Jan 2, 2009

To Grandmother's House We Go. . .

Elijah flying as comfortably as any first class passenger. Lucky!

Maybe you remember the old song:

"Over the hill and through the woods
to grandmother's house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Over the white and drifted snow."

Well, when you live in Saipan, the way to grandmother's house takes a liiittle bit longer. You go over the Pacific and through several large airports. And in our case their was a fair amount of white and drifted snow, though it hindered rather than hastened our journey.

It was one long trip. Of course, we knew it would be long. We just didn't think it would be that long. The 22 hours the trip should have taken was actually relatively short. Our flight left Saipan at 8:3o A.M. Friday morning, December 19, 2008 and we were scheduled to arrive in Dayton at about 1:00 P.M. Friday afternoon--which meant we didn't leave or arrive at some unearthly hour of the night or morning. All the layovers were brief. You couldn't ask for a better transpacific itinerary. In the end, though, the itinerary didn't mean squat, and we actually didn't arrive in Dayton until about 7:00 P.M. Saturday evening, December 20--some 51 hours after we walked out the front door of our house in Saipan--after a trip than included 13 hours in an airport, five total hours of travel by car, and an additional (though very comfortable) layover in Columbus, Ohio.

So here's a short account of our very long journey home for Christmas.

Elijah and me taking in the inflight movie. We were blessed to have an empty middle seat on all of our flights.

The flights from Saipan to Nagoya, Japan, and from Japan to Detroit, Michigan were smooth and uneventful. Elijah did well. In fact, he probably flew more comfortably than we did. He was able to stretch out and get some good sleep; he enjoyed the inflight movie; and I suspect his food (courtesy of Mommy) was better than ours. He ears stayed clear and he never got particularly restless or fussy.

A snowy airport. I didn't actually take any photos of the snowstorm in Detroit, but I snagged this photo from the web of a snowstorm at an airport in Wisconsin to give a sense of how it looked in Detroit that day.

We landed in Detroit on time in the midst of a howling snowstorm. We rushed off the plane and hustled to the baggage claim to get our bags and get them cleared through customs so that we could get to the gate in time for our next flight. We needn't have hurried. Our next flight--a short one hour hop to Dayton, Ohio was canceled due to the inclement weather. And so began our ordeal. I waited in line for about an hour, checking in from time to time with a former college professor of mine, Woodrow Whidden and his wife Peggy who just happened to be on our flight from Japan and were also stranded. I got a rebooked ticket for 9:45 P.M. that night for myself but the computerized kiosk wouldn't produce a ticket for Babs and Elijah. I needed to "speak with an agent." So I got in another, much longer line that snaked out of the customer service area and down the shining halls of the terminal as far as the eye could see. I stood in that line for about four and a half hours while Babs and Elijah dozed on chairs nearby and finally got boarding passes for them as well.

Long lines due to cancelled and delayed flights. Another "not the actual event" photo. I'm not sure where this is, but the lines in Detroit were easily this long.

Our flight rebooked at last, we headed over to the Chili's Too restaurant for a leisurely supper while we waited for our next flight. I was exhausted by this time, now having gone for 27 hours without sleep--I could barely keep my eyes open during dinner. After we ate, I collapsed into a chair in the Starbucks lounge area and slept hard for about an hour. Babs woke me around 7:30 when we figured it might be good to start heading for our gate. The weather had long since cleared, so we figured this flight would most likely leave on time. Still just to be sure, we checked the departure screens one more and time and there it was: Flight canceled. We couldn't believe it. For the first time, I really began to feel overwhelmed.

I trudged back to the customer service area where a crowd was once again gathering in a que to find out what to do next about the latest round of canceled flights. I got on one of the courtesy phones and talked to an agent who informed me that there was no hope of getting to Dayton that night or the next day. Sunday would be the soonest (and maybe not even then). As a consolation, she offered to get us to Indianapolis, which was at least closer to our destination. I had her book the flight. We would arrive in Indianapolis at close to midnight and the idea was that Barbara's parents would drive over from Dayton to pick us up. Still, I was worried about them driving that distance so late at night, in bad weather. It was not the sort of trip they'd be comfortable taking. And I knew I would be too exhausted to be trusted behind the wheel for the drive back home.

If only there was someone we knew who had the stamina for a long drive in the middle of the night. Someone who would be willing to make the trip. Someone who I knew I could call if I was in a jam. Someone who knew I'd do the same for him in a second. Well there's always been one guy I knew I could count on when I was in over my head--my best friend since 9th grade, J Carlos. And he lived in Columbus, Ohio--just three hours away. I called him up

"No problem," he said without hesititation. "We'll come up and get you right away." Good ol' J. I knew I could count on him.

Babs and Elijah keeping it positive during our long wait in Detroit. If you look carefully through the window behind Babs you can see the snow piled up on the tarmac.

And so we waited. The terminal's vast halls stretching into infinity, it's lonely gate areas littered with other passangers folded into the unyeilding airport chairs, stretched out on the floors like homeless people, their bags gathered about them while they slept. While I waited, my eyes burning and nose running from sleep deprivation, my ears filled with tunes from my Christmas playlist, whose 97 songs I was listening to for the third time that day, I walked the people mover with Elijah in my aching arms and reflected on our experience so far.

A Northwest Airlines ticket agent. Can she help you? Of course she can, but only she knows if she will.

One of my observations was that the system used by our U.S.-based carriers is terrible. It is largely inefficient and ineffective. With the advent of self-service kiosks and 1-800 numbers, the system is actually less helpful than it ever has been. The system doesn't care about you--you know that any complaints you may have will only fall on deaf ears. The airline industry has little or no motivation to make changes or improve service. In the absence of a system designed to manage a predictable crisis like a snowstorm, the type of experience you will have when stranded depends entirely on the personnel working on the front lines--the ticket agents, baggage handlers and other workers--not on the system in place. Your experience will vary depending on the intelligence, caring, personal values, and temperament of these workers. I saw it all during our day in Detroit: Some Northwest Airlines employees going the extra mile, others doing the bare minimum, and a few not even doing that. There were those that asked "How can I help you?" and those that actually meant it. I was reminded of a basic truth about customer relations--most times when someone tells you they can't do something for you, what they really mean is that they won't.

Case in point: After J agreed to come get us, I headed down to the baggage claim to collect our bags, leaving Babs and Elijah at the gate where we'd cancelled our Indianapolis flight. Well, it turned out no bags were being released due to the huge number of cancelled flights. They would be shoved on a flight the next day and delivered to Dayton, our final destination. That issue resolved, I suddenly realized that I wasn't going to be able to get back into the terminal because I didn't have a boarding pass (remember we'd cancelled the rest of our flight). At the same time, Babs wasn't able to come and meet me because she had all our carry-on luggage and couldn't carry all of it and Elijah too. I asked the woman at the baggage counter if there was any way they could get me through security so that I could help my wife and baby. "Impossible," I was told. "You can NOT go through security without a boarding pass." I asked if they had airport personnel who could assist her. No they did not (though, I think we've all seen those airline workers pushing people in wheelchairs and such. I even saw one after I'd had this conversation). Instead they offered to page Barbara and order her to come to the baggage claim. I tried to explain that she couldn't possibly come to the baggage claim with all our bags and our infant son. They paged her anyway.

And then, suddenly the woman at the counter seemed to have a change of heart. She consulted with her manager and produced a gate pass--a little piece of paper with my name on it that said I was "collecting a forgotten item" at the gate. And just like that, I was able to get back through security. So you see, when the Northwest rep said it was "impossible" for me to go back into the terminal. . .it wasn't true at all. It was possible. . .it just depended on whether she wanted to help me or not.

The fate of the traveler rests in each individual worker, apart from the system they are apart of. Hopefully, you'll meet someone kind, patient, and helpful (and you can increase those odds by being kind, patient, and helpful yourself. You almost can't blame some of these workers for being brusque. Imagine the abuse they've put up with all day long over something entirely outside their control--the weather. "No, YOU calm down," I remember hearing one irate passanger shout before stalking away from the ticket counter in a huff. Yikes!).

So when I am poorly treated by an airline employee, I don't blame the company. I hold the employee responsible--their bad behavior reflects poorly on them alone and not the airline. Likewise, when I'm served well, the full credit goes to that employee--the airline cannot claim that sterling service for itself. It's the people that make all the difference, for good or ill.

At any rate, J arrived not long after midnight. We'd hoped to see him and his wife Evelyn during our vacation, though we hadn't expected it would be under these circumstances. Still, it was nice to see them and we enjoyed a nice ride back to Columbus, catching up, shooting the breeze about politics, reality TV, faith, and all the other "big topics" while Evelyn, Barbara, and Elijah in his car seat (given to us by the airline--no, by a helpful employee of the airline) slept in the back seat. We arrived at their home at about four in the morning and tumbled gratefully into their guest beds for some sorely needed shut-eye. If we had wanted to, we could have turned around, gotten back on a plane and flown back to Saipan and arrived there in the same amount of time it had taken us from our arrival in Detroit that morning to our arrival at J's home.

Our rescuers: J and Evelyn Carlos taking a photo op with Elijah at their home in Columbus, Ohio. Good old J--he's a true a friend, the kind who drives six hours on a winter night to help out a buddy. I owe you, man!

We awoke around two in the afternoon, not long before Barbara's parents arrived from Dayton to take us home. Evelyn prepared a delicious lunch, and we enjoyed some nice time together before piling into the car for the last two hour leg of our long, long journey home. An added blessing was that our luggage had already been flown into Dayton, so we were able to pick our bags up at the Dayton airport on the way home.

At last, we arrived at the Leen's home, grateful to God for a safe journey, good friends and helpful strangers, and the love of family to come home to for Christmas.

There's Uncle J with Elijah all bundled up for the cold, just before we left for the drive down to Dayton.


Judith said...

Baby Elijah is getting so cutsie, as is Barbara with new hair(?)! You all look so fine and well and wonderful. I miss you!

Also, good to have you on the same continent. My heart is warmed.

Happy New Year. Peace!

Miss Mocca said...

Awww I miss Elijah.... and you guys too! I'm glad you had a good Christmas, despite the setbacks. I know how you feel. Over the summer, I got stuck (along with my whole youth group) in Newark, NJ. For 13 hours. It was... not something I'd want to do again.

But I'm glad you guys had a good time!