United, We Stand

Christmas in Antarctica originally posted by Linda Lou Burton December 14, 2005 from Los Angeles, California, United States – The shuttle was right on time. 3:15 AM, just as promised. The van was already filled with middle-of-the-nighters getting ready to travel places, see things, do stuff. A couple headed for New Zealand thought THEY had the market on distance. Ha! I’m going to Antarctica. That was the trump card, for sure.

An icy fog swirled around us as we hurtled through the dark, headed for SeaTac airport, AKA, Flying Carpet Central. “What do you do in case of bad weather,” I asked, fearful we might not make the plane on time. “Oh, I have studded tires,” was the reply. “I always get you there.”

Inside. In line. Bags checked to Santiago, Chile. Boarding pass. Rode the shuttle to another terminal. Got coffee. Got muffin. Got newspaper. Waited.

5:40 AM. Got on the plane!! Stowed carryon. Found seat. Buckled up. Waited.

6:00 AM. “We’re going to put a little deicer on the wings,” said the pilot. “Don’t be alarmed by the smell.” Mysterious vehicle with shiny spotlight dumped something all over the wings. Waited.

6:15 AM. Taxied to runway. Waited.

6:30 AM. Screechy clunky noise from wing. More noise. More noise. Pilot announced “We are computer driven and the computer is acting up. We’re trying to get it fixed.”

7:00 AM. Sorry can’t fix, have to go back to terminal. We’ll know something by 8 AM. Ride back to terminal. Wait.

8:00 AM. Sorry folks, they can’t seem to fix it. Get off the plane and go have breakfast on us. Voucher worth $5.50. Come back at 9:00.

Got in line to contact LAN Chile Airlines. Please United, see if I can make another connection. Answer. NO. Wait and see.

9:00 AM We have a good plane. Please reboard. By now the passenger load was much lightened. Lots of people were headed for Hawaii. Lots of people missed connections. Mucho groucho. THIS IS CRAP was the most frequently heard comment in the rebooking line. Hey, when you’re headed for relaxation, you don’t want anything to slow you down. Right?

Pretty little Charlie, a two-year-old blond sweetie traveling with her mother and grandmother, did not reboard. I did.

Back in my window seat. Young man has returned to seat beside me. He’s dressed in T-shirt and toboggan; tattoos of roses-on-trellises grow from his wrists up his arms. “I missed my appointment in LA,” he told me. “I had a job interview.” “Bummer,” I said, and told him of my flight fright. “If I miss the flight to Santiago, I miss the boat!” “I’ll help you get your carryon when we land,” he offered.

9:30 AM we were in the air, leaving Seattle behind. Could I make the connection?

11:45 On the ground in LA. How long does it TAKE to open the door? “Go to Customer Service and they will help you find the LAN Chile desk,” offered the flight attendant. “I have no idea where it is.”

RUN. Ah, Customer Service desk. 27 people in line for one Customer Representative. Quick multiplication in my head. 27 people times a conservative 5 minutes each equals 135 minutes. Plane leaves in 50 minutes. I kept running.

Saw a uniform. “Help! I need to find LAN Chile! Can you help me?” Gentleman stops, yes he will help. “Tell them I’m here! Tell them I’m running!” He went away to make a call.

Back. “I cannot get through to them. You should go directly to the desk.” He kindly walked with me down the escalator, to the door, motioned towards the shuttle bus. “Oh, that one is just leaving, there’ll be another in 10 minutes,” he said. “I don’t have 10 minutes to spare!” He pointed left, drew me a diagram, “It’s only a 5-minute walk.” ANOTHER BUILDING. A different terminal entirely!

I began running (in my best slow hobble-walk), pulling my sturdy TravelPro carryon with the in-line skate wheels that drives like a dream. I’m running backwards in the alphabet, according to the overhead signs. From United. By the time I got to Delta my chest was pounding and I was drenched in sweat. Finally then, American! The end of the terminal. Open spaces. Next building.

It was stinky. Really stinky. Cigarette puffers lined the route, nervously sucking and blowing smoke, smoke, more smoke. There was a sign ahead. LAN. I bumped down the brick walkway, into the door, I’m on the wrong level! I need Departures and I’m still on the Arrivals tier. Elevator. Run.

I could see the counter! It was now 12:10 PM. I still had 25 minutes. But which line? Rows of tape separators on little chrome posts made a maze of pathways. A guard looked up to see if I’m a dangerous intruder. “LAN! For a 12:35 flight!” I waved my ticket in the air. The guard jumped up, ran, “Come with me!” I followed through the maze and he led me straight to the counter. Which was strangely empty. He called and someone appeared from behind a Do Not Enter door. He explained in Spanish. She shook her head. CLOSED. Plane is full.

I explained in English. Plane was delayed from Seattle. Pant pant. Must get on this flight. Pant pant. Here is my ticket. Pant pant. Please help.

“Ees not my fault,” was her reply. How many times would I hear that statement before the day would end?

I spent 10 minutes begging to be allowed onto my plane. I spent 25 minutes waiting for the supervisor to return from the departure gate. Pregnant and obviously tired from the morning rush, she kindly described to me the details of why it took 3 hours to board – security, holding pen, many busloads to departure area, on and on. “Please come back manana,” she concluded. “We’ll try to get you on. But, eet too is full so, maybe not happen.”

I called Norwegian Cruise Lines in New York and explained what happened. “Please help me,” I implored. “Well, it’s not our fault that you missed your flight,” was the answer. “The trip officially begins in LA.” “I have trip insurance,” I stated. “What will it cover?” “Call the insurance company and see,” I was told.

I went outside and caught a shuttle back to the United counter. Waited in line for one hour. Finally reached the counter and Jo Anne, my first angel of the day. Jo Anne sold tickets, mostly to people who were “dis” connected, like me. She dealt with lots of tears. What flights go to Santiago? We can fly you to New York, and then to Miami, for tomorrow’s Santiago flight? No seats from Miami. We can fly you to Mexico City, then to Santiago? No seats from Mexico City. We can fly you to Toronto, then on Air Canada to Santiago? Seats available, but flight arrived too late to catch up to the Tour.

“I guess I’ll have to stay the night in LA,” I finally told her. “Can you get me a hotel voucher?” “Absolutely!” she assured me, and went away to do so. Meanwhile, beside me, a woman wept in French. They called for an agent who could converse with her. Passport expired, how could she get home? At least, I was close to home.

Jo Anne returned. She was in tears! Now I was the consoler. She could not get me a hotel voucher, she said. “And that’s not RIGHT! We delayed you and we should help you now. But my supervisor says it’s not our fault that you didn’t make the connection. They won’t help you!” “Don’t cry Jo Anne,” I replied, “you worked so hard to help me. It’s not your fault. Please don’t cry,” I repeated. “That’s such a beautiful pin you are wearing,” I said, an afterthought. Jo Anne smiled and wiped the tears from her cheeks, and then directed me to the bank of hotel phones.

Free Shuttle From the Airport. I selected a hotel that appeared to be nearby and made the call. “Go to the red zone,” I’m instructed, “we’ll pick you up.” Outside, the cigarette puffers are rowed like ducks, on assignment to leave no breath of fresh air for anyone passing by. I waited.

“Welcome to Los An-glees!” said my smiling driver, as he opened the door to the van. “Are you having a beautiful day?” “Yes,” I replied. My buddy the Downhome Philosopher espouses ‘never dump your problems on somebody else’s head.’ I agree with that thought. Why ruin the driver’s lovely day? “What are those towers ahead?” I asked. He described the towers of light, the palm trees; we were on Century Boulevard, in his beautiful city.

Checked in, my room was a haven, cigarette free, noise free. But it was too late to call Kansas City, home of my travel insurance company. It was too late to call New York, home to my cruise line. I flopped onto the bed, and fell asleep.

No! I’ve had no food today! 6 PM! Fourteen hours since I had my cup of Starbucks and my muffin. I’m starved. I could see Casa Gamiño from my window. I washed my face and went to eat.

Inside, it was warm, walls were soft adobe coral, trimmed in hacienda green, Christmas decorations everywhere. “Good evening Senora,” as I was seated. I ordered #5, chilies rellaño. Chips were set before me, laughter was behind me. The music was playing, a Spanish song of happiness, I could tell, even though I did not understand the words.

This was the first day of my trip to Antarctica.