Saturday, February 15, 2014

Flying Off the Travel Plan - Murphy's Law on an Airport Commute

My last business trip to Marquette, Michigan was a comedy of errors. I'm determined not to repeat that travel experience this time. I plan a longer layover in Detroit and a rental car better suited to the UP winter

It's the night before, and my wife Stacey checks the local forecast for me. There's a winter storm warning for overnight through tomorrow in the Toronto region. "You should leave extra early in the morning for the airport," she suggests. I've thought through all the scenarios. "I've got a good commuting buffer built in," I reply. Besides, it looks like the worst of the storm will be south of here, near Niagara and Buffalo. They always get hit hard.

I don't sleep well. That's typical before flying. My mind races through contingencies, things to do, conversation outcomes I want to ensure. My hand swats off the alarm almost before it starts.

I look outside. There's new snow, but it doesn't appear to be very much. Stacey checks the school network. District schools are open, but buses are cancelled. The kids are staying home. "You should check in online," Stacey suggests.

Nah, I think, I don't want to figure that process out now. "It's not snowing very heavily," I reply. "They keep schools open because they really think it's safe, but they shut down the buses to avoid liability." But I shower quickly, for me, and hurry through breakfast.

I'm nearly ready to go and look out the front door. Fantastic, there's at least six inches of new snow, more than I thought. I'd better shovel a quick path to my car. I don't want to unpack my boots and put them back wet, so I borrow my son's size 13s. All I need is a narrow trail, enough to keep my sneakers dry on the way out. I'm quick and get a little overheated from the effort. But I've had the RAV4 running; the windshield will be clear by the time I lace my own shoes and say goodbyes.

It's 8:05 am when I start the car. I've lost maybe 10 minutes from the plan. But even with traffic and this snow, I should be at the airport by 9:30 am at worst. It's a 35 minute drive in good conditions. And my flight isn't until 11:30.

But my plug-in GPS indicates a 106 minute trip instead--severe traffic ahead on the QEW. It suggests an alternate route that will get me to Pearson International Airport by 9:05, a 46 minute shortcut. A main suburban artery, Dundas street has lots of stoplights. It always takes longer than the GPS says. I know from experience. Still, it has several escape options if traffic gets too backed up, and it can't be as bad as the freeway right now.

I decide to obey technology. It's 38 kilometers on Dundas until I need to veer north on Highway 427, and the first 10 are smooth sailing. I actually gain back some time.

Then I hit Oakville, Ontario. Traffic grinds to a crawl. Snow is falling heavily now. The projected arrival time begins to creep ahead inexorably, 9:15...9:25...9:45. But Dundas parallels the QEW, I think. And that has an updated traffic status on my navigation system. If it were any better, the GPS would reroute me. I trust the Garmin. The arrival time continues to move further out however, 9:55...10:05. I have a 10:30 call. I assumed I'd be sitting comfortably at the gate for it. Now I begin to wonder if I'll make it. I pull over momentarily for safety and text a coworker just in case.

This heavy snow and the ambient temperature make the perfect storm for bad visibility. At several stoplights I leap out of my car to slap the wipers against the windshield. I can't seem to get ahead of the ice buildup. The antifreeze mixture can't handle this much snow.

The usual idiots swerve in and out between lanes, trying to get one car ahead and slowing everyone down. I get empty satisfaction out of passing some of them multiple times without changing lanes. I fear them when performing wiper maintenance.

No one ever seems to turn off Dundas Street; cars only seem to be getting on. The GPS continues to recalculate, 10:10...10:15... Surely this snow will delay my flight, and there's no reason to fret. I miss my next light as three merging drivers turn through a red.

The last kilometer before the exit is almost unbearable. I could walk faster, and it takes nearly 10 minutes. There goes an old lady with a cane. I bitterly note that Dundas street is free and clear ahead beyond my turnoff. A stream of unintelligible obscenities pours through my mouth as from a speaker of tongues.

I'm finally heading north on the 427. It's 10 minutes to the airport on this major highway, and I can trust the GPS traffic function now. I should be at the terminal by 10:20 am. However, there's nowhere to safely stop and clear my rapidly icing wipers on an 8-lane highway. By the time I turn off for the airport, my field of view is a few square inches. I nearly kiss the steering wheel like a humpbacked octogenarian as I lean to look through my small patch of clear window. I'm relieved as I pull up to the covered parking area off Terminal 3.

Did everyone in Canada decide to park in the long term lot today? I usually have my pick when there's no urgency. A few people have protected secondhand cars by diagonally parking across two spaces. I hope they have run over a nail. Five minutes on I finally find a drifted-over, snowy spot on the open-air side of the lot after patrolling most of two levels. I'll expense the same $28 per day as everyone, but it's as far from the terminal access as I could be. Time to run.

I hurry from the lot, across the unloading zone and into the gate check-in area. A glance at a departure board seems to show my flight is the lone in-time departure in a sea of cancellations and delays. I make it to a Delta self-service kiosk at approximately 10:30 am. My scheduled conference call has started, but I'm only thinking of securing boarding passes now. A message appears on screen after I insert my corporate card to initiate ticketing, "See gate agent at ticket counter." That was sudden. Usually I get an error message a step later--after confirming my reservation with the credit card--when the kiosk has difficulty scanning my passport. Concern builds, and I get in line.

The wait on the counter queue drags on. It seems like eternity. Finally I'm beckoned, "Next!"

I hand my ID to the ticket agent, sheepishly apologize for tardiness and explain I only have carryon baggage. Surely she'll find that helpful. "What flight are you on sir?" she asks.

I'm flustered and can't find the paperwork after rushing. "Ahhh, I fly to Detroit then on to Marquette, Michigan," I stumble out.

"The 11:30 am Detroit flight that boards at 11 o'clock?" she asks flatly. I nod. She looks at me coldly and picks up the phone. "Are you still open for check in?" she queries the receiver. Uh oh. "This one has only carryon...Yes...I see...Mmm hmm...Ok, thanks." That sounds more hopeful.

"The flight is closed for check in," she says. Hope deflates. "It boards in 25 minutes. I can put you on the next flight, 3:30 pm to Detroit, and the connection will get you into Marquette at 9:40." She has already printed the tickets and hands them over with my passport.

"How much did I miss my window by?"

"Six minutes," she says stone faced. "It closed at 10:30. Next!"

Six minutes! I was on this line for six minutes! I compose my thoughts to make the point, but she has already begun interacting with the next victim. Defeated, I slink off.

I call Stacey and heatedly blurt out my predicament. She's not sympathetic. I don't need tough love right now I complain. "You're mad at your own mistake," she says. "Don't take it out on me. Let's talk when you've calmed down."

I hurry off to Immigration and Customs anyway. Delta might re-book me at the gate if I get there before boarding. The entire process is smooth, including through security. I've never breezed through this fast. It's like I'm the first customer on line at the airport. Maybe I can still pull out a rabbit. I'm at the gate 10 minutes before boarding.

The gate agent is sympathetic, but I'm out of luck. "There are people wait-listed ahead of you sir, and we've still got to get another eight off the flight." They're overbooked and Delta is probably thankful I was late. I imagine the previous woman at check-in was counting down. That phone call she made was just to get my hopes up I figure.

Stacey calls. "You should have checked in online. You never listen to me." I utter some epithets--not at her but at my current predicament. But the 'told you so' still stings. "Pride goeth before the fall," she reminds me before hanging up.

Stacey calls again. She talked to her brother, a pilot for Air Canada. "Scott says you would have gotten on if you'd checked in online." Now she's rubbing it in.

I try to save a little face by saying I have a lot of work to do, and I could do it here or at my accommodation in Marquette. But I'd prefer to be comfortably sitting in my room and an early bedtime. Stacey must sense my disappointment and that I'm angry at myself.

"Everything happens for a reason," she says.

Hopefully that reason is not to go down in flames on the later flight.

I have over four-and-a-half hours to kill at Pearson. I may as well get to work, starting with the tail end of that conference call I missed. It doesn't help that I'm the organizer and 45 minutes late. But I catch up quickly. The check-in closure still smarts as I wryly note my original flight pulling from the gate more than an hour behind schedule. I get a lot of work done I might not have otherwise afterwards. Expense reports and emails caught up, I polish up some reports. I'm in a zone when I work without interruption, and time passes quickly.

The snow has mostly stopped when I board the 3:30 pm to Detroit. I'm in the exit row, almost a consolation prize on a cramped CRJ200. We go through the de-icing sequence. The first coat is orange, followed by a fluorescent green. It looks like the Seahawks have wiped out the Broncos again.

The flight to Detroit is otherwise uneventful, the best kind. We land at 6:00 pm, and I'll have a couple hours to further catch up on work and eat dinner before my 8:30 connection. For all the grief I give Detroit, it has one of America's nicest airports. I appreciate the complimentary wireless Internet while I finish my sandwich. I begin to wonder if today's events warrant a good story. There just doesn't seem to be a hook.

I amble up to the gate about a half hour before boarding, around 8 o'clock. There are several angry looking people in line facing a gate agent at the counter. I listen in, expecting the worst. The earlier afternoon connection to Marquette, the one I would have taken, turned back to Detroit midway due to mechanical difficulties. Now those passengers are wait-listed. Most of them won't make it onto this full flight. They are stranded in Detroit for the night, while I'll get to Marquette as early as I possibly could have.

Everything happens for a reason.

February 5, 2014


Bill Mallett said...

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. Glad you made it safely.

Michael Orobona said...

Thanks Bill. "Lucky rather than good" is my middle name.