Well, we're in England, and jolly nice it is too. Spring is such a beautiful season here, and the Cotswold countryside looks glorious. We're going to do all sorts of lovely things later today, like go for a long walk etc. But, that's not why I'm speaking to you now. I want to tell you about the comedy of errors (though I saw, and still see, very little about it that is comic) that was our journey from northern Florida to Heathrow airport.
It was all very straightforward. I made the booking online last February, three months in advance. To avoid the overland trip to Orlando and the zoo that is Orlando airport, we decided to fly out of Jacksonville, which is much closer, and connect to a London bound flight from an international airport, in this case Miami. So very simple. A one-hour hop down to Miami and a connection to a transatlantic flight from the same terminal. Couldn’t be easier. Leave home to get to Jacksonville at around noon and arrive in London the following morning. Like all overnight transatlantic flights, it would have been tiring but not at all difficult. I’ve done it at least forty times in my life so far and it has always been a doddle.
I have to say that the part of the journey that was in my control went off flawlessly. There is no bus or shuttle service to Jacksonville Airport from the town I live in, so we decided to rent a car for a one way drive. Traffic was light and apart from a brief hold-up in Starke (just a few minutes really) getting to the airport went very smoothly. We dropped the car off, unloaded our bags onto a trolley ($3.00 to rent a trolley for a few minutes. Someone’s onto a good thing there!) and trundled off to the check-in desks.
Now, it is not my intention to cause embarrassment to anyone, no matter how crappy their service is, so I shall disguise the name of the carrier we were booked with in order to spare their blushes, and I shall simply say that we got to the check-in desk for Zamerican Airlines. It was not crowded but the few people who were there managed to make it seem far more chaotic that it need have been. For some reason, Zamerican have mixed up the self-service check-in desks with the manned ones, and people like me, who prefer to deal with a human being, were jostling with seasoned travellers who wanted just to swipe their credit cards and check in via a machine. Shuffling forward a few inches at a time, we did manage to reach the check-in and after receiving our boarding cards we handed over our 3 checked bags, expecting to be reunited with them in about 10 hours time. Such sweet naiveté!
[A quick heads-up here for Homeland Security and all other interested parties…. As we were in the check-in line we saw an unattended package on the floor next to where we were standing. My wife went and told a security guard. His response was simply to shrug and walk away. It turned out to belong to a guy in line ahead of us, checking in for a flight to Chile, but the implications are rather disturbing.]
Jacksonville International Airport (JAX) is one of those mid-range airports. Not big on the JFK-Heathrow-Schiphol scale but not exactly a shack either. There was enough to occupy our minds, and a Chilis to get something to eat, between going through security (very thorough but fairly quick) and arriving at our departure gate. Once there, we thought we would have a wait of about 45 minutes before boarding our quick-hop flight down to Miami. Ha!
For whatever reason, the airport people have decided that if you want to wait for a plane in their departure lounges, you need to spend the time becoming better informed. So they have decreed that as you sit and wait for your flight you must be bombarded by CNN -- not just on TV monitors attached at intervals to the walls, but also blaring out of loudspeakers set into the ceiling, loud enough to make them impossible to ignore. For those who would rather sit and read to pass the time, it is an intolerable intrusion. It also makes it hard to hear flight announcements. So, instead of reading my book I had to sit and listen to endless chatter (with much repetition, as is the nature all-news TV channels) about Hillary and Obama. All very important, I’m sure, but not what I was in the mood to listen to just then.
When they took my booking, and my money, way back in February, Zamerican Airlines had obviously decided that a 55 minute window to change planes in Miami was enough. And if the first flight had been on time, it would have been. However, after we had been sitting in CNN hell for about half an hour, a technician in overalls appeared behind the desk by the gate and stuck a sign up saying that the flight was delayed by half an hour. There was no one at the desk, so I immediately went to another desk, by another gate, and told the woman there that my wife and I were going to miss our connection and that we wanted to know what Zamerican were going to do about it. She already had in her possession a computer print-out of all the passengers on the JAX-Miami flight who were trying to make connections (almost all of us, in fact) and she said that she would rebook my wife and me on a British Airways flight leaving Miami an hour after our original connection. Yes, she assured me, our bags would be automatically rerouted. I’m glad I got out of my seat and went to the desk when I did, because by this time a long queue of disgruntled wannabe connection makers had formed behind me. Anyway, she slowly and painstakingly entered our information into he computer and printed out travel vouchers for the BA flight. I thanked her and resumed my seat.
All along, the board by our departure gate said that we’d be leaving at the new time of 6.15pm. But 6.15pm rolled round and they hadn’t even started boarding us. In fact, I don’t even think the plane had arrived. At 6.40pm they began the boarding process and the little ATR-7 (90 seats and 2 propellers) filled with anxious passengers. Then we sat on the ground for over half an hour before they closed the doors, and another twenty minutes before they started the motors and pulled back from the terminal. We finally took off over 90 minutes later than the scheduled time.
The flight to Miami was fairly painless, and I tried to avoid looking at my watch every two minutes. We landed in Miami, taxied towards the terminal and then were told that we would be taken the last few hundred yards by bus. So, off the plane, down the ladder and into a bus. “Will we make it?” my wife asked me about our BA connection. I shook my head. “It’s taking off right this minute.”
That meant we had missed two connections. I assumed that Zamerican would book us onto a later flight. Once we got inside the terminal I rounded on the Zamerican passenger agent by the gate and told her what had happened, and that we now required another booking on a flight to London Heathrow. Gatwick was not acceptable. She clacked away at her terminal and told me that the next fight to Heathrow was not until ten o’clock the following morning. Out of Chicago.
There are times when all you can do is nod and say ok. Getting annoyed would have achieved nothing. There was another woman from the JAX flight who was being booked onto a BA flight a little later that evening, but she was flying first class, and there were plenty of seats there. I said that after all that Zamerican had put us through we deserved an upgrade but that was airily dismissed.
So we got a hotel voucher, a meal voucher, and were told where to catch the courtesy bus to a hotel hard by the airport. The bus actually showed up in a matter of a few minutes and the hotel was almost within sight of the terminal, so we soon found ourselves in the lobby of a very nice hotel. Well, that can’t be bad, you may be thinking. A night in a good hotel, paid for by Zamerican Airlines. And in other circumstances you might have been right. The thing is, though, that our Chicago to London flight was scheduled to leave at 10.00am and in order to catch it we had to fly to Chicago from Miami at 6.30am. That meant check in no later than 4.30am. And that meant asking the hotel reception for a wake-up call at 3.30am.
We had something to eat in the hotel dining room (which was full of passengers from the late JAX flight, all waiting for connections the following day) and went to bed, knowing we had scarcely four hours before we had to get up. And you know what it is like when you tell yourself that you had better go to sleep soon because you have to be up early. No matter how tired you are, your body decides to be awkward and rebellious and sleep is a long time coming. We did manage to fall asleep, though, and were jangled awake at 3.30am on the dot and got dressed in the previous day’s clothes (our bags were somewhere in the airport, waiting to be loaded onto the Chicago flight). No time for breakfast. We got the 4.00am shuttle bus to the airport and decided to check in and go through security, and then worry about getting something to eat.
An airport at 4.00am is almost empty, as you would imagine. There were people about, but not many. Most of the concessions were still closed, and although the whole place was lit up, there were hardly any check-in desks open. The Zamerican Airlines desks were all unmanned except one in the first class check in, and one in the economy check-in area, where a small queue had started to form. We joined it, only to be shooed away by some official type who told us that that line was only for check-in for a flight to Haiti. So we shifted to the first-class line. The agent in charge there had left the desk but as we stood there she returned to her position and as she passed us I told he we weren’t first class but didn’t know where to check in. She told us not to worry, she would check us in. There was one passenger ahead of us and no one behind us, so it was not as though the first class check-in was crowded. All well and good, until a woman in a maroon jacket with the Zamerican insignia on it tried to order us out of the line, telling us to go check in “over there” as she gestured vaguely to another part of the terminal. We didn’t move, and I told her that the first class woman had agreed to deal with us. She seemed a bit put out at that, but left us alone -- no doubt hoping that we wouldn’t contaminate any first class passengers with our economy class presence. The first class lady checked us in to Chicago and also gave us boarding cards and seat assignments for the Chicago to London flight. So at 4.15am we were free to go through security and wait for our flight.
The trouble was, though, the security did not open until 5.00am, so we had to stand in a line of tired passengers, waiting for the security gate to open up. The airport Starbucks was open, though, so we were able to sip something as we stood in line. At 5.00am the security people showed up and we went through -- again, it was thorough but fairly quick.
From there we went to our departure gate (CNN at Miami airport too, whether you want it or not), and waited for our flight. We had a 55 minute window between our arrival time in Chicago and the scheduled departure time to London, so I was anxious that we should take off on time -- which we did. The flight up to Chicago was smooth and comfortable and actually arrived a few minutes earlier than scheduled. All we had to do was get to the departure gate for our London flight. As soon as we were inside the terminal I asked the Zamerican gate agent “Where does flight 90 to Heathrow leave from?” at which she turned to her computer screen and told me it was at K-12, which was just half a dozen gates away. No need to go to a different part of the terminal. Yay!
We walked quickly up to K-12, with plenty of time left before the London flight departed. There was K-12, and there was a crowd of people sitting around. Strange -- there were no airline agents at the desk by the gate. I glanced up at a monitor showing arrivals and departures and saw the following: “Flight 90 to Heathrow -- canceled” For some reason, I was not all that surprised.
There were no Zamerican personnel in sight, but there was a sign telling me where the rebooking center was, and we walked over to it, only to find it unmanned. There was one red telephone on the desk which was a direct line to the Zamerican booking department, so I picked it up and explained to the woman at the other end what had happened and how the two of us came to be in O’Hare Airport with tickets for a flight that no longer existed. She offered me a choice: either a flight to Boston that afternoon to catch a connection to London later that evening, or else a flight to London from Chicago a couple of hours later than that. “No more connections!” I said, “We’ll take the flight from here.” So she booked us on that.
We had the booking, but no tickets, so we had to go into the main concourse and get an agent to issue them to us. She did so, and after I asked her she gave us meal vouchers for our enforced stay in O’Hare airport (almost ten hours). Now, as airports go, O’Hare is not too bad to have to hang around in. It may be the busiest airport in the world, but it doesn’t give that appearance. Since we had gone to the main concourse to get our tickets, we had to go back through security again (the third time) but once through it we found that there were places to eat (we had a very nice lunch) and quiet areas to go sit and read. There was no enforced CNN, and several bookstores to look round. The long wait seemed like a long wait, but it could have been a lot worse.
Our flight to London boarded on time, but once we had pulled back from the terminal we found that there were going to be delays. There were several flights ahead of us waiting to take off and because of the weather (it was pouring with rain) they were going to make us all wait until several incoming flights had landed. The captain came over the public address system and told us all this, and also said that he was going to shut down one of the engines in order to save fuel. We sat waiting to take off for well over an hour before we were finally off the ground.
From then on, I’m pleased to report, everything went smoothly. We landed at Heathrow 7½ hours later, went quickly and painlessly through Immigration and Customs. We waited about two minutes for our bags, the rental car I had pre-booked was ready and waiting and two hours after landing we fetched up at my parents' house, our final destination, a mere twenty-four hours behind schedule, and everything has gone well since then. Our return trip is to JAX via Chicago, with a 4 hour stop-over, and I hope Zamerican Airlines will manage to get us from A to B without incident. If they don’t, I shall report back to you.