For the first time in three years, we’ll be spending Christmas in Illinois, visiting both sets of grandparents. Last year, we were still newcomers to Tennessee, and I wanted the girls to experience Christmas in their new home. The year before, we elected to stay in Burbank — mostly because the year before that, we made the mistake of flying during Christmas week.
The trip to Illinois was merely a hassle … up at 4:00 a.m., carrying kids and luggage and car seats to a taxi, then into the airport, then through the terminal and onto the plane, then through another terminal and onto another plane, then to a shuttle for a two-hour ride from St. Louis to Springfield.
The trip back from Chicago, however, was a nightmare. The first sign of trouble came in the form of snowflakes as my father-in-law was driving us to O’Hare. They weren’t big snowflakes, mind you, and there weren’t many of them yet. But I’d spent most of my adult life in Chicago and knew a blizzard could be following those little snowflakes into town.
Yup. By the time we boarded the plane two hours later, snow was piling up on the runways, and delay notices were piling up on the departure and arrival boards. I tried to remain very calm and zen about it all, just accept that we were going to miss our connecting flight in Dallas, but the pilot suckered me into optimism by backing away from the gate a mere 20 minutes after our scheduled departure. Well, how about that … our layover in Dallas is nearly two hours, so we’ll even have a time to spare.
As it turned out, we’d backed away from the gate just in time to be approximately the 100th airliner in line for takeoff. An hour or so later, when we were perhaps third in line for takeoff, the pilot announced that the wings were covered with ice and he couldn’t risk flying. I was hoping a platoon of mechanics would drive out to the runway and jump on the wings armed with little plastic ice-scrapers, but the pilot taxied to the terminal, where greenish liquid sprayed from a huge nozzle removed the ice.
Still feeling cautiously optimistic, I convinced myself we might just make that connecting flight … after all, when O’Hare slows down, the whole system slows down, so the connecting flight could be delayed somewhere as well.
An hour later, after our second long stretch sitting in line to take off, the pilot announced that we needed another de-icing and taxied to the terminal again. I checked my watch. Without the snow, we would be landing in Dallas right about now. I become psychologically disjointed in these situations because while my body is where it is, my soul moves on to where it’s supposed to be — in this case, walking through a terminal in Dallas. The two would have to get along without each other until we arrived home in Burbank.
We finally landed in Dallas hours after our connecting flight had taken off. The airport was so over-crowded, I expected to see hordes of people bathing in a river somewhere in the middle of the terminal. I walked to the American Airlines desk at what was supposed to be our connecting gate and asked the uniformed, perky blonde if there was a later flight to Burbank.
“There’s one more flight leaving in three hours, but it’s sold out.”
“So what can you do to get us home?”
“Here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going smile sincerely and suggest we put you on the stand-by list for that flight, then overcome your doubts by reminding you that since you have small children, you’ll receive priority stand-by status. Now of course, you don’t actually stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting on the plane since we overbook our flights even when it’s not a jam-packed holiday week, but this way I appear to doing something to help, when in fact I’m really just looking forward to watching you, your wife, and your two little girls spend three hours trying to avoid cramping up while sitting on the hard floor since, as you’ve noticed, there isn’t an empty chair anywhere within 10 square miles of the airport. The good news is that you’ll get some much-needed exercise every time one of the girls has to pee, because we broke the plumbing in all the nearby bathrooms.”
That isn’t exactly what she said, but it’s what she meant.
Three hours later — after the uniformed, perky blonde had herded all the passengers onto the plane and bribed some overbooked ticket-holders into surrendering their seats — I asked her what we should do now, seeing as how the priority stand-by status didn’t work out. She told me I’d need to go ask someone at the American Airlines ticket counter and pointed towards a security exit.
My wife stayed with the girls, who’d long since dozed off, and I walked the five or six miles to the American ticket counter. The line was only half as long as I’d expect if John and George came back from the dead and announced that the Beatles would perform exactly one reunion concert, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, we missed our connecting flight. When’s the next flight to Burbank?”
“Fine. I need four –”
“It’s sold out. They’re all sold out tomorrow.”
“Everyone’s trying to fly to the Burbank-Pasadena airport for the Rose Bowl.”
“So when’s the next flight with open seats?”
“This is Friday.”
“I know that, sir. Would you like to book a flight on Sunday?”
“No. Put us on another airline, fly us into LAX, just get us home tomorrow. I’m not spending two days in Dallas.”
“Let’s see … here’s the best I can do. You can fly to Seattle tomorrow morning, then take an Alaskan Airlines flight from there to Burbank in the afternoon.”
“Dallas to Seattle to Burbank.”
“How long is the layover in Seattle?”
“I’ll take it.”
So I bought the tickets and stood in yet another line to get through security. The crack TSA agent examined my tickets then held up a hand.
“You can’t come in here, sir.”
“These tickets aren’t for today.”
“Yes, I know that. They’re for tomorrow. These are the earliest flights I could get. But my wife and girls are inside waiting for me because I hoped I’d find a flight for tonight.”
“Well, you can’t go inside with these tickets.”
“Okay, then, now what? Is someone going to make an announcement so my wife knows I’m stuck out here and can’t get back in?”
“We don’t do that.”
“Uh-huh. So … I guess I’m supposed to stand here for, say, an hour or two until she finally comes looking for me?”
“Can you call her on a cell phone?”
“If she had a cell phone I could call, why would I be talking to you right now?”
“I don’t know. She ought to have a cell phone.”
“Look, you can have somebody follow me in there if you think I’m security risk, but I need to let my wife know I’m out here and we’re stuck in Dallas until tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a logical and reasonable request, but I work for the federal government and was therefore specially trained to follow rules for the sake of following rules, even when they make no sense whatsoever. In fact, if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”
That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.
As I was wondering exactly much jail time I’d pull for punching the crack TSA agent in the nose, an older African-American woman whose badge identified her as being on the janitorial staff heard part of our conversation and took pity on me. She volunteered to find my wife inside and asked for a description and gate number. Fortunately, the crack TSA agent didn’t consider this bit of kindness to be a terrorism threat and let her through.
So we caught a shuttle to a nearby hotel and spent $95 for a room — that was the stranded-passenger discounted rate — and another $50 or so for room-service sandwiches. The girls, whose bodies and souls were still together, considered a night in a hotel a grand adventure and spent much of the time chasing each other around the room and jumping on the beds. By the time we all fell asleep, it was after midnight.
Our flight to Seattle was scheduled to leave at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. Not wanting to risk being stuck in Dallas another day, we arrived at the terminal at 6:30 a.m. The line to get through security was only half as long as if Jesus had announced he’d make an appearance on earth for exactly one day to heal the sick and answer all metaphysical questions, tickets on sale tomorrow exclusively at Yankee Stadium window #23.
As we eventually discovered while moving forward at the rate of three millimeters per minute, the crack TSA team only had one scanner working. Waves of college kids heading to the Rose Bowl entered the terminal, spotted friends far ahead of us in line and nonchalantly cut in to join them. The crack TSA team did nothing about it.
We finally made it through the one working scanner at 8:02 a.m. — two minutes after our flight was supposed to leave. I was just pulling our bags off the conveyor when a crack TSA agent approached me.
“Excuse me, sir, you and your family need to step over here with me.”
“What?! Our flight is leaving!”
“Random security check, sir. We have to search your bags.”
“Did you hear me? Our flight is about to take off!”
“Sorry, sir. If your number comes up, we have to search your bags.”
“You’re kidding, right? In all of aviation history, has an airplane ever been hijacked by parents traveling with their little kids? Just write down that the bags were fine and let us go.”
“I’m sorry, sir. That is of course a reasonable and logical request, especially since there’s a very good chance I’m about to make you miss your flight after you just spent 90 minutes standing in line because most of our security equipment isn’t working. But I work for the federal government and am therefore allowed to draw a paycheck without any concern whatsoever for pleasing the public I’m supposed to serve. In fact, unlike someone with a real job in the private sector, I can regularly annoy the hell out of the public and still remain employed, which is great, because I happen to be an incredibly stupid and annoying person. And even if I weren’t naturally stupid, I’d still have to pretend to be stupid, because if I demonstrated any initiative or capacity for independent thinking, I’d be sent to Guantanamo and forced to eat fattening foods while undergoing re-education.”
That isn’t exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.
So the crack TSA agent ambled over to a table, took my tickets and examined them as if they might contain secret go-codes for an Al Qaeda operation, then opened our bags and examined the contents as if I’d bet him $500 he couldn’t guess the thread count on the girls’ t-shirts. When he finished with their bags and moved on to mine, I told my wife, “Go! Go to the gate and tell them I’m on my way.”
When the crack TSA agent finally closed my bag, I yanked it off the table and ran. Halfway to the gate, I reached into the coat pocket where I’d been carrying our tickets. Nothing. Empty. Then it hit me: the crack TSA agent had taken them before beginning his bag-search.
I ran back to the security station and saw the tickets sitting on a counter, unattended. Anyone could’ve taken them. The crack TSA agent looked over just as I snatched the tickets. I held them up and hissed, “Nice job, genius. Very secure.” Then I ran faster than a 49-year-old with a bum knee is supposed to run. A flight attendant was waiting at the gate, ready to close the door behind me.
In the Seattle airport, we found a play area for kids. The girls played, my wife read a book, and I drank coffee. Lots of coffee. We ate lunch in a food court, walked around the airport, went back to the play area.
We boarded the Alaskan Airlines flight for Burbank, and the plane pulled away from the gate on schedule. As we were in line for takeoff, the pilot clicked on the intercom:
“Uhhhhhhhhh …. Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve just been informed that the Naughton family is on board today, so we’re going to pretend we have an electrical problem and go back to the terminal and have our mechanics spend an hour and a half pretending to fix it.”
That’s not exactly what he said, but it’s what I heard.
So an hour and a half later, we were in air. When we landed in Burbank, I went to the baggage claim and watched one person after another pluck bags from a dwindling collection on the conveyor until I realized ours weren’t going to show up. I walked to the Alaskan Airlines counter.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, we just landed and our bags aren’t here.”
“Can I see your ticket?”
“Let’s see … oh, you were originally supposed to come in on American. Your bags got here yesterday. American has them.”
“They didn’t put us on a plane, but they put our bags on the plane?”
“Yes. You’ll need to get your bags from them. Unfortunately, they’re gone for the day.”
“They don’t have any more flights coming or going today, so their people are all gone.”
“So they have my bags locked up somewhere and I can’t get them.”
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
“They also have the car seats for my girls.”
“Oh. Oh, yes, that is a problem. I’m sorry. There’s nothing we can do.”
We hailed a cab outside and hoped the cabbie wouldn’t notice that two of the passengers were very much on the short side.
“Where you going?”
“San Jose Avenue in Burbank. Near Magnolia and Glenoaks.”
“Okay, let me … wait, where are your car seats?”
“Locked up in an American Airlines closet somewhere. We can’t get them until tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take the kids without car seats. I could lose my license.”
My wife tried calling some friends who drove mommy vans with car seats. Nobody was home. I spotted a starter for the taxis and asked him if he had any suggestions.
“Some of the taxi vans have flip-down car seats. Let me get on the radio and try to find one. It could be awhile.”
It was awhile, but a van finally came to rescue us. We walked through the door of our townhouse a mere 28 hours later than we’d originally planned. We put the girls to bed and ordered a pizza. I watched TV, drank Guinness, and waited for my body and soul to merge.
This year, we’ll wake up when we feel like it, toss the suitcases in our van and drive home for the holidays. No security checks, no naked-image scanners, no TSA groping, no missed connections, no sitting on the floor in an airport. Yes, it’s a day-long drive, but I don’t mind driving. Compared to what the airlines and the TSA put us through these days, eight hours on the road is a walk in the park.
Just one more reason I’m glad I left California.