A year ago today, I was on board the National Geographic Explorer en route to the Falkland Islands (and, ultimately, Antarctica). But just three days earlier that was all in jeopardy thanks to United Airlines and an unspecified mechanical issue.
(Five of the Houston Nine)
There we were, 200+ assorted passengers waiting at the gate in Houston International Airport for our flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina, listening restlessly to delay after delay, and then, more than two hours later, cancellation. I’m sure many of you have had this experience but, believe it or not – given the many thousands of miles I’ve flown – I had yet to to suffer anything more than a handful of delays. I guess my luck had run out that evening.
We scrambled to line up at the counter to receive hotel and food vouchers as instructed, while – in my head – I wailed at the unfairness of it. Those of you who’ve been through this type of ordeal are thinking “What’s the big deal? You’re not the only person who’s ever been inconvenienced.” This is true. But that evening all I could think about was my emotional pain and the terminally ill cat I’d left behind at home in California. (I wrote about her in my first blog entry “Healing Through Horror.”) If I had known this was going to happen, I could have spent one more day with her before she died.
I’m sure many of you have suffered similarly, having flights cancelled while you were desperately trying to get somewhere before a family member passed away, or to the funeral, or to more happy events such as a wedding or a birth. Such pain is personal and probably can’t be readily explained to others. And maybe it shouldn’t have to be. We experience it in our own ways.
Fortunately, I was not alone. Even though I was not taking the pre-arranged group flight to Buenos Aires, there were eight other members of my tour group on this flight: Sandy and her sister Corrie, Bonnie and her brother Bill, Bruce, Gary and Joan, and Jay Dickman, Pulitzer Prize winner and National Geographic Photographer. Although they were meeting me for the first time under circumstances that were not the best, nor was I at my best (being rather emotional), they were supportive and understanding.
We had found each other during those interminable delays, talked, and begun to form a bond. And thank God for Jay. As the lead photographer on our expedition, he had a direct link to company headquarters, and had several phone conversations working out strategies in the event we could not reach Buenos Aires before the group flight departed to Ushuaia (one of two ports in Tierra del Fuego where Antarctica cruises embark. The other is Punta Arenas, Chile.) Our ‘last ditch’ move would have been to fly instead to Santiago, Chile, and then to the Falkland Islands to await the arrival of the ship. (Why Santiago? Because you can’t fly directly from Argentina to the Falklands. Why? Look up the 1982 Falklands War. We were, coincidentally, in the Falklands during the 30th anniversary of the war, but, despite some noise from the Argentinian government, nothing happened.)
It was Jay’s calming influence and his planning that kept the rest of us calm. We knew, that no matter when we reached Buenos Aires, we would eventually get to the ship and to Antarctica. Heck, the ship wasn’t going to Antarctica without him – he was the lead Nat Geo photographer of the expedition.
In one of those “It’s a Small World” moments, many months later while showing vacation photos to my Colorado relatives, they all said “We know him.” (Jay Dickman) Yes, my younger brother, Chris, was an Eagle Scout with Jay’s son. What are the odds of that?
But back to Houston, there was our little group of nine, hotel and food vouchers in hand. It was now after midnight. The food vendors at the airport were all closed, the food vouchers useless. So, we and the 200+ others all flocked to the exit to get our hotel shuttle. I don’t remember which hotel it was that United Airlines told us to look for, but when that shuttle driver showed up, he was completely confused. “What are you talking about?” he asked. “We don’t have any rooms.”
It became a madhouse as people raced in all directions, toward the next hotel shuttle to pull up, and the next, and the next. Gary came to our rescue here, spotting the Ramada shuttle way off in the distance, and sprinted for it, beating everyone else. Gary got us the last five rooms available! While we later learned that many other passengers ended up sleeping on the floor of the baggage claim, the Ramada wasn’t a great prize (other than the clean beds to sleep in). The water coming out of the faucets was rust-colored. I let the water run in the shower for ten minutes past it turning clear before I would get into it. And, alas, even the hotel bar was closed, so we still didn’t have any food. And no one had clean clothes because United wouldn’t give our luggage back to us.
(Gary in action again)
The next day had the Houston Nine back at the airport – finally spending those food vouchers – finally eating! And finally onto an airplane. And even into the air! After a couple more delays that is – something to do with “an immigration matter” (?) that they seemed to resolve abruptly. One moment we’re groaning at “it’ll be another hour” and the next moment we’re being told to sit down and put on our seat belts because we were taking off “right now.” There were a few cheers. But only a few. I think most people were simply too exhausted at that point.
You would think that would be the end of the story. After all, the Houston Nine did make it to Buenos Aires in time to catch the rest of the tour group (with a mere 45 minutes to enjoy our rooms in the Caesar Park Hotel, showering, changing clothes, and eating breakfast). And on to Antarctica.
But let me tell you about the trip home from Buenos Aires to Houston. I’ve never before had an airline make such a valiant attempt at completely ruining a vacation. Yes, you guessed it! United also cancelled the return flight! This time we were actually on board the plane, about 45 minutes out, when the pilot announced that the weather radar wasn’t working and that we needed to return to BA. (There were storms along the equator he was worried about, so the return was understandable. However, don’t they do pre-flight checks? They couldn’t have found out the radar wasn’t working before we left the ground? They could’ve started fixing it earlier and maybe we could’ve still left that night. But no.)
So we sat on the tarmac for a couple of hours while they tried to fix it. And kept trying. And trying. And then cancelled the flight. Crew issues. We figured it was the pilots – maybe too tired to fly? – but we learned the next day that it was the flight attendants who refused to continue on. (While still on the plane, I snarkily thanked one of the attendants for the “second time in one trip” cancellation. She glared at me and said “Like it’s my fault.” I admit that my degree of snarkiness wasn’t called for, but, yeah, snotty flight attendant, it was your fault.)
So there we were, stranded yet again. And me, getting all emotional again, because I’d been out of contact with my pet sitters for three weeks. All I could do was wonder if my beloved cat would die on this day, and that I would miss it because of United Airlines.
But here’s where the sole bright point appeared in all this mess. In complete contrast to the horrible, disorganized disastrous service we received in Houston, the staff in Buenos Airlines met us at the gate. They guided us out to the luggage return where we picked up our bags, and then they guided us out to waiting buses which then took us to assigned hotels, all arranged by them. Being that it was 3 a.m., we didn’t get fed just like on the outbound, but the service – and the professionalism of the employees – was so much better. Why? Why couldn’t the passengers have been treated this well in Houston? They were all wearing United uniforms. Was it just Houston? Or was the difference that one was an American city, the other an Argentinian city? I don’t know the answer. I hope I don’t have any more chances to find out. I think I’ll follow Jay’s advice: when he signed my copy of his book Perfect Digital Photography, he wrote “Don’t fly through Houston.”