April 30, 2003

The Prodigal Son Returns

It was our first post-9/11 family airplane holiday: a “prodigal son returns” sort of trip to the city of my birth. I hadn’t been back to Los Angeles since my father’s funeral—almost 3 years ago. Way too long to be away from my roots. And I missed the eucalyptus and palm trees terribly. I didn’t know how much until I walked out of the airport and took a good look and a deep Southern California breath.

I wanted to reconnect with my extended family and introduce my now sentient children to my childhood firsthand. They both were in L.A. as infants but are now at the age when they will remember expeditions like this. I planned a combination of family reunion and child-oriented excursions, many of which I will be writing about shortly.

In my best fatherly fashion, I was as prepared as possible for our 2003 airport experience. I had a file with printouts of our electronic airline tickets, security updates for packing and check-in, car rental reservation, and directions to our home away from home. We were renting a 1930s bungalow-style house in a central location in West Los Angeles. With a kitchen it would be easy to live a quasi-normal child-centric lifestyle. Perfect.

The flight out was a surprising success. The check-in was virtually empty. It did take me a while to figure out the new kiosks United Airlines has for all us electronically-possessed ticket holders—monitors along the counter that walk you through the entire process, allow you to pick or change seats, and finally dispense your boarding pass.

Ha! They actually thought a family of four could check-in without engaging a live person. Traveling under two different last names with two frequent flyer tickets and two paid ones and with luggage requiring special handling (car booster seats) our “case” went beyond the kiosk-defined parameter. We were rejected and told us to see an agent.

There was no line at security and the new TSA people (federalized security) were amazingly friendly. Our pilot was a woman, which I like to think is the reason we arrived at LAX 45 minutes early. The girls didn’t fidget over the five hour flight—my wife and I kept looking at each other in disbelief.

The whole week we were in Los Angeles, I never once cringed as I saw our return flight approach. I was in a good mood. I should have known better. I can only say I was blinded by our good luck. It ran its course by week’s end.

• • •

As easy as the outbound ride was, our trip back went straight through hell. Before we even left home United tried to change our return reservation. Generally, we like to leave around noon. Going west, this allows us enough time to go through our final and chaotic packing early that morning while arriving comfortably in the mid afternoon. Going east, we still get that early morning free time yet arrive home in the early evening. We don’t have to wake the kids up early and we can make a leisurely exit.

So when our answering machine received a computerized message a month before our departure telling us the airline had changed our return flight to an early morning departure, I immediately sprang into action. Quick thinking got us rebooked on a midday flight but we weren’t allowed to reserve our seats. This, we were told, could easily be done when we checked in for the flight. I was suspicious. I knew we’d pay for this.

When we returned to LAX at week’s end I arrived extra early to get our seats together. With many flights cancelled because of the war and SARS, the planes are flying full. They could only find seats for us in four different rows!

There were a least five other families in the same predicament: one, a single mother with a 3 year old! And there was nothing the agents could do for them. Each parent would have to negotiate with other passengers onboard. We were lucky. They had to help us. We were seated in the emergency rows and children aren’t allowed to sit there.

They checked their manifest for passengers traveling together in order to produce a good exchange. They were trying to keep us all together. Luckily, emergency row seats, with their first class leg room, are like gold. But this was an unusual flight: lots of singles traveling alone. This made our quest harder as agents kept scanning their monitor. They paged prospective traders to no avail. The plane loaded as we stood waiting at the gate.

It’s no secret that flying these days is no longer the genteel pleasure of years past. You’re riding a bus and airports have become bus terminals. Airlines have reduced service and staff in order to remain solvent. Drawing upon my calmest demeanor, I told the gate supervisor this was no way to run an airline, especially one struggling to move out of bankruptcy. She told me I was not the first to make that suggestion but there was little she could do. The situation only added to the low budget atmosphere. I felt like I had returned to L.A. only to exit as a destitute B movie star. This was not Casablanca.

We finally made it. Not exactly sitting together but each of us with one child in two consecutive rows. I took a deep breath. It was the best we could hope for. I watched the other dispossessed negotiate for family unity.

• • •

About 90 minutes after take-off, I heard the familiar “pasta or beef, pasta or beef, would you like pasta or beef” as the flight attendants slowly made their way down the aisle. All that tension can make a man pretty hungry. I dug in, while making sure my daughter was satisfied with her child’s meal of macaroni and cheese.

An hour later, I suddenly smelled food again and wondered if they were serving another meal. This might turn out to be a good flight after all. I looked around for the food cart and waited for the attendant’s familiar menu incantation. I slowly turned my head in the direction of that savory smell only to see the woman across the aisle struggling to put a bag over her mouth. She stated the obvious: “I’ve thrown up.” And she missed her mark.

When it comes to smell, context is everything. Up until that very moment, it was quite attractive. But with split second timing I moved seamlessly from hunger to controling my gag reflex. The flight attendants were no where to be found.

You see, at that very moment the pilot decided to take a leak. Apparently, new security rules stipulate that whenever he or she leaves the cockpit, the attendants form a barrier to any would-be terrorist in front of the cockpit door. They were all up front on guard. The poor woman next to me was on her own.

Once again I sprang to action. I went to the galley to retrieve a wad of napkins. It was the least I could do. No, it was the most I could do.

As soon as the pilot returned to duty, an attendant leaned over, thanked me, and attempted to explain the policy. I heard none of it. I wanted out. My six year old gently laid her hand across my lap as we hit a bit of turbulance. It was going to be a rough and long ride home.

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