What I did on MY vacation

One Tuesday afternoon, my wife Emily burst into my office in a state of panic.  She needed to get to Fredericton, New Brunswick by the coming weekend on a matter of high personal importance.  Sadly, my wife hates to fly, and despises flying alone, so I found myself unwittingly drafted into flying from my home in LA to Fredericton.  As they, say, for richer or poorer, etc.   This was a really bad time for me; I’d just started a new job within the past three months, and was already four months behind.  I couldn’t afford to take time off from work; so this had to be a quick trip. 

It is about such trips that airline ticket price-setters fantasize.  I needed to take her there within a week, and I couldn’t take time off from work, which meant I had to fly there one day, and fly back the next.  Furthermore, I HAD to do it on the coming Saturday, regardless of fare rates.  Since we were springing for the tickets, price was very much a consideration. 

I first attempted to find a cheap fare into Fredericton.  In case many of you aren't aware, air travel in Canada is generally controlled by a monopoly that would put Microsoft to shame.  A few years ago, there were two Canadian airlines, appropriately named Air Canada and Canadian Airlines.  Air Canada was in good shape, but Canadian Airlines went bankrupt.  As in other areas of the industry, consolidation was necessary.  Two bidders emerged to fight over the body of the bankrupt airlines:  American Airlines and Air Canada.  A brief aside:  Our neighbors to the north are very sensitive to being dominated by anything from the much-larger USA.  The idea that something named “Canadian” could be purchased by something named “American” was unacceptable.  Thus, Air Canada was given the blessing to buy Canadian airlines by the well-meaning Canadian Parliament under the theory, “Well, Air Canada IS Canadian…”.  The only other prospective buyer, American Airlines, suffered the inexcusable flaw of “coming from south of the border”. As a result of this purchase, the Air Canada behemoth controls just about ALL flights into the cities that most Americans have never heard of (that is, any place in Canada that is not Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver).  So what’s to keep this monopoly from charging huge fares to cities that they “serve” exclusively?   Nothing, as I was to find out. 

When I checked the price on Air Canada for a quick visit to Fredericton, it came out to be $2000 per ticket.   After beating my head on various nearby flat surfaces, I started looking into nearby US cities.  It is a little known fact in the USA that most Canadians live within 200 miles of the US border, even though there is a LOT of Canada that is NOT within 200 miles of the border.  We really don’t know a much about Canada, do we?  When viewed on a map, New Brunswick forms a kind of hat to the Maine “Duck-head”.  Thus, Maine offered a couple of choices to me, the penny-pinching traveler.  Flying into either Bangor, near the New Brunswick border, or Portland, along the Atlantic coast, seemed to be better then being savaged by the Air Canada beast.  The lowest fare that didn’t require much advance purchase into either place from Los Angeles was around $1000, so the savings was really adding up.  

I then did something of which I’m not very proud.  I went to “Shady Sam’s Discount Airfares” (name changed to prevent libel lawsuit), a place offering discounts for people in situations such as mine.  Shady Sam offered me a consolidator fare on TWA from LA to Portland, ME for the unheard-of price of $398 round trip, and only required a 3-day advanced booking.  Sacre Bleu!  Such savings!   Shady sold me a ticket going to Portland on the day I wanted, but unfortunately, returning 10 days later.  When I pointed out that I wanted to, HAD TO, return the next day, Shady said, “Don’t worry.  You can change any ticket at the airport for a $75 fee.”  Desperate fool that I was, I accepted his authority, and acquiesced.  I was SAVED.  My beautiful wife and I flew to Portland, and I prepared to return the next day.

5:30 am, EDT.  Awake in Portland, Maine, pack and get ready to leave the Comfort Inn, which certainly lived up to its name for all five of the available sleep time hours I had.  I go to the airport, with the dread knowledge that I am flying on a deeply-discounted ticket that only gives me privilege to fly 10 days hence. I am filled with trepidation and hotel-lobby coffee, a dangerous combination.

6:30 am EDT.  I arrive at the airport to find that United Airlines’ labor relations have screwed up the entire air transport system.  The United pilots are refusing to work overtime.  Added to this burden, there has been highly uncooperative weather in the midwest today. Since disruptions by weather often delay flights and thus require overtime, this results in United canceling hundreds of flights and dumping thousands of passengers to other carriers.  In particular, the UA flight scheduled to leave Portland this morning has been canceled.  BUT wait!  I’m on TWA! Why, you ask, should I care? 

Well, The TWA station at Portland is run by United.  The staff there must take care of their United passengers first, all of whom are screaming bloody murder....the staff have little left-over sympathy for me.  Furthermore, I discover that I will face troubles on all of my later flights, since any available capacity is being sucked up by the troubled souls who were abandoned by the United Airlines. In Portland, I am persistent, calm, and flirtatious.  The gate attendants are distracted, exhausted, and fundamentally indifferent to any TWA regulations that might apply.  Eventually, I wrangle a spot on the first plane, but no guarantees for any later flights.  I face the danger of being ‘caught’ at any time on my journey.

I have three legs on this journey. I am to fly Portland to Hartford, Ct., then Hartford to St. Louis, and St. Louis to Los Angeles.  At each stop, I must leave my plane and attempt to acquire a spot on the next one.  I am told by the overworked United staff at Portland that I am flying on a “YouthPack” (i.e., skinflint) fare, and so am at the bottom of the list to get onto an further flights.  All I have left is my dwindling charisma.

I arrive at the gate in Portland, a scant 100 yards from my check-in, and immediately run into problems.  The gate staff does not want to board me.  The plane is loaded, and I am told to wait by the gate. Time passes.  The final call comes.  More time passes.  Finally, several pounds of sweat lighter, the gate agent glances my way, perhaps catches my attempt at a winning smile, and I am told to board.  The delay is inexplicable.   In a strange twist of fate, I am put into first-class for this first short trip, since the plane is almost empty, and loads must be balanced.  In my dehydrated state, I am eternally grateful for the cup of juice that this status entails.  The plane is old, noisy, and I’m having second thoughts about this whole “Fly the cheap fare and save a few (hundred) bucks” idea. 

TWA has in recent years lost its status as a major carrier and sunk to the level of a bargain-rate airline.  I am a regular United customer, complete with full blown, “big airline attitude”, which is deflating with every twist of fate.  I just want to get home, and I lose my desire for the strokes and perks that my “super-premium” status on the big airline usually entails.  I get off the plane at Hartford, and attempt the next pity play.

I find at Harford that that the overworked staff back in Portland has done me a tremendous favor, and a seat has been sequestered for me for Hartford-St. Louis.  Unfortunately, the seat is next to (basically inside) one of the rear engines.  I do not complain, for these kind folks have exceeded their responsibility, and my visions of being stuck in Hartford have faded.  I’m off!  Midwest here we come. Half of my journey is set!

10:40 am, CDT.  I have arrived in St. Louis, not much worse for the wear.  My brief stint in First class, followed by a long ride in the engine, is uneventful.  I say a prayer of thanks for remembering that air traveler’s best friend, a pair of earplugs.  This trip is turning into a cakewalk. Perhaps my earlier trepidations were misplaced.  

10:55 am, CDT.  Problem.  Big Problem.  The flight from St. Louis to LA is 30 passengers overbooked.  The chances of me, bottom-of-the-barrel Charlie, making the plane are approximately equal to the hapless Chicago Bears making the Superbowl.  Lightning does strike twice, but one does not count on it, nor make travel plans based on it.   I quickly call my regular travel service (who I should have called to buy the original tickets, but instead went to “Shady Sam’s discount airfares”), and sketch out my dilemma.  They offer me a $1000 fare on the next plane.  I am not tempted. While on the phone with them, I pick up the next phone in the bank, and call Southwest Airlines, the desperate traveler’s succor.  I am on two payphones at once.  I feel like a stock trader in a promo for “Louis Rukeyser’s Wall Street Week”. Southwest allows me to reserve a 5:35 pm CDT flight BY LEAVING MY LAST NAME. (THAT, my friend, is customer service).  Total cost of the Southwest ticket:  $315.  I switch phones and quickly turn down the $1000 ticket from my so-called travel “service”.  

I next walk to join the line in front of a TWA customer service desk, hoping to go double-or-nothing, and to get on the late-afternoon St. Louis-LA flight.  For those of you who are unaware of the situation, TWA owns St. Louis airport.  Approximately 80% of the flights out are TWA.  If they don’t want you to go somewhere, you probably won’t get there.  They are like unto gods.   Ahead of me in line, a woman is in hysterics that she will miss her flight.  “They are loading,” she screams.  “The doors are closing!  PLEEEAASE give me my ticket NOW!”  Musing to myself that 1) her plane will not leave for at least 5 minutes, and 2) such an exhibition will not bring the beneficence that gate and customer service representatives are allowed to bestow, I vow to take a different attitude.  

It is my turn.  I explain my dilemma: misticketed, on a “Youthpack fare”, needing to get to LA, hoping to fly stand-by.  Slowly, the crowd of customer reps gather around, like jackals.  One offers that I’m really on a bulk fare, and not eligible for standbys at all.  The next, my advocate, suggests that I’m in their system now, and that they have some responsibility for me.  The first, Advocat Diablo, replies that, no, a mistake by one station allowing me to board an earlier flight does not make it incumbent on THEM, the Gods of St. Louis, to allow me to continue.  They owe me nothing.  I repeat to myself my mantra of calm, and throw myself at their mercy.  My erstwhile defender notes that my ticket does plainly state that changes are allowed, at $75 a pop.  In this, at least, “Shady Sam” was right.  The devil’s advocate replies, ex cathedra, that these changes are allowed on the scheduled day of travel.  She will damn me, that one, to 10 days in St. Louis.

The “employee in charge” (his official title) wonders over, drawn to the carnage, and takes my situation in hand.  Clearly frustrated with many such stories each and every day, he allows me to change my ticket, for double the stated $75 fee.  Is this petty graft, I wonder?  Does the extra $75 go into his pocket?  I inquire tremulously about the justification for such a fee.  He replies, “It’s because I could charge you $900 for a new ticket.”  Like Moses, I avert my eyes and offer to him my credit card to avoid risking further wrath, while wondering what trauma in his life has brought him such a spiteful attitude.  He then checks availability for getting me on the next flight.  Stalemate.  No seats left.  My hopes buoyant so recently, are again dashed.  The “EIC” casually mentions that there IS a first class seat available, for an additional $125.  I jump at the chance, for $150 + $125 is still less than my reserved Southwest fare.  I turn over the credit card again, with a secret smile.  The joke’s on him.  I get frequent flier MILES for using this credit card!

I realize, after getting my ticket, that the flight to Los Angeles is at 2:25 pm, NOT at the 4:45 pm that I had thought.  Unexpected Joy!

1:35 pm, CDT.  The flight is delayed!  Will my travails never end?

2:50 pm, CDT.  We begin to board.  I miss the status-boosting early boarding afforded to my by my hard-won ticket, and instead board with the back rows.  I am in seat 1-C, the first row.  All must walk by me and acknowledge my superior leg-room!  I nonchalantly read a book while they trudge back to their cave-like coach seats.  I am oblivious to their envious stares.  The gentleman seated beside me is wearing combat fatigues and staring at crude line-drawings of military equipment.  Given his portly stature, I doubt he is a serviceman.  I vow not to read the pulp novel I have bought for this flight, which sports a nazi cross on its cover (it is a story set in WW II Germany), fearing that he will see me as a comrade-in-milita-arms.  

3:15 pm, CDT.  The flight is but an hour delayed, and we are off! 

4:35 pm, PDT.  The flight lands, and I am symbolically home.  I’ve not engaged in any philosophical discussions with my row-mate, and I’ve discovered that the movie “The Bachelor” is really not worth watching.   I consider stopping by the exclusive United  Airlines “Red Carpet Club”  in which I am a member, just to bask in the warm appreciation of people who do not snub me and my ticket, but ultimately reject it. 

Total cost of the day:  $275 in extra fees and a LOT of stress.  Total gain:  a first-class trip from Portland, ME most of the way to LA, and the knowledge that, if one is willing, there are ways to fly in comfort extremely cheaply, and that they are just not worth it.