Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Adventures in Travel, Part 6: Flying the Unfriendly Skies

We finally got home last night around 10:15 after a long and eventful day. All I can say is that I'm glad to be here.

Well, that's not quite true. I actually have a lot more to say about it. Go get a cup of coffee before you start to read...this may take a while.

We got up yesterday morning at 4:30 AM to get cleaned up, pack our final things, and check out of the hotel in time to get to the train station for our 5:58 AM train to the Frankfurt airport via Offenburg. Despite the terrible hour (considering we were supposed to be on vacation), the train ride was wonderful...the 5:58 (a regional train) was right on time, we got good seats, and munched the sandwiches Agnes built at the Holiday Inn's breakfast buffet while the spectacular scenery of the Black Forest rolled by outside. Unfortunately, I'd dismantled my camera and packed it away, so you can't share the marvelous vistas of deep, wooded canyons and picturesque villages tucked into the folds of deep green, rolling hills. We arrived in Offenburg right on time, had plenty of time for our transfer, and settled into our reserved seats on the high-speed Inter-City Express (ICE) train to Frankfurt. Train travel in Germany is definitely the way to go.

Our adventures began when we arrived at the Frankfurt airport station. I scrounged a baggage cart and we went to the Lufthansa check-in area conveniently located right outside the station to accommodate those arriving by train. The line was short and we soon found ourselves talking with a nice young lady who weighed our bags (within limits, thanks to some judicious packing) and apologetically handed us our boarding passes ... without seats assigned. She explained that the flight was oversold by 40 seats (!) and that she couldn't assign us seats...we'd have to get that done at the gate.

Happily, we were about three hours early, so we went directly to the gate and waited for the first agents to show up. We'd been told that they'd man the gate starting about 1.5 hours before boarding, but as it turned out, the gate agents didn't arrive until about a half-hour before boarding was supposed to which time a howling mob of people waving torches and pitchforks and holding boarding passes without seat assignments was seething in the gate area. Agnes, who is better at belligerent arguing than I am, was right at the head of the line and soon managed to get us seats, although not together (we got aisle seats in the back of the plane, one behind the other). Business class was full, so we couldn't upgrade, but at least we had seats.


The adventure continued as boarding finally began. It was the usual process of boarding families with children, the elderly and handicapped, First-Class and Business Class Demigods, and those holding the bewildering array of frequent flyer designations ("now boarding our Xenon, Manganese, and Molybdinum Customers") first, followed by the steerage class passengers boarding by rows from the rear of the aircraft.

Well, that was the plan.

As it turned out, all the announcements were made in German, followed by translations in English, and most of the English-speaking travelers shut it all out when they heard the German. As a result, there was a huge scrum at the gates as everyone tried to board at once, and the hapless Lufthansa personnel gave up on any attempt to try to control the mess. We were able to get through the mob quickly enough to get on board and find space for our carryons, but the tremendous crush of people trying to get onto a fully-booked 747 far overloaded the crew's ability to establish order, and getting everyone seated took so long that we missed our takeoff slot and had to wait about 20 minutes at the gate while the pilot waited for a new time slot.

We finally got a new takeoff time, and the jet growled majestically away from the gate for the long taxi trip (via Poland, France, and the Low Countries) to the runway. We made the turn onto the runway, the pilot gunned the engines, and we began to roar faster and faster down the tarmac. We had almost reached takeoff speed when...

There was a loud bang...the airplane slowed...speeded up again...then lurched in all directions as the pilot appeared to stand on the brakes. We all looked at each other with some concern as the airplane slowed to a stop, then slowly began to taxi down the rest of the runway and turn off onto an adjoining taxiway. At this point, the pilot announced that he'd had to abort the takeoff at the last moment because he'd hit a bird which had caused enough damage to one engine that he couldn't take off safely, and was now headed for a place where the airport fire brigade could hose down the brakes and tires until it was safe to taxi the rest of the way back to the terminal.

We sat on the taxiway for about a half-hour, surrounded by fire trucks and ambulances (unnecessary, thank goodness) and large numbers of technicians in orange vests pointing at the damaged engine, making notes on their PDAs, and shaking their heads gravely. Eventually, a tug arrived to tow us to a remote parking place, where we all had to disembark with all of our carryons, board large buses, and return to a bare-bones gate area at the terminal to wait for a new aircraft.

We ended up waiting there, unable to leave the immediate gate area, for about an hour and a half, while Lufthansa scrambled to turn around another, identical, 747 that had just arrived from somewhere else. This gate area contained one small snack bar manned by a single lady who was utterly unprepared for the sudden onslaught of a full jumbo jet's worth of hungry, worried, angry passengers. She quickly sold out of everything, and Lufthansa managed to bring in a pallet of water and soft drinks, which also quickly disappeared. Finally, the announcement came that the aircraft was ready and we could board the buses to go back out and start the entire kabuki dance again.


We replayed the mass scrum that I described earlier, and finally got to the buses which took us out to the new aircraft...

...and where we sat on the buses for another 20 minutes, because the aircraft wasn't really ready yet. We watched teams of cleaning personnel running back and forth with bags of trash, and zipping up and down the stairs with vacuum cleaners, buckets, etc. Then we waited a little longer while a small fleet of cars brought out the more important passengers, who couldn't be expected to have to board along with the unwashed masses. Eventually, the doors opened and Agnes and I raced to the rear boarding stairs to reclaim our seats and carryon storage spaces.

This time, the boarding went a little faster, and within about 45 minutes we were back on the runway, where we managed to get airborne without hitting any birds or other aircraft.

Once in the air, the flight was no more uncomfortable and boring than any other transatlantic flight, and there was no further excitement until we were approaching Washington...and the pilot announced that he couldn't land because of some scheduling problem.


So we flew majestically around the DC-Maryland-Virginia area for another hour, until the proper permissions were received, and we finally landed about four hours late. The entire aircraft erupted in spontaneous applause as we touched down.

We managed to negotiate passport control without any issues, except that Agnes (as a green-card holding permanent resident) had to be photographed and have her fingerprints recorded...something we've not experienced before. Luckily, she didn't turn up on any secret lists of doom, and we soon were cleared to head for baggage claim. Our suitcases eventually arrived (although not, of course, together), and we sped through customs (all that time spent practicing looking innocent does help).

The final delay occurred when we had to stop by the Lufthansa lost-luggage office to report that I'd forgotten my jacket on board the aircraft. It had already been found by the cleaning crew, but with everything going on, they weren't able to get it back to me then...the nice, but very harassed lady offered to FedEx it back to me, which was fine, since the temperature was in the mid-80's anyhow.

We found a taxi, and eventually arrived home...tired, cranky, but safe and sound.

All things considered, it could have turned out a lot worse. We could have hit that bird after the first aircraft had left the ground, and ended up as a big, smoking hole near the airport.

But we're here, we're safe, I have plenty to blog about, and we're looking forward to taking a new vacation to recover from this vacation...

Tomorrow, a few last pictures and random comments about the trip, and then we'll be back to the normal level of curmudgeonly commentary on the world...which has obliged in my absence by offering up plenty of utterly weird stuff on which to comment.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

What an eventful journey home!! Yes, the most important thing is that you're both safe. The other thing is : Aren't you glad that Leya was traveling separately you?

Anonymous said...

Could have been worse - you could have been on Continental and stuck on the plane for 6 hours on the runway (big story while you were gone).

Gilahi said...

Consider this: The bird had a MUCH worse day than you did.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back and I'm ready for the curmudgeon to get back into mid-season form.

Eminence Grise

Leslie David said...

You were lucky that you were still on the ground when you hit the bird, that they actually let you OFF the plane, and that the new plane eventually took off and landed safely--eventually. Tell Agnes to thanK DHS US VISIT for her photo and fingerprinting, because we all know what a threat she is. :)

Glad you're back and I hope I don't have such hair-raising flight stories to tell when I leave for Spain a month from Friday.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

That's one plane I wouldn't like to be on!

Mike said...

So, pretty much standard airline travel protocol.

I'm printing this out to show Claudia next time she wants to go someplace.

John A Hill said...

Oh, if only it could've happened in the US. We are so much better at finding ways to mess up this kind of thing.

Agnes said...

Bill forget to tell you that it was unbearably hot sitting in this airplane for that long.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

I'm so glad I don't do air travel.