Monday, August 23, 2010

A cautionary tale for frequent fliers

So, this is the story of something that happened to an anonymous acquaintance of mine. He's no one that you know. Someone a little like me, but much more clueless. Let's call him Todd Filkinson, just to have a name.

When one gets very used to traveling all of the time, one gets to the point where one does not listen to announcements much anymore. The basic instructions for how a plane will be loaded (those who need special assistance first, first class second, medallion third, plebeians last) never really changes. The announcements about the lack of food have changed over the years, but not recently. The announcements about bag size are routinely ignored and yet still have not changed. This was a bad thing for poor Todd Filkinson, who missed what would turn out to be a rather important announcement.

Anyone who flies in Atlanta regularly knows that Delta owns about 98.7% of the gates, meaning that your Delta flight could leave from any of the listed terminals (and a few unlisted ones, too). This is not normally a problem, except when the gate is changed after one has already schlepped all the way to the very end of the A concourse, an occurrence that happens only about one in three flights. The gate that a flight is changed to is never the gate next door. It is the gate at the other end of another terminal located in another county. Which leads us to the tale of poor Todd Filkinson.

Todd arrived early at the airport this afternoon, as he always does when driving from the northern suburbs of Atlanta and the traffic is not horrible. Todd always leaves extra time, just in case there is a major problem on the highway(s) through Atlanta - problems like a stalled car in the middle lane, a fire in the nearby vicinity that all drivers must try to see, or an impromptu college spring break cruise-a-thon. When there is no horrible traffic, a usual occurrence on Monday mid-afternoons between morning rush hour (7am to noon) and evening rush hour (3pm to 10pm), Todd arrives with over an hour to spare. That was the case today, and Todd was relaxed as he marched through the security checkpoints, gathered his bags, and walked all the way to gate A30 at the very end of the A concourse. Which is where big bad things started to happen.

Being early, Todd Filkinson found an unoccupied seat in the gate area and began to read his copy of the latest John Irving novel. The novel was engrossing and somewhat challenging and, as mentioned above, most frequent fliers do not listen closely to announcements, and suddenly Todd found himself sitting alone as the passengers around him all began gathering their things and walking away from the gate. Turning to a fellow passenger, Todd simply asked, "Did they move our gate?" to which the weary fellow road warrior answered, "Yes. T5."

Those reader(s) among you who are familiar with the Atlanta Megaplex and Air Travel Emporium will immediately recognize that gate T5 is not on the same concourse as gate A30. Not by a long shot. Gate T5 is at the far end of the T concourse and gate A30 is at the far end of the A concourse. Far ends are not connected, only near ends are connected, so a move from A30 to T5 means a significant hike. Not to worry, our intrepid traveller still had a good 40 minutes until the plane was scheduled to leave. Todd Filkinson packed up his Irving, reassembled his gear, and began walking briskly to the new gate. At the gate, Todd was one of the first to arrive (thanks to his intimate knowledge of the Atlanta airport layout, secret passages, and the codewords required to get past the 3-headed guard dogs), and took a comfortable seat near the window to await the boarding announcement. Todd took a quick look at the departure board, noticed that the departure time was correct (4:15) and that the city was listed as Dallas and went back to his engrossing novel.

The problem was that Todd was not, in point of fact, traveling to Dallas on this balmy Monday afternoon. He was traveling to Denver. Dallas ... Denver. They're close enough that a frequent traveller may not notice the subtle difference in vowels. However, they aren't close enough in geography to be interchangeable. This was going to be a problem for poor Todd Filkinson, but he was blissfully ignorant.

Ten minutes later, the announcement was made for first class. Our hero once again placed an old boarding pass in his Irving novel to mark the place, stuffed the novel into the front of his briefcase, removed his current boarding pass from his pocket, and got into the boarding line. In the movie version of this tragic story, a heavy and menacing brass score would begin foreshadowing doom at this point.

Unsuspecting Todd Filkinson handed his boarding pass to the attendant, who passed it under the scanner. The scanner objected, noisily, and displayed a rather rude error message. The attendant tried again with the same results. The attendant then looked closely and said those words that turned this happy little story into a Shakespearean tragedy.

"Are you going to Denver today?"
"Why yes I am," replied Todd Filkinson.
"We're going to Dallas. Are you supposed to go to Dallas first?"

Todd's mind raced. This has never happened before. How could it be true? Had he walked up to the wrong gate? Did anyone else see? Was there anyone he knew standing in the crowd? Perhaps this was why his travel companions had not shown up?

"Please step aside, sir. My colleague will find out where you're supposed to be."

Todd, the blood draining from his face, sheepishly handed his boarding pass to the other attendant, who looked at it and said, "This says A30. You're supposed to be at A30."

"But," Todd sputtered, "Your colleagues at A30 told me to come here."
"No," replied the preternaturally calm attendant, "Dallas moved here. Denver is at A30."

Todd's digestive track sank into his feet. It was now 3:55pm. Boarding for a 4:15pm flight closes at 4:05pm. As previously described, gate T5 and gate A30 are in separate time zones. Todd Filkinson had 10 minutes to race through the airport or risk the unthinkable - getting onto a later flight, probably in a coach seat. The horror would be unimaginable.

Fortunately, our hero has been getting back into shape lately by running on a treadmill every morning. Todd believed that he had been making progress and was actually not in too back of a shape, cardiovascularly. That was before Todd tried to run through the Atlanta Megaplex ... in jeans ... with luggage. By the time Todd had run down the T concourse, squeezed past several lovely people on the escalators, and begun running through the inter-concourse tunnels, Todd's lungs were explaining to him that he was not yet in the type of shape that O.J. Simpson used to demonstrate in his old commercials.  Gasping for air, Todd called his travel companion (already on the correct flight) and pleaded for them to hold the plane. Unfortunately, all that came through was heavy breathing, which resulted in a very awkward conversation later in the evening, but that's a story for another time.

Jogging down the A concourse, Todd Filkinson could see gate A30 minutes before reaching it. The gate area was empty, which is not a good sign if one is late to board a plane. With his last burst of energy, Todd sprinted to the gate, handed over his boarding pass, and said, "Am I too late?" (Which came out as " "). Fortunately for poor Todd, the plane door was still open, and he was able to get into his seat before the plane left. Even more fortunately, the comely lass in the seat next to Todd was fast asleep, and he could steal her water bottle after downing his own.

This tale is being related in the hopes that others can learn from the example of poor Todd Filkinson. No matter how many times you fly, no matter how routine the announcements, put down your John Irving novel, listen to the announcements, be sure exactly where it is your supposed to be flying that day, and get into better shape before you get to learn where the defibrillators are hidden at the airport.

[Names may have been changed to protect the innocent and mortally embarrassed.]

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