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Saturday 18 December 2010

I wasn't dreaming of a white Christmas

Yesterday, I sat on an airplane for five hours and when I got off the plane, my ears were uneffected, I had no jetlag and my carbon footprint was minimal! Unfortunately, this is because my flight was cancelled.

I was worried that forecast snow might stall all trains to the airport, so I'd arrived hours early. I knew they had de-icing equipment at the airport, so I wasn't too worried about the planes. But as I was eating lunch, I glanced out the window and saw whiteout snow. I could barely see the airplanes at all and couldn't see across to the adjacent terminal. It was beautiful, but also alarming. Then, after abuot 20 minutes, the skies turned blue and the sun started shining again. Amazingly, there were a few minutes where the sun was shining and it was snowing at the same time. Does this cause rainbows ( or snowbows)? I wondered.

It was all over very quickly. I wasn't surprised when my plane boarded a bit late and also not surprised when they said we had to wait for a de-icer. I was, however, surprised by how long we sat at the gate. I read in news reports later that they couldn't deploy all their de-icers because they had no place to park planes while they were being de-iced. So planes were ordered to stay at the gates. However, this caused a problem for landing planes, since the gates were all full. Thus planes full of arriving passengers sometimes waited for 4 or 5 hours to get to a gate. In the mean time, they parked them near the de-icers.

It might be because I have an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and thus have studied logistics a wee bit, but I could think of a solution to this problem . . ..

After five hours, our plane was delayed so long, I was started to get worried about arriving after BART shut down and this may have been why, with only 4 planes ahead of us in the queue, our flight was cancelled.

It wasn't all bad spending so many hours on the plane. The cabin crew was helpful and polite and people chatted amicably with each other. The in-flight entertainment system was working. It was exactly like being in the air, except that we weren't. I think that it would a perfect thing for somebody who was afraid of flying. They could have the whole experience as a kind of a dry run.

Once I got off the plane, however, things were a bit more chaotic. I had to clear immigration, which was a long queue and then the baggage reclaim area was chaotic. It was mobbed with hundreds of people from cancelled flights plus all the people who were finally getting released form their planes that had been waiting. The computer screen which said what carousel to go to was not giving any meaningful information, so I asked an employee and he seemed on the brink of hysterics, from not knowing anything (while at the same time being as friendly and polite as possible). After maybe an hour, there started being announcements, "If you are from a cancelled long haul flight, you baggage will be on carousel 3, 4, 5, or 6 . . .." Some enterprising traveler and his friends split up, each monitoring one carousel, so when bags marked SFO started appearing on number 4, he got a call and then walked around the reclaim area loudly announcing "San Francisco bags are on number 4!" This is what I love about Bay Area culture, actually. Friendly, helpful and loud!

I went through customs and then got to the arrivals lounge which was heaving with people, who had been waiting for hours for passengers who had landed but not alighted. Frequent announcements indicated that the airline was very sorry that nobody had been given any information whatsoever. Other announcements encouraged those on canceled flights to sort out rescheduling on the BA website instead of queuing at the airport. I decided to follow that advice and got on a tube.

I texted Paula and she told me to come around fora cuppa, so I did, despite it being quite late. I brought my laptop and searched in vain for the rebooking link that British Airways kept claiming existed. I couldn't find it anywhere, so I handed my laptop to Paula and started trying to call the airline. Paula couldn't find the link either and a recording at the airline's phone number told me they were very busy, so I should try calling again later.

Finally, after 2AM, I got hold music! Yay, I was on hold and they hadn't hung up on me! I stayed on hold for an hour, while trying to find out any information at all about what was going on. I discovered that the best and most reliable way to get information from the airline was via twitter, but their tweeters had all gone home an hour or two earlier.

I use twitter. I think microblogging is fabulous and I'm glad to see somebody making good use of it, but in this case, I have to say that they really needed to also update their actual website and/or their phone message. It took quite some time before it occurred to me to even check twitter. And, indeed, if they're going to make that the only reliable way to get any information, then they need to announce that someplace else, like on their website or their phone message. It was at this moment that I began to get a bit annoyed. I was even more annoyed when I realised, after 3 am and more than an hour on hold, that their call center was closed and nobody was going to take me off hold until it reopened at 6 am.

I went home and set my alarm clock for 5:59, but when I called, the phones were already overwhelmed and hung up on me. I kept retrying until 7 am, when I finally got through to being on hold. This time, the hold music was accompanied by spoken messages actually telling me that I was on hold. I put it on speaker phone and tried to stay awake until somebody finally picked up at 9:30.

I will be on the same flight on Tuesday, 21 December. This should land before 18:00 and give me enough time to get to Emeryville to catch me 22:00 train to Oregon, which arrives in Portland in the middle of the afternoon on 22 December. I am going to have an alarming odor by the time I arrive. Fortunately, I should be able to sleep on the train and I will still get to see my family, which is what motivated me to wake up after so little sleep.

And now I'm typing this out, in a haze of exhaustion. But hey, no jetlag, at least.

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