Sunday, December 29, 2013

Heisenberg's Airplane

Thursday, December 19th.  

The Arrival

So there I am, on a flight from Eugene to Newark via Salt Lake City.  Getting up at 3AM wasn't so bad and I'm sort of resting, sort of writing, sort of reading.

And then a 19year old girl behind me started groaning with abdominal pain.  The flight attendants started having a conversation with the girl's mother, and phrases like "I had appendicitis, and it hurt right there," were thrown around.  Then a passenger identified herself as a doctor; after a short series of questions, she said, "It's definitely not appendicitis; you might have an infected kidney or a pulled spinal muscle."  More questions flew back and forth between Mom and Daughter:  "Did you feel this way before we left?  Did you take something for it?"

EMTs in SLC were arranged.   Then the airport closed because of snow and freezing rain.  Then they were going to let us land.  Then there was a cargo plane that skidded off the end of a runway, and they closed again.  Then we were going to circle around.  And around.  And around.  And then we were low on fuel, and got diverted to Provo.

While all this was happening, the doctor wanted to give the 19 year old some Super Advil, but the flight attendants were concerned about medical waivers and then the doctor worried that she'd be delayed and miss her connection.  The flight attendants were also wanting the doctor to use their regular Advil from the airplane's medical kit.

We landed at at Provo, a very small airport that serves Brigham Young University.  We were going to stay in the plane.  By this time the attendance simply gave away all the food supplies they had.  More planes flew in, and they had us deplane.  I had a notion that we wouldn't have to go through airport security, but I found out later that as soon as our feet touched the ground, TSA would have their way with us.

9:51AM:  SLC snowed in & we're refueling in Provo. Expecting delays once we're at SLC.

About two hundred people crammed into the building and sat anywhere they could.  The SLC airport was still closed.  I tentatively suggested to one woman we could all sing Christmas carols and the suggestion was not well received.   I managed to find some outlets and charge up various devices.  Then the airline was sending busses to take us from Provo to SLC.

10:10AM:   SLC closed for 2 hours. May be bussed back to SLC from Provo.

Our luggage eventually appeared in the outside Quonset hut for checked bags.  Newspaper cameramen appeared and started taking pictures of everyone sitting on roll-on suitcases and steps and standing in lines.  There's nothing like a news camera taking pictures of you to make you feel like a refugee.  And folks fleeing in $80 to $100 taxis didn't help.  I decided that I should wait outside for the buses, where the flight attendants were standing, under the drive-up awning.  
While we were waiting outside, someone suggested that I should do a weather dance because I was wearing the grey-green cloak.  I threatened to bring out cutout reindeer and invoke the spirit of Rudolph, but the flight attendants thought that might bring in the wrong kind of weather.  

The first bus pulled up to the awning.  Provo's single airport cop reminded folks to be polite and NOT RUSH THE BUS like some Christmas Apocalypse Zombie Movie.  Then we were on the bus.  I crammed my cary-on into the seat with me and people piled in.  The second bus appeared as ours was pulling out.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure what happened to the 19 year old appendicitis patient and her mother.  I'm not sure if there was a miraculous recovery or if they were whisked away or whatever.

SLC airport is about an hour from the Provo airport.  It was kind of odd to be on a bus full of Eugenians in between Provo and Salt Lake City.  The roads were snowy and icy, and our bus passed at least three accidents where cars had slid around into each other and off of the guardrail.  

We made the airport without incident.  I lost the flight attendants somewhere, but I managed to zip through security and get to the departing gate for my connecting flight.  It had been delayed five hours, so I hadn't missed it and had enough time to find some food.

By this time, I had had some airline cookies, an orange juice, a small Coke, and some peanuts and raisins.  Which meant that I had a raging caffeine withdrawal headache.  I am not looking forward to a post-tea apocalypse.  I staggered to a local looking food bar and before I could speak, the first words out of the cashier's mouth were, "We're out of beef, so you'll have to order chicken."  As I located the chicken menu and placed my order, my thoughts were, "And so it begins:  They're running out of supplies."

The Departures (yes, that's plural)

1:57PM:  In SLC.  My flight is delayed. Expected departure 3PM (in an hour).

As I sat down in the waiting area by the gate, a gate agent got on the PA and announced, "Well, folks, I'm sorry to do this to you, but our plane is at another gate.  We could bring the plane here, but there are no free gates, so it's easier--and quicker--to get you to the plane.  It's a gate B3."  We were at gate C-something.  This was the last of several gate changes that had happened during the day. 

Then they let us on the plane.

3PM:  On the plane. Oy vey, it's like a sauna in here.  Should be taking off soon.

Like clockwork, passengers entered the plane and said, "Oh my God, it's hot in here."  I think it was 85F.  People took off their layers of snow jackets and scarves.  And started to sweat.

3:44PM:  Still on ground in SLC.  Everyone has boarded except the pilots :-(
When we boarded, the gate agent told us there was a crew.  This was not exactly true; there were flight attendants, but no pilots.  So we continued to sit in the 85F airplane on the ground at the gate.  Eventually, the flight attendants passed through the cabin handing out cups and bottled water.  I turned my barf bag into a cat puppet to amuse the one and two-year old children of the Obligatory Mother Traveling Alone.

4:08PM:  Pilots on the ground and in a plane... just not our plane... [they're] waiting for [a] gate.

About this time, I texted Mark (who was traveling with a different airline) not to wait for me in Newark.  The snow and ice not only kept the airplanes on the ground, but effectively kept the ground crews from driving into work.  So there was a shortage of drivers for those little carts that push planes away from the gates.  Which meant there were precious few gates for the planes that were already stacked up from the two hour airport closure earlier.

4:47PM:  Pilots on plane.  Half the passengers forming lynch mob, half just want to leave.  I'm with the half that wants to get a pilot license and fly the plane ourselves.  Door closed, now we wait for de-icing.

The first thing the pilot said when he entered was, "Oh my, folks; it's really hot in here.  We'll turn on the air conditioning and cool you down."  I'm not sure why one needs a pilot's license to crank up a plane's AC, but there you go.

The snow and ice also prevented deliveries of things like cookies, pretzels, peanuts and water.  So the pilots were stalling and doing flight checks waiting for supplies... which never came.  Eventually, the grumblings of the passengers must have been too loud in the cockpit, because we pushed away.

6:01 PM:  SLC just closed the runways while were were waiting to de-ice. Plane heading back to gate.  Passengers riotous.  
The airport closed, and we were waiting for a cart to push us back to an open gate (if any).  Then passengers noticed other planes were taking off.  This caused the pilot to get onto the plane's PA...

6:55PM:  Then one foggy Solstice Eve, the FAA came to say, Rudolf with your nose so bright, you've exceeded your duty cycle tonight.

...with the news that he and his co-pilot had been piloting planes for so long that they had reached the end of their FAA duty cycle, meaning it was no illegal for them to fly the plane.   I think seat-belts probably saved lives that night.

We got back to a gate.  First they told us we could deplane and leave our stuff in the bins, then they changed their minds and told us to take everything off.

So.  When the plane left the first time, the SLC airport computer thought our plane was in the air.  We--and by we I mean the passengers and the gate agents--hadn't quite figured this out.  Our first clue should have been when the gate agent had me draw our flight departure information on a white piece of paper she subsequently taped to the kiosk's departure monitor because our flight information was showing up incorrectly on the boards--wrong gate, wrong time--if it showed up at all.

People started to lose it.  Some clumped together in search of a bar.  An unofficial spokesperson was supported in her venting because she was saying what a lot of people were feeling:  "I'm stressed out; and don't make promises you can't keep, because I'm near the point where I no longer believe anything you say."

Everyone with mobile devices started checking e-mail, the airline's web site, or IMing.
The coolest thing I saw was when a grandma type insisted on playing for a servicewoman's dinner at the local beef-less bar.

I got a sandwich and a salad (which tasted like the expiration date on it was wrong).  Then I went to a little store across the way and purchased Advil and one of those cute little round pillow-donut things so I could actually sleep on the plane without getting too much of a crick in my neck.

At the gate's seating, there was the obligatory person using two outlets for devices that will plug into (and charge each other).  Businessmen tried to game the system.  One woman started surfing the Department of Transportation web site to build a case for a full refund.  And the toddlers sort of played with each other in the seating area where the parents herded together.

After a while some of the passengers, who had been waiting at the gate since the original 10 AM departure time, discovered that their emergency re-bookings had been cancelled by the airline computer when the plane originally left the gate.  They wanted to chuck it and simply take Friday's flight, but since it was now Thursday evening before The Weekend Before Christmas, all the seats had instantly filled.

Our new departure time was 9PM.  Since I didn't have to make a connecting flight, I could afford to be serene about it all and cat nap.

9:44PM:  Still at the gate.  Haven't boarded.  Heisenberg's Airplane should leave at 10:30 (about 35 minutes).
Our new crew was having difficulty driving into the airport.  By this time the departure time had been moved back three times and the passengers were pretty much ready for torches and pitchforks.  OK, there was applause when the last crew member appeared... and then it was time for us to pick up our bags and carry-ons and children and get on the plane.

The first first-class passenger's boarding pass made the boarding pass reader beep in denial.  The gate agent frowned at it, typed something on her keyboard, and waved the first passenger through.  After the third passenger was denied, she started checking us off with a pencil and a printed out passenger manifest.

As we trundled down the ramp, people shouted out fake announcements:  "Oh. Airport's closed; sorry,"  "D'oh.  De-icer's closed; we're turning back."  "Ooop! Reindeer on the runway; we can't leave."

10:32PM:  We've boarded.  Waiting for provisions.  Have pilots and flt attendants.  Betting happening over de-icing and runways.

Once again, we were sitting on the plane and waiting for water and cookies.  There were suggestions to leave without the damn water.   Then the PA clicked on.  "Hello ladies and gentlemen, this is your pilot; I'm standing at the front of the plane so you can see that I'm not hiding..."

10:56PM:  The airport computer thinks we already left (because we went out to get de-iced and came back), so now the tower can't schedule us to actually leave (to get de-iced again).
"...the gate agent says that the tower is working on getting us cleared and that should take five minutes, but that was five minutes ago and it still hasn't happened.  I'll let you know when I have more information."

Eventually we did push away from the gate and get de-iced.  Since it was about 11:20 PM, the de-icing was extra theatrical, with lights illuminating the steam and whatever (probably toxic) chemical they sprayed the plane's wings with.

I mostly slept through the flight.

5:28AM:  Getting off plane (doors open soon) not sure which [Newark] terminal...

We all filed off the airplane.  Our flight was officially delayed twelve hours.  I waited for Mark to pick me up near the baggage area.  Occasionally, I would see fellow passengers as they told their horror story to outraged kith and kin.  We'd stop, wave, wish each other happy holidays, and then the stories continued.  
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