Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Return from NOLA

Watching a movie many times over many years with the vague expectation that things might go differently this time is a funny quirk of my brain, and perhaps yours. I'm always a little sad when Dorothy decides to go back to Kansas. I think I'd have stayed in Oz. I definitely could have found a way to soldier on in New Orleans for a good while longer before I'd go looking for magic shoes, my trusty winter hoodie or boarding passes.

I absolutely would have stayed behind if I'd known what yesterday would be like.

Today's air travel system is an exquisitely complicated web of communication, logistics and hardware that works reliably most of the time. Fat Monday was not one of those days of sleek and shiny modern aircraft whooshing people and their bags of stuff in all directions to the right places on time.

I'm afraid that sophistication breeds vulnerability into the system. We observed this pillar of modern technology crumble pathetically on account of what appeared to be barely a whisp of a snowstorm.

We were dropped off at Louis Armstrong Airport at an uncivilized hour (especially for New Orleans), only to learn that our flight to Houston was going to leave a couple of hours later than expected. Simple arithmetic meant we could not possibly make our flight from Houston to Boston without a daring mid-air transfer of some sort. We'd also miss our 5 PM train reservations and be stuck in Boston in the wee hours.

After a leisurely coffee and a short numb spell, I approached the gate to politely inquire as to our options. The agent commanded that we run several gates to the eastward and immediately board for Washington D.C. which she assured us would get into Boston in plenty of time for the train and the rest our our journey. She was at least one cup of coffee up on me. But?...Wha?... Go!    Now!

As the day unfolded things became more inexplicable. By afternoon, I felt we were being slowly digested by this monster of human ingenuity, as well as by our own snap decision in a moment of stress.

The flight to DC was great. The pilot assured us during the descent in that great way pilots have, that he had heard of no delays or problems at Dulles. He had a different story after we had sat for a half hour idling 8 and a half or so feet from the snorkely thing that sucks people out of the plane and into their next gauntlet of peril. According to Captain Confident, we were just waiting for snow equipment because "it's a mess out there." During this period of contemplation, simple arithmetic again presented a problem. We needed the time travel Delorean to be warmed up on the concourse in order to catch our plane to Boston.

Things have a way of working out, though not necessarily a good way. Our concern over missing the plane to Boston was unfounded because the flight had been cancelled. The next patient agent of the empire kindly offered us a flight the following evening. nuh-uh. Then I had an inspiration: we could fly into Portland and catch the train for the last leg with time to spare. The agent said we were "lucky" and booked us for Portland.

Portland it was. The weather radar showed no precip in DC or in Portland. The tote board had the flight- still 3 hours into the future- on time.

Then the voodoo happened. After a leisurely lunch and contemplation of our clever choice to go straight to Portland and the good fortune to get seats, we headed for the gate. We never made it. The tote board-evil oracle of high irksomeness-changed our flight notation from "on time" to "cancelled". Several repeat starings made no difference. I was baffled that even and especially after the demi-storm was long over, the cancellations sprouted and eventually included 80% of the departures.

The line at customer service was 2 hours and a couple of hundred feet long. We were the lucky ones. By the time we were done and on our way to a friend's place in Silver Spring for a wonderful evening, the line was at least a quarter mile back along the corridor and out of sight. Simple arithmetic again leads to an inescapable conclusion.

I'm home now so it's funny for me, but some of those far back in the line may have just now reached the desk.