First flight in 20-plus years

By 5am the alarms were off.  Slamming down a quick cup of coffee we were en route to meet with family, who would valet service us to the BWI airport for a trip to San Francisco.   This would be my first flight in over 20 years — I was perfectly content staying grounded — but it was time to trample fears and travel in fast motion.

At the BWI terminal complex we swiped our boarding passes on the electronic kiosks in front of United Economy, and the word Economy stood out as concerning.  That thought was put on ice and we continued to the TSA checkpoint where you must then take everything out of your carry on, and remove most of what you are wearing to be scanned.   Once through the scanners, we redressed and returned exposed articles back into their bags, and I found that things did not fit nearly as well.

At gate #18 the United folks called up the first group of flyers — apparently those people who fly A LOT —  and they stood in their red-carpet line while the rest of us remained seated.  I had made 10 trips to the bathroom, mostly for no reason other than the walk to burn off my nerves, and after each return I fully expected to get in line for boarding.

But no.  The United lady announced that the plane was broken.  She didn’t use those exact words but she did say that the radar navigation system was something needed even on an economy plane, and maybe she didn’t emphasize the word ‘economy’, the rest she really did say, and she went on to say there would be a two hour delay.  Groans were heard around the room, and all I felt was relief, at least I had another 2 hours before the all-out torture would begin.  Many did mind the delay and a new line formed with demands to change planes to accommodate connecting flights.  Another hour passed, and the United lady announced that the flight would not leave for 6 hours because replacement radar for an economy plan is hard to come by.

Eventually 150+ travelers departed for other flights.  Those remaining – all 10 of us — spoke among ourselves and one lady in particular had a United app on her phone.  The rest of us stared on.    She informed us there were flights out of Dulles, and so we collectively decided that Dulles was our new destination and one by one we rebooked to a plane without the word ‘economy’.  Within an hour, we were off on a shuttle to Dulles.

I was most happy to be one state closer (Virginia) to our destination.  We had a voucher for a free lunch, and the new plane was a whopper 777 so in my world things were looking up.   We spent the afternoon in Dulles, recharging our phones, and walking the “D” gate for exercise.  It’s boarding time, so we assumed our seats, stowed our carry on bags, and I wondered if there still might be a chance for me to get off the plane, but then the doors closed, and the plane moved in that taxi speed and I fixated on breathing and counting and breathing and then….the body slam to the back of the seat and we were off.    The pilot announced what a lovely day it was, and our flight should only have light turbulence so I set my focus on ignoring the word turbulence, certain what was “light’ for the pilot would have a different meaning for me.  We had 5 hours in the sky, and they could not go fast enough.

Now, Paddy, bless his heart, was fidgeting in the seat next to me, trying to get my attention.  I knew this despite my eyes closed and I opted to ignore him until finally I said ‘what?’  in a less than kindly tone, and he needed to watch a movie, thus needed his computer from his stowed bag, so since he was sitting next to the window, everyone made way for Paddy to get his bag, bless his heart.  Once he returned, I figured the fussing would stop, but no, his bag was wet, and it held his computer, so the fussing intensified, and he informed me that he needed to let the stewardess know that there might be a problem on the plane with so much water on his bag.  Bless his heart.   Now, the stewardess arrives and does her best to satisfy Paddy saying that his water must have broke (man thing), but Paddy, a software developer with keen logic skills said, no, his water (bottle) did not break, and he could prove his theory.  The two of them sparred the next 15 minutes testing logic skills, and while Paddy had a big lead in this department, bless his heart, it was not the most comforting moment to listen to how the plane may be leaking.  I handed Paddy a tissue to wipe down his computer, which he did, and I returned to my comatose state, eyes closed, counting to 8 over and over knowing that he was still fidgeting, waiting for his computer to dry out, not having any movies to watch, bless his heart.

We were traveling at 38000 feet and that seemed particularly high, and I know this because we were NOT on the economy plane, but on a big one that has a screen that you can peek at when you open your eyes to show you every detail about your flight.  How fast you are going, how high in the air, how many miles you have left, and you can see exactly what part of the country you are flying over.  I peeked at this info maybe twice during the first four hours, and then by the last hour, I got my updates every 5 minutes.  Yes, there was turbulence.  Yes, it did not seem light to me.  Yes, that fasten your seat belt sign was lit for most of the flight.  Yes, we were closing in on San Francisco, and YES YES YES I was more than ready to be done with all of this.

With 20 minutes to go, we were still at 38000 feet and I was getting worried the pilot might overshoot the airport, but no, it is about now that we drop out of the sky at a rapid descent and oh my, that was a test for my breathing skills.  The turbulence increased and I did my best to shut down the voices that screamed holy mother F*&k and sure enough these pilots know how to work these machines, and we touched down.   Welcome to San Francisco!

It is now 8:30 California time, which is way past my bedtime on the east coast, but we have to find our luggage, rent a car and check into a hotel in San Fran.  Re-energized from having that plane ride in my rear view, we race through a very long airport to reach baggage, and then follow signs to take the Air Train to the Rental Center. But no.  The Air Tran was broken (economy too?) so we followed the handwritten Sharpie signs that said to get a bus to the rental center.

Here is where I discovered a hint of a continental divide between East Coast and West.  On the east coast, if you need to get bus transportation, someone wearing an official hat will direct you, organize your precise movement, setup a line so that the first one to arrive is the first on the bus – a binary world with little patience for grey area or uncertainty.

Now, on the west coast, it works like this.  There is a shit ton of people waiting around and you hope it is the line for the rental car bus.  A bus arrives and rolls into a spot far away from the crowd of people.  Naturally,  the crowd races with their luggage, old people persevere, super-seniors don’t stand a chance, the young ones sprint and maybe 6 or 7 get onto a bus that could easily handle 30, but no, the mostly empty bus takes off before the rest of the crowd arrives, and there is a collective groan, but only momentarily.  Another bus is spotted, and surely it will pull up to the waiting crowd.  It stops 100 feet in the opposite direction, so the crowd turns around with all of our baggage and race in the opposite direction toward the bus, but apparently the driver is nervous about seeing all of these people on the run with their luggage in tow, so he lets the first 3-4 people on and pulls out before the surge of humanity arrives.    We play this game of chase-the-bus at least 10 times, until finally one of our fellow east coast travelers hurls out a WTF that caught the attention of some official person wearing a hat who prior to that moment was not involved in officiating, and she held that bus long enough for weary passengers to board.

When we got to the Rental Center, our car rental company was so economy that we had to take another shuttle far away from the rental center.   Yes, I explained to the rental car agent, I should have picked up this car 12 hours ago but we had a broken plane, and he nodded, this wasn’t the first time he had heard these excuses, so we took whatever car was left on the lot, the one without a working navigation system and hoped our phones running on fumes would last long enough to reach the hotel.

We arrived at the hotel, checked in, parked the car, just a few more steps to the room.  Yes.  We made it.   Soon the sounds of a ‘domestic’ overtook the white noise of the TV, and a couple in the room next to us were clearly at war.  They took their war outside on the balcony making sure every word could be heard, and the battle continued, then they went back inside, and things got really loud, then quiet, then crying, then vigorous making up, then war, door slamming and 3 hours later, silence.   I google options for the eventual return trip – by Amtrak.

Next –>>  Hello, San Francisco

12 thoughts on “First flight in 20-plus years”

  1. OMG. This is hysterical. You brought us along every step of the way, hope the rest of the trip gets better. If not, and the stories get better, share them!!

  2. OMG…!! Hysterical read…for a very stressful experience.
    thank you for sharing your story.

  3. OMG…thank you for sharing such a terrifying experience with a humorous narrative. So proud of you, to endure all of the delays and take the transcontinental flight. And Paddy too…bless his heart.

  4. Your travel story details made me chuckle & very happy it wasn’t my experience. Your trip could only get better from there.

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