Buffalo Trace

Buffalo Trace
From a few years ago, me mugging with the bronze buffalo sculpture at Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Travel Day from Hell: A Recent Return Trip From Los Angeles


I'm not the kind of guy who expects things to go perfectly when flying. When you ponder the possibilities, there are thousands of things that can go awry to screw up a day of flying. I've had my reserved ride to the airport not show for a 5 a.m. pickup. I've had my baggage miss connecting flights. I was delayed nearly three hours in Greenville's airport once because the replacement equipment used for a broken plane scheduled into Greenville the night before couldn't be refueled by GSP's rapid-pumping fuel filler. An international flight I was on recently was delayed two hours because no one thought to cool down the cabin before the crew arrived. The temp was well over 100 degrees and it required more than two hours to cool to the approved-for-passengers 80 degrees. And on and on and on it goes.

Consequently, I am always pleasantly surprised when a day of flying doesn't include any, well, surprises.

A recent return trip from Los Angeles, though, was one of those travel days with a series of issues that, 20 years ago, would have sent me into a red-faced, screaming rage. I am older, calmer and have made peace with the fact that flying just doesn't always go as planned (See paragraph No. 1.). Although “inner Russ” was a bit crazed, “outer Russ” remained cool and collected.

My blood pressure began it's upward trajectory as I sat in the car assigned to cart me and another journalist to LAX for our flights home from the Mazda introduction of the redesigned MX-5 Miata and the all-new CX-3 crossover. This other journalist shall remain nameless; but once I learned who was delaying us, I wasn't surprised that by five minutes past our scheduled departure time, he had yet to put in an appearance. This isn't some clueless kid, but a seasoned (yet obviously somewhat oblivious) veteran of such press junkets. In other words, he is an adult and should be professional enough to be where he's supposed to be when he's supposed to be there.

We do have more than our share of self-absorbed asshats among the motoring media. These are the people who are consistently late for everything, such as shuttles to off-site dinners and so forth. In life, some people are always late because they are absent minded; while others are just inconsiderate jerks with an over-inflated view of their worth. I suspect most of my serially late contemporaries are among the latter rather than the former. The car companies are partly responsible. They do often treat us as precious snowflakes whose each and every utterance has merit. We are coddled and pampered like ladies in waiting at the royal court. Most of us can accept this attention without our heads swelling to the size of medicine balls, but a few can't.

Thankfully, the Mazda travel people had the good judgment to send my shuttle on without its second passenger.

Once at LAX, I had my worst-ever airport experience. LAX is a honking big place. Unlike the busier Atlanta airport that at least oozes some degree of warmth despite all the hustle and bustle, LAX always feels cold and uncaring, staffed with people who would all rather be somewhere else.

I arrived at Terminal 5, roughly 90 minutes before my flight's departure. Here Delta has installed a completely separate area for it's Sky Priority customers, far removed from the surging rabble devoid of any frequent-flier status. I printed my boarding passes for the day before leaving the Four Seasons where Mazda hosted us. I brought a bag too large to carry on the plane because I knew I would be transporting home a couple of bubble-wrapped 22-ounce bottles of Belching Beaver Peanut Butter Milk Stout. All I needed to do at Delta's desk was check that bag.

I approached the area, although unmarked, that appeared to be be the check-bag-only section of the desk. There a big guy stood speaking to a female Delta agent. He pretty much ignored me until I cleared my throat and said all I needed to do was check a bag as I held up my boarding pass. Barely acknowledging me, he pointed down the counter where two other Delta agents were helping people. I walked down there and stood in the short line. When my turn came to step up and be helped, the agent looked at my boarding pass and redirected me back to the area from which I had just come. Turns out the big guy was the baggage handler whose job it was to place bags on the conveyor belt. The agent he was speaking with – who didn't so much as look at me on my first pass – was the agent assigned to check bags for people with boarding passes. What I didn't know, because one must walk around to the back of the counter to see the sign, was that the appropriate spot to check a bag with a preprinted boarding pass is on the far side of the counter. She finally sprang into action when I divined precisely the exact spot and lined up there.

What are all these people doing?
With my bag finally checked, I approached the TSA “security” station. I have “Known Traveler” status which means I made a special 320-mile round trip to the TSA offices in Atlanta where I was interviewed, vetted, finger printed and photographed. As a benefit of being a Known Traveler, I always get PreCheck. This means I basically sail through security. I don't need to remove anything from my carry-ons; from my person I don't need to remove my belt or shoes or anything from my pockets, and my laptop stays safely in my bag. The only precaution I must take is to put my cell phone in my bag as it goes through the X-ray.

With PreCheck, you walk through the metal detector rather than stand in the hold-your-hands-over-your-head-and-cough X-ray contraption. My pass through the metal detector was met with a loud beep. I was instructed to step out and go through again, which I did. BEEP! The TSA agent asked if I had anything in my pockets. I answered that of course I did; it's the PreCheck line! He took all my pocket flotsam except for the cash and had me walk through again. BEEP! He handed back my pocket contents, had me step back again and then go around to the X-ray machine. There I was told to keep my pocket contents in my hands as I held them over my head. With the X-ray, he spotted the knee brace I wear anytime I'm dressed in long pants. This initiated a call for “back up.”

Despite there always being several agents milling around these security stations apparently with nothing to do, getting an agent over to give me some individual attention took about two minutes. In the meantime, I stood with the X-ray operator glaring at me. Finally an agent about my age shuffled over wearing surgical gloves and carrying a metal-detector wand. He asked which bags on the X-ray conveyor were mine and grabbed my backpack. Putting it off to the side, he had me sit down. He asked me to roll up my pants leg so he could see my knee brace. I was wearing jeans and that wasn't in the cards. He frowned and then told me he needed to feel the brace before running his hands down my knee. This is not a big, fancy brace. I paid $14 for it at CVS. It's more of a knee wrap than a brace. Not satisfied, he then wanded it. Although it doesn't feel as though it contains any metal, it must because it set off the wand. 

You may feel a little pinch.
Clearly stumped the agent stepped back to think for a minute. I had been in security now for roughly 15 minutes. I have passed through security unmolested at least 20 times since I began wearing the brace in December. But suddenly, I'm public enemy No. 1. Although I'm in no danger of missing my flight, I'm beginning to become a little ticked. I say, “I can't imagine you don't get at least 100 people a day through here wearing knee braces. I don't understand why it seems such a mystery to you, you officious dumbass.”

Well, I didn't actually say, “you officious dumbass.” It was implied.

His clipped response, “You shouldn't imagine things.”

What?

He finally calls over his supervisor and explains the threat I pose. “It's one of those damn knee-brace felons,” I imagine him whispering. There I go imagining again. I see his supervisor shake his head, no. The agent returns, hands me my backpack and sends me on my way. Apparently I dodged a trip to the TSA offices for a strip search.

Once through security, signs directed me through a construction zone in the bowels of the airport to reach my gate. At the appropriate time, we boarded. Pushing back from the gate, the plane taxied a few feet down the taxiway where it paused as the pilot fired up the second engine. Seconds later the pilot announces the right engine heat indicator isn't functioning and we must return to the gate. Because the pilot didn't fire up the right engine until we had pulled out into the taxiway, a tug had to be found and brought over to pull the plane gateside. This took nearly 30 minutes. More than another hour was required for maintenance to tighten a connection in the engine, which fixed the problem.

With only 80 minutes baked into my schedule to connect in Atlanta, I knew I wasn't going to make my scheduled flight to Greenville. From my seat, I called Delta's service center. I informed the agent I wasn't going to make my connecting flight and needed to know what my other flight options might be. There was another flight to Greenville leaving about three hours later with open seats, I asked to be backed up to that. No problem, I was told.

Arriving in Atlanta, I called the service center again to confirm my seat on the 4:49 flight. The agent informed me that I was only on standby for that flight and it was showing full. But I was confirmed on the 7:05 flight. Seething, I walked to the nearest Delta service desk where an agent confirmed what I was told on the phone. I go to the gate for the 4:49 flight where I see on the board that there are actually seven open seats and I'm first on the standby list. I am stumped why I'm not confirmed with seven open seats, but the gate agent tells me not to fret, I'll get a seat. As I sit waiting for my seat to clear, three non-Delta flight crew members approach the podium and are promptly issued three of the seven open seats. They are apparently deadheading back home.

Wait a minute, Delta issues open seats to deadheaders before it does to paying customers it's already inconvenienced at least once during the day? The two people on the standby list below me were also on my delayed flight from LAX. The three of us made the flight by the skin of our teeth.

There is something terribly wrong with this system. Not to mention, it's lousy customer service. It was a very long travel day.

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