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?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“Fine. I need four –”

“It’s sold out. They’re all sold out tomorrow.”

“What?”

“Everyone’s trying to fly to the Burbank-Pasadena airport for the Rose Bowl.”

“So when’s the next flight with open seats?”

“Sunday.”

“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.”

“That’s right.”

“How long is the layover in Seattle?”

“Four hours.”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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?”

“Sure.”

“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.”

“Say what?”

“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.

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18 Responses to “No More Airplanes … Now That’s a Happy Holiday”
  1. “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.”

    My favorite part. I actually did a spit take!

    My memory of his exact words may be faulty.

  2. Be says:

    I wish I could tell you I don’t identify. WAY too many days like this in my 2 million mile career. So yes, driving becomes more and more appealing all the time. I think I am up to 12 hours now. But still I fly too often.

    During my road trips as a comedian, I learned to love audiobooks. Makes those long drives much more enjoyable.

  3. Wyatt says:

    The possibility of a horrible car crash is way more likely than an airplane crashing. Personally, I hate driving because you can’t account for everyone else on the road texting, doing makeup, driving to work after an hour of sleep, driving an unsafe vehicle, etc. etc. etc.

    All of that said, I’m in agreement with your thesis- I’d rather drive than ever deal with a freaking airline. Translated- I would rather risk the heightened possibility of being mutilated/burned to death in an orgy of concrete, broken glass, and twisted metal than deal with the sub-human, Satan-worshiping ne’er-do-wells that run the airline and airline security industries.

    How’s that for customer satisfaction?

    I’m with you. They’ve made airline travel a total pain.

  4. You gonna drive to Florida for the Low-carb cruise? My wife and I plan to drive, even though it will be a hard two-day drive from the DFW area. Despite having to take an extra day of vacation to accomplish it, and despite the cost of driving and staying in a hotel being equal to or more than a flight (at current rates; who knows what else may change).

    We’re kicking that one around. Since the girls will be home with grandma, we’ll probably fly.

  5. Ahh, yes, I remember the good old days when flying was way less secure. I mean, these days with all the scanning, groping, limiting of food/drinks on the plane, along with sharp implements has really, really made things secure since 9/11, right? Everyone with me?
    I prefer driving too, as long as someone can relieve me. LOL. It is much more peaceful, unless of course you get lost or something. LOL

    I’m waiting for the day when the TSA has to grope you before you’re allowed to drive on an interstate.

  6. Lori says:

    Sorry you had such a bad trip, but I still prefer to fly. That said, I carry on all my luggage and don’t have two little kids. A road trip from Denver to anywhere I want to go is a two-day drive, it’s more expensive for me than flying, and a blizzard could leave me stranded on the highway.

    I remember those days, one carry-on and no children.

  7. Amy Dungan says:

    Oh wow. That makes my worst flying story sound not so bad. I blogged about it back then and felt sure I’d never fly again. Of course you know better since we all sat together in Florida earlier this year waiting on more delayed flights. lol Here’s our story from back then:
    http://healthylowcarbliving.com/uncategorized/fly-the-not-so-reliable-skies/

    I REALLY hope I can drive to most places from here on out. I used to love flying, now I hate it.

    Yikes. I may have to consider driving to Florida.

  8. Dan says:

    The utter stupidity of the TSA folks doesn’t inspire any confidence that they are actually keeping us safe. Now the TSA goons are showing up at bus stations and subways. Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do start groping drivers of private vehicles. Your papers please, comrade.

    I wouldn’t want to take my daughter through airport security today. She’s old enough for the full grope…err pat down, and has enough trouble with anxiety as it is.

    BTW, I just retruned from a visit to my aging father in Utah. Fortunately, there are no porno-scanners at Houston Hobby Airport – at least not yet. They do have porno-scanners at Salt Lake. On my return trip I was prepared to opt out, but no one went through them and they were probably off. I wonder why. Could it be that vox populi is having an effect?

    Let’s hope public reaction is actually having an effect.

  9. TonyNZ says:

    The USA is pretty much the worst for this sort of thing. After my transit of Washington/LA on the way back to NZ (lost bags and all) I’ve resolved to not go through (as have most people I know) the States unless I am actually going to the States. (Singapore airport is much preferable and can get most places.)

    Although, on our last trip:

    Me: “Can you move our seats towards the exit of the plane, my wife is unwell and doesn’t want to do all the aisle shuffling”.

    Them: “We couldn’t possibly do this, the seats are all full.”

    Board plane (small one) and whaddya know. 24 seats in front, six containing people. The flight attendant let us shift.

    Ground staff are idiots.

  10. DWStanek says:

    A few years ago, I would personally drive to the airport to pick up some of my subordinates. In those days (a few years back) I would always set off the metal detector and always be pulled out of line and hand patted down. The absurdity of me, an Air Force major in full dress uniform being patted down while Muhammad Akbar or whatever the name of the Arab guy next to me in line, strutting through the security line is not lost on me.

    I’ve already told me wife, the next time they say they say they want to pat me down, I’ll just drop my pants and underwear right in the security line so everyone can see. Alternately, I could wear a tear-away jumpsuit then pull a Hulk Hogan and rip it off in the line.

    My wife is refusing to ever fly with me again for fear what I’ll do.

    Even more absurd is frisking the pilots. Frisk him, scan him, whatever, if he’s planning a terrorist event he’s still got access to a weapon — it’s called “an airplane.”

  11. labrat says:

    Reminds me of my flight home from a family reunion cruise. Took a cab from the dock to the airport with 3 small children.
    Only to find that the cab driver took off before we got all of our bags out of the cab. Fortunately (or so I thought) for some reason I have a habit of always checking my cab number and driver’s name when I take a cab. I knew exactly who had my bag. So I contacted him immediately. Yes, he had my bags. Yes, he would return with them. No, he didn’t tell us he was going back to the dock to pick up another fare first. So as we are getting closer and closer to take off and still no bags, I ask if they will send my bags on a later flight. Sorry ma’am no, you have to fly with your bags. So the cab shows up with my bag (and my cousins – big family reunion – we had 150 peeps on that ship) 10 mins after my flight left without me and we got to spend the day at the Tampa airport with 3 toddlers. Fun, fun, fun! Of course this was morning and the next available flight was at 8pm. So we arrive home and our bags of course aren’t on our flight. They came home on the earlier flight. Hey – what happened to the rule that your bags have to fly with the passenger?

    When I learned our bags had arrived in Burbank on time, I wondered why they didn’t just give us warm coats and stow us with the bags.

  12. Debbie says:

    LOL, makes me glad I don’t fly anymore! Have not been on a plane since 1994. Okay, I know the statistics say flying is much safer. But I love to drive, I enjoy the passing scenery and the open roads, love being able to stop when I want, to get up and stretch….and basically hate everything there is about flying. Already looking forward to my drive to Florida for Xmas, all 1000 miles of it. 🙂

    Well, I look at this way: the odds of me dying in a plane crash are nearly zero, and the odds of me dying on the highway are merely very, very, very small. But the odds of me having a miserable time if I fly are roughly 50%.

  13. Auntie M says:

    You aren’t helping reduce my anxiety over flying this Christmas, Tom. Thinking about the X-Ray Death Machines, Anal Probes…er..”enhanced pat-down”, and the connecting flights we’ll need to make on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, I’m going to have a nervous breakdown before I get where I’m going. After this, I don’t plan to fly for a very long time.

    I’m going to avoid flying as much as possible, at least until someone invents those machines like they had in Star Trek … stand on a pad, wait two seconds, arrive at your destination. Of course, if the airlines run that system, I may arrive with someone else’s head on my shoulders.

  14. Bruce says:

    Great story.

    Of the many things I hate about flying, the two that are the worst are;

    1. The seats. Supposedly they are for “normal” people. The problem is, I’m 6′ 9″. If the fit is not already tight enough for me, the person in front of me is always bound and determined that they can recline their seat even with my knees already jammed into the back of their seat.

    2. The announcements on the airplane itself. I know they are required to give us the safety lecture, and I actually do look at the attendants and pay attention when they give the talk. However, other then that talk, or to announce 2 for 1 happy hour on the plane, SHUT UP. I do not care about the weather where I am going, how fast or at what altitude we will fly, what time you think we will land, or about the wonderful items in Sky Mall. It is like a version of Karaoke for announcements. Anyone employed by the airlines can speak to us through the lovely distortion enhanced speakers.

    Can’t imagine how uncomfortable those seats must be for you. I’m only 5’11” and I feel crammed in.

  15. Jeanie says:

    Waaaay back in 1973, I was working as a secretary for an architecture firm. My bosses were the construction administrators. Our office was in San Diego, but many of the construction sites were in the San Francisco bay area. Our firm actually had a deal with PSA (an airline no longer in business) where we could write our own tickets! We looked up available flights (pre-computers and internet, of course) in a little book, called ahead to make sure there was room on the plane, then wrote out the ticket right there in the office! My bosses would drive to the airport, park and then run like O.J. Simpson through the airport and skid onto the plane with barely 5 minutes to spare. Not even metal detectors back then! When I think about flying then, it was fun! No longer.
    Thanks for the post, Tom. It brought back some good memories!

    That’s the only way to fly.

  16. Marilyn says:

    Yep. Having once flown from Milwaukee to O’Hare at Christmas time, only to sit in the plane for two hours waiting to get to a gate, missing our connecting flight. . . . yadayadayada. Been there, done that, stopped flying at Christmas. Dh’s favorite line is “if you’ve got time to spare, go by air.” 🙂

    And like Jason, I remember the good old days–like the time I left the house 16 minutes before flight time, drove the couple of miles to the local small airport, parked my car and ran into the terminal and directly onto the waiting plane. I’m glad to be old enough to have experienced such things.

    Two hours on a plane … you could’ve driven from Milwaukee to Chicago in, what, 90 minutes?

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