Sunday, May 06, 2007

13/4/07 New York, USA – Taking a Toll / Merry-Go-Round

After Catherine's conference had run its course, we killed an hour wandering the billboarded streets of Broadway and enjoying the company of the overly enthusiastic staff at Jumba Juice.

We picked up our luggage from the only hotel luggage left-service I've ever encountered that costs you money and procured a taxi. The next episode was a series of those joys and woes life doesn't usually throw together in such a short space of time except on TV.

The chauffeur of our carefully selected vehicle was a Japanese American into shameless pop. We made good time through the semi-gridlock that is New York daytime traffic until we reached the toll for one of the bridges. Our chauffeur calmly took one of the many automatic payment lanes. Ordinarily this means the car slows down as it approaches the booth, some invisible electronics happens, some behind-the-scenes data transfer, some hidden checks, a manual keystroke somewhere in Madras, India, and the barrier lifts up. For us, however, there was a departure from the norm. After slowing down, there was no resultant barrier raising, and instead a stop.

A typically brusque New Yorker – most New Yorkers are good naturedly short-tempered – bounded over, grabbed the driver's licence, toll fee in notes and his EZpassTollPayCard™. He ordered him to pull up out of the way and disappeared. For some time we were waiting in the car. The driver was so embarrassed we had to remind him to turn the meter off after a couple of them. We had no idea how long it would take for the guy to come back. And of course when you have to be at the airport, any delay seems like a long time.

We also did not know what would happen when the guy did return. He could confiscate the car and/or the driver's licence leaving us stranded the wrong side of a toll, waiting in vain for an taxi that had decided to pay the toll without a fare. We didn't know if he was going to be arrested for some traffic violation or other and us taken away too as accomplices. We knew nothing.

Eventually, the guy returns and curtly hands the driver back his licence and EeZeePeeAyEssEss back to him, plus his receipt, plus the change for the five dollars he had given him. In other words, we were not waiting for a security check, for a ticket to be written or for a warrant to be processed, but for the man to make the change for the toll.

With no further delays we were shepherded to the airport and our charioteer dropped us off at the US Airways drop-off point and rode off into the smog. We had a little search for the correct US Airways desk, but were soon standing in front of it. It was then that we found what was to go wrong next. Although this was an US Airways ticket, bought from US Airways, the flight was operated by United. United operate out of Terminal B and we were in Terminal C.

Any form of transport in America that isn't involving you sitting in your car is confusing. US airports are large, sprawling and with each little bit autonomous. Eventually we found a hassled but jovial New Yorker fielding people onto the right buses because without him, you would have no idea which buses were the right one because they were all very generic buses that only occasionally gave an indication of their purpose. The first few buses were not the right one, and the guy told us so. Then another identical bus arrived and this was pointed out as inter-terminal shuttle bus. We hopped on were shunted over to Terminal B.

Here we staggered our way through three sets of school children to the United counter. By this time we already knew our first flight was 45 minutes delayed, making it impossible for us to make our connecting flight which left at exactly that time. Fortunately the overworked but gruffly chirpy girl behind the counter realised this and offered us a later but direct flight that would actually put us in earlier than we would have arrived on our original two-flight plan. Perfect. This was a flight we had not booked as the tickets were too expensive. Result!

There was however one minor problemette: This flight was operated by Delta Airlines and left from… Terminal D. But by then we didn't care. We had reduced our flight time, and halved our take-offs and landings and now had plenty of time before the flight left. Plus having been to two of the four terminals already, it seemed only right to visit yet another one.

So back on another bus we went all the way round to Terminal D. We checked in automatically and then went to the desk to check in or luggage. Of course, this couldn't go smoothly, not on Friday the 13th. The guy took one look at our tickets and told us we had checked in at the wrong machines. We had used a machine for no luggage, rather than a machine for passengers with luggage. The difference between these machines? Nothing marked above or on the machines themselves, but a confusing message on the second screen, easily passed over.

Dear Delta,

a) Why would you provide different machines for passengers with luggage and those without it?
b) If you do have a valid reason for providing two different sorts of machines, please mark them clearly on the machines themselves. Also make the message informing paying customers which machine it is they are using much clearer.
c) Please try to lean on the New York Airport Authorities to make their airports more organised.

So whilst I guarded the baggage against thieves, smugglers and terrorists, Cath went and rechecked in using the correct machine because obviously the guy behind the counter couldn’t fix this. We were lucky it could be fixed at all and we didn’t have to have our luggage destroyed.

The next thing to go wrong was far more sinister. Printed on our boarding passes in one corner were 4 S's. We didn't notice it, of course, but one sharp-eyed security bod did and shepherded us through the cordon directly to the X-ray machines. We were singled out for a special security search.

We never got a satisfactory answer why were singled out. It could be that it was purely random. It could be because we had our flights changed at the last minute; or because we had checked in twice; or it could be that we had been spotted in three separate terminal buildings – all of which is very, very suspect indeed. In fact maybe it was because our taxi had been seen parked by the side of the road just past the bridge.

I was patted down by a burly, cop-like security guy, but Catherine was not. It was our stuff that received all the attention. It was wiped down with small strips of cloth which were then analysed in some contraption. Catherine's shoes set off an alarm for some "chemical," but instead of us being surrounded by an extremely armed swat team, the girl in the uniform just shrugged her shoulders and said it was probably pesticides. Given how deadly most pesticides are to pests, you would think that airport security droids would be more concerned by it. But they weren't and quickly moved on to the next group - a dangerous band of suspect figures disguised as a jovial, balding dad and his two pre-teen kids.

Later on we realised that although we had been ominously selected for this 'special security search' with all the extra stress that invokes, our fears that it would involve a prolonged interrogation, public stripping and indelicate probing were unfounded. It actually meant that we got through the whole security circus much quicker than if we had continued along the snaking queue. So once again a bad thing turned out not so bad.

After all this, the only other possible thing that could go wrong would be our own flight delayed due to a hurricane raging in Texas. Check.

The TV news was filled with warnings of hurricanes and listed off the counties in Texas where it was expected to hit. They included Cath's parent's county and the one in between them and the airport. It’s a well known fact that hurricanes and tornadoes are not random, but as lightning seeks metal to conduct it, hurricanes and tornadoes seek out trailer parks. Such winds like nothing better than to meander through a state following the lie of trailer parks. In fact they seem to avoid everywhere else most of the time. Which meant that Catherine’s parents should be fine as their area doesn’t seem to have too many.

First the flight was delayed by 15 minutes. Then 15 minutes before the plane was rescheduled to take off, it was still not there. Then it turned up very shortly before the new time and a girl hurriedly announced our boarding. We duly piled on. Fortunately it was a small plane and boarding was quick. However, then came that news that the hurricane was posing more of a threat than expected. First we were told an hour's delay. Then 1 hours delay and a longer flight via a different route. Next the pilot informed us that the new route would give us enough fuel to get to our destination. However, air traffic control would not budge. It was their way or (stay on) the runway. In the end a compromise was reached. We would leave before the hour, but go via the longer route. To save fuel we would go slow. We would now be arriving at about the same time as our original flight, but on the plus side we had still gained in the fact we had eliminated an extra set of take off and landings, which is always good.

Oh, and more thing. Although we bought tickets from US Airways, but which were for a United flight, and got switched to a Delta flight, the plane itself was not operated by Delta but by Shuttle America. Confused? Welcome to flying in the USA.


The flight was a good preliminary refresher in Texan, possibly the strangest and richest of all of America's various corruptions of the English tongue. Was also good for brushing up on me Brummy.

For those of you interested in exponentorating in the Texan vernacular. The word "tired" is pronounce "tard"; "Line" is more line "larn"; and "in" is a diphthong, which is not an undergarment worn by twins, but when you almost make two syllables from one. It was good also to hear the expression "Holy Crud" in every day use.

To let you know, the flight managed to avoid the hurricane, but landed even later than predicted at Dallas Fort Worth airport where we were picked up by two very tired parents.

Headline USA Today: "FAA divided over airport near misses." Does that mean some people at the Federal Aviation Authority think they’re a good thing? Weird.

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