Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Travel Travails

I travel fairly often on business. Luckily, I haven't had any major adventures, but there have been a few anxious moments to write home about. Or perhaps, I should say, to blog about, as people at home can get more anxious if I write home about them.

Fresh off the boat: It was in 1992, when I arrived at the JFK airport in New York, first time to the US, and first time ever on a plane! It was uneventful and safe experience all the way from India. However, at JFK, it was rainy weather, and my connecting flight was supposed to depart closer to midnight. After coming out of the international terminal, I managed to find my way to the domestic terminal, and to the right departure gate. However, several flights got canceled due to bad weather, and I got worried about my flight. I had already spent more than 24 hours on the plane from India to NY, and I just wanted to get to my final destination. Also, being fresh off the boat, I did not know how to get around, where to get vegetarian food etc., in case they delay the flight. Luckily, my flight did depart on time, making life easier.

Last minute before departure: It was a trip to El Paso, Texas, leaving from Oakland, CA. The idea was to go over to the US consulate at Juarez, Mexico, and get our visas restamped. The ride to Oakland airport was during a nasty evening commute traffic from San Jose. The friend who drove us down did his best, skipped even a red signal (I'd never advise that one), and managed to get us to the airport like 5 minutes before departure. We made a dash to the gate, and it was exactly one minute before departure. Luckily, they let us in, and we got on the plane. I doubt this would be possible post 9/11.

Sleeping on the floor of LA airport: While on a flight returning from India to the US, I noticed on the flight path channel that the plane was returning to Tokyo Narita airport soon after take off from there. Shortly, the pilot reported someone was having a heart attack, and therefore they had to return to Tokyo. He can’t land with a full tank, so he wasted fuel by flying in circles for an hour and finally landed in Tokyo. After another hour of paper work at the airport, and of course, dropping off the person who had the heart attack (hope he or she survived), the plane took off again and reached Los Angeles airport about 7 hours behind schedule (12 midnight vs. 5pm). The airlines didn’t inform the immigration officers about the delay, they had all left home, except for one, who I guess provides coverage through the night just in case something comes up. Well, 400 of us just landed, and it took almost 3 hours for the one remaining immigration officer to process all of us. By this time, it was 3pm, and the airline folks said they could put me in a hotel that was 1 hour away. My connecting flight was in another 3 hours, morning 6:30am, so traveling up and down 2 hours for a 1-hour stay didn’t make any sense. So, I ended up staying at the airport, and caught a little nap during the remaining couple of hours, sleeping on the cozy LA airport floor!

Waiting forever in First Class Lounge: Too much good is bad. I got a chance to travel first class all the way to India, on a company related offical trip. It was a United flight from US to Japan to Singapore, then Singapore to India. When waiting in Japan for a connecting flight, being a first class passenger, they asked me to wait in the first class lounge, and look for the flight announcement. I had lost sense of the time due to time zone changes. I waited, helped myself to all the niceties in the lounge, and waited and waited for the flight announcement that never came. It seems, they have been announcing in Japanese, and I never understood what they were saying. I finally went up to the counter myself, since I felt it should be close to departure. They told me the flight had just left the gate! Luckily, there was another Northwest flight in half hour, and they put me on it with my first class status intact. If it were not a first class ticket, I guess they would have made me wait another day - or wait, I wouldn't have missed the flight, since I would have never gone to that first class lounge in the first place!

Twice in Security Line: I checked in at the Southwest terminal kiosk. It printed the boarding pass, I picked it up and headed down the security line. It only took a few minutes since it was pretty early in the morning, and when I almost cleared security, the last guard told me that the boarding pass I picked was for my return flight, and she couldn’t let me in to the gate area. The kiosk can print round trip boarding passes if the return flight is on the same day - the return flight first, and then the onward flight. Since the second print out took a while, I thought it was done printing the boarding pass, and didn't bother to check what's printed. I went back all the way to the kiosk and printed again, this time waiting for both boarding passes to print out. Again, I went to the security line, but by now, it had filled up with plenty of 7am travelers, extending all the way to the garage. I thought this was going to take a long time, and I will miss my flight. The line moved, slowly but steadily made progress, and took about 30 minutes to clear security. Luckily, that was still in time for my flight – I had some 10 minutes left.

Purchase ticket at the gate: I booked this flight to LA on American, for a 3pm customer meeting. It was supposed to depart at 12:30pm and reach LA at 2pm, which was good enough time to get to the customer’s office. However, the flight got canceled due to technical problems. The guy at the gate was slowly processing each passenger on alternate flights, which were all in the evenings, and I knew I will miss my meeting if I stick around for my turn. So, I called up the travel agent, and they were also offering me an option that lands in LA earliest at 5pm, which was beyond the meeting time. Luckily, when I booked this American flight online, I had also noticed a Southwest flight leaving at 1pm and arriving at 2:30pm. When I asked them about this flight, they looked up and said it doesn’t allow them to book it since there was less than an hour left for the flight. But, I could go to the gate and purchase the ticket right at the gate. So, I hurried to the Southwest gate, doled out additional money for the new ticket, and made it to the meeting at 3pm.

24-hour east-coast round-trip: This was a trip to Florida, to meet with the customer at 1pm. I took a red-eye from San Franscisco, and spent 11 hours traveling with a stop over at Chicago, and made it to the meeting well on time. Soon after the meeting ended at 4pm, I got a call from my wife that she had to take my kid to the emergency room, and she badly wanted me to get back. So, I had to cancel the hotel and other travel plans (was supposed to go to Atlanta the next day), and rebooked a flight back to San Jose. I left at 7pm and arrived close to midnight making it a round-trip within 24 hours. Other than the 8 hours spent at the customer site and traveling up and down the airport, I spent 16 hours on the plane.

These days, I don't panic as much. I have learned from experience, there is always a way out in most situations.

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