May 27, 2005

The Perfect Storm

by psu

If you ever find yourself sitting in the F terminal of the FilthyPhiladephia International Aiport waiting for a U.S. Airways Express plane to take you back home to Pittsburgh, you know you have had a bad day. Every single person at the gate had the same story to tell. There was the woman who had been four hours late getting out of Seattle and re-rounted half way around the world and back to the F terminal. There was the Westinghouse manager who pulled into the gate with the only food he had had all day, a large latte, and a story about how his international flight had lost an hour at takeoff. And there were several people who, like us, had been two hours late taking off from Paris and, having missed connections, ended up here.

It's hard to think of experiences more unpleasant than spending 11 hours on an Airbus A330, but really, that wasn't the hard part of the day. It was the two hours in that nexus of human suffering that we humans call the PHL International Arrivals area that put me over the edge. I believe that U.S. Airways, the city of Philadelphia, the TSA, and the architects who designed the international wing of PHL all should be given some kind of award for accidentally perfecting the optimally bad customer service experience. It must have taken a lot of work over a lot of years to do this, but they nailed it.

Note: I usually try to keep this a family blog, but the following entry is, as Lenny Henry once put it, the result of all kinds of rude words dancing around in my head trying to get out, so be warned.

Everything started out smoothly enough. Up at 7am, packed at 8am, out into the absolutely perfect warm spring Paris day to get our last coffees at 8:30, back for the taxi by 10. All according to plan. The trip to and through the CDG airport also proceeded without major incident. By 12:45 we were on the plane with all of our toddler toys, videos, extra food and water, and ready for the long haul back to Pittsburgh. By 1:15 the plane was loaded and had started to push back. At this point, we missed a departure slot and were told that we'd wait 15 minutes to get to the runway. Then we were told that the plane had a minor technical problem, then we had a long taxi to get it fixed, then they powered down the engines to save fuel, then they told us we had to wait 30 more minutes for taxi clearance, then they turned the engines back on, then we missed another takeoff slot. Toddlers and adults alike were getting antsy. Finally after two hours on the runway, we took off.

At this point, we should have made a strong decision that the connection we had booked was lost. We all knew this, and we told it to ourselves, but our resolve was not forceful enough. Anyway, nine hours passed on the plane with no major problems. I am here to tell you that if you think you have a good kid, there is no kid on the planet more perfect than mine. This is an objective fact. Name me the last time your toddler sat still on a plane for 11 hours non-stop making nary a peep. Yeah, I thought so.

We landed in Philly at 5:15. We had 45 minutes to get off the plane and make a 6:00 connection. In other words, we were completely doomed. Sadly, the crew planted the idea in our heads that we should hurry because there were 25 other people with the same connection, they might hold the flight, and besides, we needed to get to the rebooking line as fast as possible. As a public service to you dear reader, I am here to deliver the following message: When they say this to you on the plane or at the gate do not fucking believe one word of it because it is all fucking lies.. The truth was that we were more than an hour late on a two hour connection and no power in Heaven or Earth could have brought us to that connection on time. Four great trials stood in our way:

1. Getting off the plane. An Airbus A330 is a big airplane. It feels like a small plane because the seats are so small (and I say this as a small person). But it's huge. If you have a seat near the front, you can get off the plane pretty fast. We did not have this luxury, and we had to wait for a couple of gate checked items. This means that we sat on the plane for 20 minutes waiting for it to empty, and then another 5 minutes while they actually found our stuff.

2. International Arrivals. Out of the jetway we sprinted to the Immigration line. It's a couple of thousand feet from the gate down a long hallway with those walking paths that move. We even bypassed the whole crowed to get into the "wheelchair priority" line. But we could not avoid waiting there while the guy in the "wheelchair priority" booth spoke to a nice looking French man, no wheelchair or cane in sight, for 10 fucking minutes about the strange minutiae of PHL.

3. The Great Claim the Bags and Recheck the Bags Dance. By now, if we had been smarter, our will would have been broken. But we kept hope alive, moving through the terminal as fast as we could. We were rewarded with a half hour wait at International baggage claim. But boy I got a good workout.

What I have never understood about dealing with connections on international flights in the U.S. is why they make you wait 20 minutes to pick up your bags so you can put them on a cart, haul them 100 feet past the customs guy who doesn't even look at them, and then another 100 feet to plop them back down on a belt.

A nice gentleman on the staff at PHL tried to keep us from ruining the rest of our day by putting the bags on a cart for us and taking them to the re-check area. When we reached the re-check conveyer, he tried to fight for the forces of good and tell us that our connection was dead and we should just sit in the rebooking line right there and then. This would have been the rational choice. If we had just rebooked, we could have rechecked the bags and made sure that they stayed together and knew where they were going and when. If we had rechecked, we would have given up the insane idea that we could get through the airport fast enought to make the connection.

Sadly, a tool of Satan himself was also there. He stood in the re-check area looking calm and competent informing people that if they hurried, they could just put the bags on the belt and make it to their connecting gates. So we stupidly complied.

4. The TSA Shuffle, Remix. So we ran out of the re-check area looking for terminal A. It looked to be pretty close, but instead of hitting a gate, we hit the entire population of the plane we had just exited waiting in a TSA line having all their bags re-screened before they were allowed into the terminal. This, of course, was fucking insane. These bags were already screened before we got on the plane. In addition, the people doing the screening had big guns, and would shoot you if you did anything wrong.

I should be clear here: At this point our checked bags have entered the airport before we have because for some reason those bags don't have to be re-scanned. But, our carry on items, having been taken off the plane (which, as far as I know, had not blown up) and carried about a mile from the gate to this point, were now suddenly unsafe enough that I had to completely unpack half the bags, take my shoes off, and schlep 4 bags, a laptop, a stroller, my cell phone and a car seat through the x-ray machine because doing this makes our great and strong nation a fucking beacon for freedom and democracy around the world.

I say: fuck that. There is no fate too cruel and no punishment too grisly for the designers of this obstacle course, except they don't exist. This obstacle course was not designed. It evolved on its own through powers that we cannot control into a being of perfect customer service evil. It was bred carefully by multiple governmental and corporate agencies in the name of security, freedom, mom, and apple pie. But, instead of serving these goals in any way, it simply devours hapless travelers that venture too close to it, digests them and then spits them out on the other side of its gullet no closer to their goals than before entered.

After 1 hour and 20 minutes of frantic sprinting through this vortex of human suffering we finally got into the gate areas of the terminal, where we could find out that we missed our connection and the flight after it. It made me think: If only there were a global network of computers that could gather information about flight times, capacities and bookings and present this information at terminals remote to where it was stored, maybe when we got off the plane we could have already known we were fucked rather than running 3 miles through the airport to find out.

Final result: we boarded a U.S. Airways Express flight from Philly to Pittsburgh at 9:15, which was supposed to take off at 8:30, but didn't take off until 10:05. We got into Pittsburgh at 11pm, 21 hours after we woke up in Paris. As a bonus, only two of our three bags made it. I assume the third bag has flown back to France. We got home about 12:30, making the total transit time from Rue de Buci to Pittsburgh about 20 hours.


At this point, I would like to thank, and say a hearty fuck you to U.S. Airways, The FilthyPhiladelpha International Airport, the Transportation Security Administration, the FAA, and all the other great American organizations that made this story possible. I couldn't have done it without you. Keep up the good work.

Posted by psu at May 27, 2005 07:26 AM | Bookmark This

(1) Actually, they do occasionally search your bag. Therefore, you must have your bag with you (so the argument goes; it's false, since you can courier stuff and sometimes bags just don't make it).

(2) If you have access to your bag, then maybe you plucked out the stash of box-cutters and put them in your carry-on before putting the bag back on the belt.

Posted by Benoit at May 27, 2005 10:10 AM

I echo Benoit's #2. Anyway, my real point is the lack of a direct flight PIT->CDG and back now is yet another reason I hate air travel. I hate air travel.

Posted by Derrick Brashear at May 27, 2005 11:01 AM

What in The Great Computer's name possessed you to fly US Airways, the only airline that rivals United in its contempt for the flying public?

Posted by Dr. Click at May 27, 2005 12:44 PM

I have never found U.S. Airways to be any worse than average as U.S. Airlines go. It at least has never come close to matching United in its stupidity, in my experience.

Posted by psu at May 27, 2005 03:44 PM

These bags were already screened before we got on the plane.

As absurd as that sounds, there is a reason for it. Some items are allowed in checked baggage, but not in carry on. Since you had access to your checked bags in Customs, TSA now must rescreen you.

That said, Philadelphia's airport is horrid. Its cramped, and there's no room for expansion of facilities or runways. USAirways closed down the wrong hub.

Posted by Ol'Froth at May 29, 2005 01:10 PM

That's not a reason, that's an after the fact justification for a policy that has no rational justification for existing in the first place.

Posted by psu at May 29, 2005 04:24 PM

I'm kinda thankful that I can pack the set of kitchen knives I've bought as a gift in my checked luggage, though.

Posted by Stewart Clamen at May 31, 2005 12:40 PM

Knives should never be given as gifts, only sold for $1.

This is what my Mom told me.

Posted by psu at May 31, 2005 02:13 PM

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