbulence, or you will either lose the Stroopwaffel entirely as it slides off the cup into airline oblivion or have a mess on your hands.

It’s kind of sad that the introduction of a new airline breakfast snack is worth noting, but such things are the stuff that fill the lives of seasoned business travelers. The Stroopwaffel is just fine as a snack, but where it really excels is its name. Who can resist the sound of “Stroopwaffel”? It blows “biscotti” out of the water in my book.