Monday, 3 August 2015

A Port in a Storm

Things don’t always go according to plan and the last 32 hours are, for me, a fine example of the need to be resilient, supportive and flexible in times of change. As is often the case in our household, the whole family was fractious the night before we were due to fly off on holiday – rucksacks, clothing and sunglasses suddenly became elusive (despite earlier assurances that everything was under control) and the pressure of getting ready, within a 13kg baggage allowance, with clothes for mountainous areas, jungle and beach, whilst still desiring a bit of sleep prior to a 5.00am departure, was sufficient to fray most tempers. No matter how much I try to encourage a pre-emptive rather than just-in-time approach to planning and packing, there is an apparently inevitable last minute panic whenever we go away. I am as bad an offender as the others. Friends tell me that this is normal their families, especially those with adolescent sons, but I still find it stressful.

As it was, we and our luggage made it to the flight on time, we even managed an enjoyable family breakfast at Heathrow prior to boarding and American Airways ferried us across the Atlantic with apparent ease. The issues began when we neared America: we were due to land in Miami, to catch a connecting flight to Guatemala (with a two hour gap between arrival and departure) – easy! However, our planning proved inadequate. It is Hurricane season and, just as we neared Florida, a storm was building up. For over 50 minutes the plane circled above the clouds with the intention of landing as soon as the weather cleared, and then, with fuel running low, the pilot decided to head north to West Palm Beach for gas, prior to recommencing the intended descent to Miami. We were one of the first planes forced off-course, but others soon came to join us at this small local airport. It was over an hour before we refuelled. We were not allowed to disembark, so we sat in semi-darkness on the runway and watched the rain pelting onto the tarmac and cement and made racing bets on the rivulets streaming down the window portals.

By the time we finally reached Miami our connecting flight time (scheduled for 16.15) had passed by nearly three hours, but we were delighted when told that, due to the storm, the flight had been rescheduled to 20.20. We sprinted off the plane. However, despite our best attempts, the fearsome queues through passport control, then security (where an officious guard took delight in deliberately splitting our family into two groups, by changing the lane we were queuing in and sending my husband into a different line, despite our requesting her not to do so) and finally baggage claim, where we were told we had to collect and re-check-in our luggage before we could board the connecting flight, delayed us further. Despite our efforts, we were too slow – we, and many others, missed it by minutes (I am unsure why American Airlines could not wait for us, they they knew that we were trying to make the connection after an already difficult journey).  

Miami Airport crowds

It puzzles me that American Airlines provided no obvious assistance at any stage. It was left to passengers to solve their own problems. Having never been to Miami Airport before, it was by chance that we found an area where travellers, like ourselves, were attempting to find seats on planes leaving either later that night or over the weekend. We were one of a great many flights that had been impacted by the weather and the chaos and queues were enormous. The delay was deemed to have been caused by “an act of God”, and hence our difficulties was not covered by American Airways’ insurance, so there was no offer of a room for the night, food or compensation. It was now nearly 9.00pm – we were tired and hungry. We had been travelling all day and were now stranded in Miami, when we should have been in Guatemala where a bed and dinner awaited us. Checking on Trip Advisor it was clear that all the nearby hotels to Miami Airport were already fully booked and we had to stay in line so getting food was not possible.

At last we reached a desk and a wonderful customer service representative at the check-in, her name was TJ, took us under her wing, when she realised that we had been travelling for 21 hours, were now stranded and still had a long way to go. On seeing my crestfallen face, when she told us that the earliest flight she could get us onto from Miami to Guatemala was on Sunday (it was still Friday at this stage), she rose to the challenge of determining whether we could fly to another US airport and then on to Guatemala from there. Watching her struggle with the computerised booking system was like watching a person trying to grasp mercury between their fingers and thumb– every time she thought she’d found seats they vanished before she had time to process them - clearly we were a few amongst many suffering our fate. We knew there were possible flights out of Dallas, the first being 9.00am the following morning, but, due to “a technical issue”, TJ was unable to make any confirmed reservations using the system – she was as frustrated as we were. To make matters worse the last flight to Dallas that night, at 9.20, was already fully booked and the airport was heaving with frustrated would-be-passengers. We agreed to risk stand-by – as provisional bookings were the best we could get. TJ left her desk and escorted us in person to security, explained where the departure gate was and waved goodbye as we ran. She was our port in the storm and I will be writing to American Airways to commend her.

We made it to the departure gate in time, but as it was the plane was delayed - the flight bringing the aeroplane in to Miami had been impacted by the storm. As time ticked problems got worse - new pilots became required (so as not to contravene working shift limitations) and at 11.30pm we were informed that, because the plane had been left with its lights on and with other electrics running,  the batteries were now flat and needed replacing. Then the plane was moved to a different departure gate and all would-be passengers traipsed across the airport and continued to wait. The departure time kept moving, from 11.30pm to 12.15am, then 1.30am, then 1.45am and finally at 2.00am the flight was called.  My husband is a frequent flier and his name was bumped to first place on the stand-by list. I too am a frequent flier but, because this information had not been entered prior to our departure from the UK, I was not allowed to benefit. I explained to the staff on the desk that it was important that my youngest son, being a minor, was not forced to travel alone.  As I was telling the staff this, two American Airline employees arrived wishing to fly to Dallas that night; they were immediately allocated two seats, much to the annoyance of the twenty or so people waiting on the standby lists.  Then my husband’s name was called as the only standby. We decided that getting at least one of us on their way made sense, so he boarded the plane leaving me with the boys.

There must have been nearly thirty of us hoping to catch that flight – most with connections to make or families to return home to. It was nearly two o’clock in the morning and everyone was trying to be supportive and polite. The two ladies manning the desk at the departure gate had been on a shift that was supposed to end at 5.00pm and yet, as the flights were so messed up, they were having to work on through the night, having been messaged that they were on overtime. A delightful Mexican lady told me that she had agreed to look after the passport and ticket for a fellow passenger who had wanted to go to the bathroom, but did not want to lose her place in the queue as she had a flight to Tokyo from Dallas the following day . We moved to the amended departure gate during the time that she was away and for 45 minutes there was no sign of her. In the end we persuaded the lady at the desk to make a call in Spanish over the intercom and then I looked after another lady’s son whilst she checked the restrooms in case the missing woman was unwell.  It was the little gestures that we all made to make things easier for others that helped to make the evening easier. At 2.15am, minutes before the plane was due to depart, three further standby seats were announced and it was agreed to give one to my youngest son, so that he could travel with his dad. I hugged him and waved farewell as he disappeared down the jet bridge.

Once the fight had departed my other son and I, along with all the other disappointed passengers, were left to find a fresh solution to our predicament.  The two of us knew that if we did not get to Dallas for 9.00 am on Saturday there would be a further delays that would impact our trip; we were scheduled to drive to Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands on Sunday. I found a tired American Airline rep and asked about seats on the 6.00am flight to Dallas – which was now less than four hours away. Again, it was full there was only standby by, no guarantees. I asked that my son and I could be placed on the list. By 5.30am that list was 48 people long, but it was compiled on a first come first served basis and my son was at the top of the list, followed by me.  In case you ever find yourself in our predicament, let me warn you that Miami Airport has uniform seating arranged in rows with sturdy, but sharp, metal armrests that prevent people from lounging, canoodling or using the seats as temporary beds. 

In the two hours available to us, my son and I tried to sleep on the floor near the departure gate for the 6.00 o’clock flight. 

I tenderly placed my pashmina around my boy – I haven’t tucked him in for a few years, but by this stage both he and I needed to feel loved. 

I was woken at 4.37am, by a cleaner removing stains from the carpet, he sprayed me with the stain removal fluid before starting the engine of the carpet cleaner he pushed between the rows of chairs. By the time he had finished the area of floor where I had been lying was drenched. I could not go back to sleep, but I persuaded him not to disturb my son.

At 5.05am I went and found coffee and empanadas for breakfast – for Brits an unusual start to the day – and with these offerings I woke my son. I suspect my eyes looked as red and sore as his and we both needed a wash, but at least we could smile. To cut a long story short, Fortune’s wheel finally seemed to have turned for us. Both of us secured seats on the 6.00am flight and we landed early at Dallas.  Fellow passengers gave us advice on how to navigate the airport – it is quite large. – the 4th busiest in the United States and 8th busiest in the world, with two terminals exclusively for the use of American Airlines. The Sky Train at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport swiftly took us to our desired terminal and we caught up with my husband and youngest son by the departure gate in time for the 9.00am flight to La Aurora, Guatemala’s City’s international airport. We arrived in Guatemala 17 hours later than intended, but we are here and now the holiday can truly begin…

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