A Cautionary Tale about Airports and Holiday Horrors

Flying This Christmas?

We have all heard the horror stories, but up until last year I can’t say I really believed them. Sure, traveling around the holidays is an out-and-out clusterfuck, but as an East Coast transplant living in Santa Babylon for nearly a decade now, I have had my fair share of cross-country sandwiched around Thanksgiving and Christmas and have always emerged unscathed at my final destination. My formula for success was simple: Travel light, be nice, show up early, and don’t be afraid to drink. All that changed last Christmas, when the forces of the friendly skies conspired against me for three days straight, eventually breaking me and keeping me in the 805 for Santa’s big night.

The trouble started on Saturday, December 22. After surfing crowded Rincon, I was dropped off at an even more crowded Santa Barbara Airport. The lines were, as expected, snaking out the doors and onto the sidewalks. I stepped into the chaos exactly 53 minutes before my scheduled departure on US Airways, and, in hindsight, I was already doomed. I should have arrived the day before. The line was moving slowly-too slowly-so I called the airline on my cell phone and alerted a customer service lady about my situation. She assured me that my seat was indeed confirmed and, since I wasn’t checking any bags, I would be okay. Furthermore, I realized that people in front of me and behind me were on my same flight to Phoenix, and I figured they couldn’t screw all of us. And I was right: They only screwed me.

I finally made it to the counter 28 minutes before my flight was to depart. “Unfortunately,” the young incredibly stressed-out lady informed me, my “seat had been reassigned” because I was late. This confused me because, as anyone who flies out of Santa Barbara knows, you can typically show up 20 minutes before a flight and walk onto your plane without anyone even so much as blinking an eye at your tardiness. But I had my tried-and-true game plan so I acted nice, asked about my options, and was eventually reassigned to fly to Boston, via Las Vegas, later that night and thusly shuffled off to find the bar.

Two hours later I was all checked in and at the gate, my iPod jamming Christmas carols and visions of my family dancing in my head. Unfortunately, it was not to be, for US Airways Flight 2378 was cancelled without explanation mere minutes before its scheduled takeoff. I remember thinking to myself, “This is starting to get really weird,” as I waited in line once again at the check-in counter, looking to find a way home. Three hours later, well past midnight, I had a new flight leaving the next afternoon and getting me into Boston early in the morning on Christmas Eve.

Suspecting that my travel karma was off, I got proactive. I confirmed on three separate occasions that my seat was indeed guaranteed in the hours leading up to my departure. I showed up more than two hours early to the airport, patiently waited in line for nearly all of those two hours, and then got up to the counter where the same incredibly stressed-out looking young lady informed me that I once again did not have a seat and that I would have to fly standby. Stifling my urge to choke her, I asked why this was, and she laughed and said, “Sir, I have no idea, but if you want to have a chance to get on this plane you should get over to the gate now.”

At this point, I was pretty blown away by the whole situation and was starting to come to terms with the fact that I might not make it home. However, as if by some sort of divine miracle, they started calling out standby passengers’ names and letting them on the plane. In fact, they let five of them on. I was the sixth.

Practically having an out-of-body experience due to my frustration, I drop-kicked my whole “be nice” routine-and lost it. Overhearing my temper tantrum, the fifth and final standby passenger being let on, intervened and offered to let me have his seat. Moved by his kindness, I actually hugged the stranger just as the woman behind the counter informed us that such a kindhearted switcheroo was “against policy.” “Of course it is,” I screamed as I turned and walked back to the main counter yet again.

Sometime during that walk, I regained my composure and greeted the counter help with a smile and tried my best to salvage the situation. Turns out I was in luck-sort of. I booked a new flight, this one leaving early on Christmas Eve, going through Phoenix, providing an enjoyable six-and-a-half-hour layover there, and getting me into Boston just before midnight. It was less than ideal, but it would get me home to Cape Cod by sunrise on Christmas Day. I left the airport feeling oddly at peace and confident that I would make it home. I should have known better.

With a taxicab waiting outside my house to bring me to the airport, I called US Airways one last time to confirm my latest flight. I had been watching the weather, and it looked like Phoenix might have some issues. Sure enough, flights were already being delayed and cancelled according to the man on the phone, and though my flight was not yet affected, he was forward-thinking enough to inform me that “there quite possibly could be a scheduling issue.” Picturing myself stranded in Arizona for Baby Jesus’ birthday bash, I thanked him, hung up, and walked out to the cab. Handing the driver a five-dollar bill, I smiled and said, “Sorry, man, but my Christmas is cancelled.”


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