Note to myself: Next time we decide to take a family vacation on the first day of Spring Break, arrive at the airport the day before. Last Sunday my family and I flew to Puerto Rico. My eldest daughter’s class was going on a “field trip” to La Parguera and the Bioluminescent Bay in the southwest corner of the island to study with an oceanographer (we never took field trips like this when I was in the 4th grade). And the rest of the family was going along for the ride.
As always I was the consummate air traveler (if not a bit naive –ok, clueless). I was able to get the four of us out of the house at 5:45 am to arrive at the airport with the requisite two hour window before our 8:30 am flight. We usually avoid travel during holidays so we were dumbfounded when we took the escalator up to the checkout level only to join about 10,000 like-minded travelers (I kid you not). It was wall-to-wall people inching and snaking their way to check in their baggage.
Another note to myself: Doh! I could have printed out our boarding passes online the night before and checked our baggage with the skycap. Next time, if there is a next time.
There didn’t seem to be an end to the line so we joined an amorphous sea of people that was moving in the right direction. Twenty minutes later the man standing next to me suddenly noticed our presence and informed us the end of the line was “way over there.” Sorry, I was not going to start over. When we initially joined him there was no end of line. I kindly told him we’d been there for quite some time, inching along with him (and that I could recite his entire conversation with his wife to prove it). After that I employed my patented ignore technique. Although it was hard to ignore his wife when she told him “Calm down dear. They’re just cheaters. Just cheaters.”
Air travel is so much fun these days. I remember my first airplane ride. My mother and I flew from LAX to Portland, Oregon to visit my relatives. She wore white gloves and I wore a suit (at 7 it was my first suit). Air travel was so civilized and passengers so civil back then. Why the stewardess even called me “Master Gates” (no jokes please). However, everyone in this 21st century line had to get up before dawn and they looked like it.
Here it was Palm Sunday (also and very appropriately referred to as “Passion Sunday”) and we found ourselves in a contemporary version of the Stations of the Cross. I used this “down time” to prepare for the next leg of our journey: Security. I unlaced my shoes, put my keys and belt in my backpack and continued to shuffle towards check-in. I tried to be careful not to trip on my shoelaces and into our nice neighbor in line.
Usually there are airline agents asking for those on flights about to leave to step to the front. However, we were all on flights about to take off. I asked one harried worker how they planned to get everyone to their planes. “We won’t,” she responded. We were doomed. It’s not like they have hourly flights from Washington to San Juan. I made sure I stowed my watch. I couldn’t bare to look as the minutes ticked by.
We got to electronic check-in 43 minutes before our flight. We had credit card and ID ready and everything in our hands to operate the computer screen before us. Unfortunately, cut off for electronic ticketing is 45 minutes before the flight. The system kept telling me they couldn’t complete our check-in. I went into “instrument mode,” quickly perloined a live person and told her our dilemma. She started the process manually. She thought she could get our baggage on the plane. There were no assurances but that was good enough for us. Come on now. How many clothes would we really need on that tropical island?
We then rushed to our next station: Security. Again, no line just various snakes. We didn’t get past the check-in counter. The Security “mass” started right there. A man tried to cut in. I felt I couldn’t tell him to move to the back of the line (my penance for my last truly innocent indiscretion). Lucky for me the man behind me felt no guilt and loudly redirected the cheater.
Situations like this bring out both the best and the worst in humanity. People around us kept asking if this truly was the line for Security. We joked about finding ourselves at the baggage claim area. Usually in circumstances like this I find a way to move the four of us where we need to go quickly: always keeping an eye out for the shortest line between two points. But all 10,000 of us were simply in the same boat. There was no hierarchy here (unless, of course, you were First Class –those lines were very short). My internal radar got us through in about 20 minutes and luckily none of us were stopped for additional screening.
At Dulles Airport you have to take a “mobile lounge” (read that as a bus) to your concourse. So we had an additional leg in our pilgrimage to complete. And, of course, our gate was the furthest it could be from the bus’ arrival point. Naturally. My eldest daughter and I ran the whole way. I am in pretty good shape but with the added video camera and fully loaded backpack I soon fell far behind my nine year old. My youngest along with her mother brought up the distant rear (she figured they wouldn’t leave without the whole family). Only one of us had to get there. But when I did, the gate was empty. No personnel and they had taken the sign down for San Juan. I quickly turned around and started towards the Service Desk a few gates back. After all this had we really missed our plane?
The agent yelled as he saw me running towards him “Where are you going?” “San Juan” I replied. “It’s right where you were. GO BACK,” he yelled. And when I turned around there was the gate agent. “Are you Mr. Gates?” she smiled serenely. She had all the breath she needed. I barely was able to reply “Affirmative.” So I simply gave a thumbs up. “Are you all here? Hurry. Get on the plane.” “Your tropical paradise awaits,” I thought I heard her say. I waited for my wife to catch up.
The agents at the end of the jetway waved us on. “Hurry! We have to close the door. Hurry.”
I think we earned this trip, all in those last two hours. And I was ready for my first Piña Colada (designated the national drink of Puerto Rico in 1978). But all they had was one of United Airlines’ $5 SnackBoxes which consisted of “Pemmican® hickory smoked beef jerky” and “Just the Cheese™ Baked Cheddar Cheese Snacks (low carb).”
Ummm. There’s nothing like jerky and cheese to start out your Caribbean dream vacation.