The customer service representative for Swiss Airlines was taking too long. I put on a knowing smile; with the travel woes that we faced thus far, I could easily anticipate what she was going to say next. “It looks like we don’t have anything booked for you, Mr. Ford”, she stated cautiously, “You’ll have to either call the United help line or see if you can find a United representative at terminal 1.” I walked back over to where Kierstin was with a stupid grin on my face that expressed my incredulity about how our troubles had piled on even further. The fruits from our bad luck were no longer frustrating, headache-inducing calamities – it was laughable now. She told me that she already knew that there had been problems with my return flight given the amount of time she had watched me at the service desk. With just under two hours before my flight was supposed to leave, I scrambled to find United’s customer service counter in this unfamiliar airport in this city so far away from home. The counter was closed – I was fifteen minutes too late – but a representative was still at her station and was kind enough to assist me before she punched out her timecard. The courtesy was dripping with commiseration, given my unfortunate circumstances. As she attempted to find out exactly how there was no ticket to the United States for Michael Ford, I told her about our terrible travel experience, which started on our very first flight out of San Francisco. She gave a sympathetic look and replied, “That’s the way it goes: you have one bad thing happen at the beginning of the trip and the rest of the trip goes the same way.” Or as the ancient Chinese proverb goes, when the roof starts leaking, it will continue raining for several nights.
It started in San Francisco. Kierstin and I were awoken at 5 AM, the sun absent over the California horizon, likely rousing Midwesterners awake on the penultimate day before Christmas Eve. Her brother and mom willingly resisted the temptations of a warm, snug bed and a few more hours of sleep and drove us to the airport. It was a foggy morning at SFO; the large airport windows that normally are a place to marvel at planes landing and taking off only revealed the tips of aluminum wings from planes taxied at their gate; the rest of the plane was shrouded by the thick clouds blanketing the earth’s surface. Our flight was delayed once, and caterpillars in our stomachs spun themselves into cocoons as anxiety over whether we would make our next connection began to germinate. We had a layover in New York; it gave us just over 90 minutes time to hop off our first flight and sprint to our next flight. Soon, this layover was shortened to 40 minutes as take-off was delayed again. Those stomach cocoons hatched, and fluttering wings flapped inside our bellies as nervousness set in, but still, my travel naivety still had me believing that we would just be able to run to our gate and quickly board. How wrong I was.
For international flights, I learned on this trip, it is sometimes required that you exit the terminal where your connecting flight arrives, pass through security again, and find your departure location. I learned this as we quickly deboarded our first flight and searched for our gate, but the gates were only numbered. Our ticket had gate B27, and there was no “B” anywhere. We found an airport employee, who broke the your-princess-is-in-another-castle bad news: the gate we were looking for was in another terminal. With our carry-on luggage bouncing wildly as we ran through JFK airport and boarded the AirTrain, we found our terminal – and saw the massive line for security. There was no way we would make our flight, and that tiny doubt that had been gnawing in our minds overwhelmed us completely in that moment. Our shoulders sagged, our bags dropped to the floor, and we looked hopelessly at one another, trying to figure out what to do next.
The Swiss Air representative at JFK helped us stay positive. We would be reimbursed for a hotel, she told us, if it was the airlines fault, and we would be placed on a flight the next day. A day in New York City couldn’t be that bad, I thought, especially if it was gratis. We could ride the subway into the city and just have another (unexpected) experience to cross off our bucket list. The tram took us back to the terminal that we came on, our second trip on the tiny railway vehicle that we would become quite familiar with in the next couple of days. The terminal for United only had self-service check-in, and no customer service representatives could be found. Another trip on the inter-terminal tram took us back to Swiss Airlines, who directed us to a baggage claims service where we would find a United employee. Glad to have the wild goose chase finally over, we explained our bad luck to United’s customer service.
The customer service representative for United listened intently to our service, then started typing away. Another employee stood nearby, mumbling three-letter airport codes and pointing at the monitor while shaking his head. Eventually, they turned to us. “There’s nothing available until tomorrow evening”, he stated, “I even looked at Warsaw and Copenhagen and Paris – everywhere is booked. We can’t reimburse you for a hotel since the delay was due to weather, but you can stay in the terminal for the night, and I can book you for the flight tomorrow.” I tried to argue that all of our luggage – my clothes, Kierstin’s makeup – was somewhere on the runway, and we needed something, some kind of reimbursement. He told us that higher-ups in United might be able to reimburse us, but all that he could offer was a small bathroom kit to hold us over until the next day. There was still a little relief, though, as he printed the confirmation notices that said we would board the next Swiss Air flight to Zurich. We left the terminal with our shoulders aching from the weight of our baggage, which we had hiked up and down stairs and through and across terminals. Our heads felt as if they were pumped full like a bicycle tire, and then a few extra volumes of air were added until they were ready to pop.
After another trip on the airport tram, where by now we were experts and could surf “no-hands” on the acceleration waves that jostled at every brake and bumped us at every turn, we talked to the Swiss Air attendant again, who reassured us that everything was in order and helped us book a hotel for the night. The Garden Inn & Suites in Brooklyn was no Four Seasons, but it had to suffice. The hotel was about an hour from any interesting sights or tourist destinations, and so despite our find-the-silver-lining attitude, there wasn’t much for us to look forward to in New York City. We weren’t too concerned, though; by that point, all that we wanted was some food in our bellies and a soft bed with warm blankets.
The shuttle driver navigated through the airport district and confirmed any preconceived notions that we had about New York City drivers – they’re crazy. After he tried to slide past a bus by using the shoulder and ran a red light to save us a few seconds, we finally reached the hotel. Kierstin and I stepped out of the van and exchanged raised eyebrows, happy that our well-being was no longer in the driver’s hands. It was a short trip up the elevator, and Kierstin swiped the keycard. A flash of green and she swung the door open, revealing used tissues in the bathroom, garbage on the TV table, and a crumbled mess of sheets and pillows – the room that we were checked into hadn’t been cleaned. Kierstin shut the door as if she intruded upon a crime scene – another misfortune to add to our list of troubles.
Despite all of our travel turmoil (so far), we were still relatively indifferent about the whole situation. Sure, we had missed a day of travel, paid for an additional hotel while our room in Paris sat unoccupied, and relinquished our reservation for the train from Zurich to Paris, but we still had nearly two weeks of travel and the holidays in Europe to look forward, too. Our bad luck was only barely starting, though. United Airlines apparently wanted to test our blasé reaction to the entire situation. As it turned out, when we missed our flight the day before, even if we had managed to intuit our terminal, find the TSA agents at JFK bored and unoccupied, ready to rush us through security, and sprint to our gate in time, our baggage still wouldn’t have made it with us, since it takes a little longer to unload, sort, and load the luggage. The day of our rescheduled flight required us to arrive to the airport early and make sure our bags would be safe on the same plane with us. We were one of the firsts to arrive at the Swiss Air check-in counter, and when customer service representatives opened their windows, we explained our situation. He stood at his computer, typing away with that perplexed expression that we would come to recognize as representing bad news for us.
The ticket that the United attendant presented us with the night before said “23 DEC 2014 18:05”; he had personally told us that we were booked for our flight; and the Swiss Air representative had confirmed that we would be flying to Zurich on that day. However, come Judgment Day, when we should have had freshly printed boarding passes, warm from the hot ink sprayed onto the thick cardstock, the Swiss Air employee told us that our booking was requested but never confirmed and authorized. The tickets that we were holding were not worth much more than the paper and ink that it cost to make them. Sour looks and a flurry of expletives accompanied our frenzied rush back onto the tram (again!) and to the United terminal. The United attendant confirmed what we were already told; the employee from the previous night had not finished our booking process. She quickly tapped away at her keyboard and said we were booked, finally ready to head to Zurich. If there was any trouble, she warned as a foreshadow that we overlooked, the Swiss Air employees could call her – back on the AirTrain we went.
The Swiss Air employee picked up the phone and dialed United’s number. He spoke a few words, read the confirmation numbers, and hung up the phone. We had indeed been re-booked for the plane by United, but the plane was already full. We were on standby. Hearing this as unexperienced travelers is like hearing that a wrestler got pinned in a guillotine if you know more about the French Revolution than you do about wrestling (it’s really not that bad). We were panicked, though, and with the way things were turning out, we wanted a back-up plan. Kierstin called United while we were waiting at the gate. She found out even worse news: not only had the original customer service employee caused us stress and trouble with check-in, he had also cancelled our return flights home. The employee over the phone assured Kierstin that our flights would be rebooked, even sending a confirmation email immediately after she hung up, and he ensured that we would get to Zurich before Christmas, one way or another. As the rest of the plane boarded, we sat, hoping to hear whether the Airline Gods would relent of their smiting upon us and grant us pity in the form of a seat on the Swiss Air flight to Zurich. As if to confirm my and Kierstin’s presence as a token of bad luck, as the clock ticked toward the minute of departure, the airline’s printer broke while printing our seat assignments. But we were finally boarding.
Kierstin danced as we boarded the plane, and my fist punched through the sky à la Bender’s final scene in The Breakfast Club. Buckled up and ready to go, our fortunes turned as the cheery Swiss Air flightattendents offered beverages, any beverage, free of charge. We toasted the cold cans of Swiss beer, a frothy, and refreshing sip of bubbly solace. It’s strange to write about airline food, with the comedy classic trope being about that very subject, but Swiss Air does it right. Warm meals that looked like the picture in the magazine and cold drinks, alcohol or not, were not just for first class. I think this just speaks volumes about our inexperience with flying, which has been mainly limited to the crammed seats upon domestic airlines and the tiny bags of peanuts or pretzels accompanied by a coke or water. I’m not griping about what airlines offer since I can’t really think of any reason why they should be compelled to serve me anything on a flight. No, instead, I am just expressing how funny it is how easily impressed I was; like a child discovering new tastes for the first time, I gleefully bit into a warm, buttery roll, sopped with the rest of my chicken and mashed potatoes, and excitedly wore a mouth-agape expression that said toKierstin, “Look! They gave us another beer!” and “Ooh, they’re coming around with seconds!” Maybe it was just a lesson in how a series of small calamities can bring out a greater appreciation for little things. Thus far, our trip to Europe might seem like a miserable mess, but the adventure was just about to start. The “traveling woes” for the trip will soon be greatly overshadowed by incredible experiences and memories that will last forever. Stay tuned for more!