Monday, November 19, 2007

"Lax" security

This weekend Dr. Girlfriend and I went on a top-secret mission to a top-secret cheese-loving state. Upon our return, we had many misadventures at various hubs of non-terrestrial public transport stations, and were subjected to unprecedented security hilarity. Be forewarned, this is a long one.

Let me extrapolate:

Plans were for the good doctor and I to fly from Madison to Denver, and then from Denver to Eugene via aeronautical sky-bus. We were to leave at 8:50 am and arrive at our final destination no later than 1:10 pm. We planned accordingly.

But we didn't realize, at the time, that the United Airlines SkyNet Supercomputer had targeted us for frustration with extreme prejudice.

Our flight out of Madison was delayed (forcing us to miss our connection), because the flight in from Chicago couldn't land due to fog. Looking out the windows of the airport, yeah, there was a little fog (nothing compared to what's at the Eugene airport every morning), but I never thought back when I was a youngster in 1990 that the airplane sensors in 2007 would still be hindered by the same crippling security risk that had been exposed in the epic documentary Die Hard II: Die Harder.

In any case, no big deal, and not important to the tale. I don't check bags anyway and only carry what I'd need in a full-scale zombocalypse (string, duct tape, machismo) anyhow, so we got reassigned with no worries about checked luggage. Only instead of a different flight straight from Denver to Eugene, we had to fly to San Francisco first and then catch a flight to Eugene, about five hours later. Two connections for the price of one?! Sign me up!

Madison-->Denver-(5-hour delay)->San Francisco

So we arrive in San Fran and look at the screens for our next flight and, son of a bitch, EVERY flight to Oregon (Medford, Portland, Eugene) had been canceled. Occasionally, a new flight would pop up on the screens for a later time, and then abruptly become canceled. It was all very mysterious. I, of course, assumed super typhoon or Asian/Russian pirate invasion, but there was nothing on the interwebernets about it. Gotta go to the help desk!

Line for the help desk was understandably extremely long. Since they had canceled every flight to the north until the unknown future, folks were interested in getting on other flights, and needed someone to yell at. While in line, I tried all the phone numbers I could think of to expedite my service, the United Airlines number, the emergency number for my travel agent...but all of them said that no flights were going out that night and all the flights the next day were full!

The Dreaded Help Desk

During a time of crisis, the help desk is a place of misery and forlorn wandering. It takes forever to get to the front because the help desk people really can't help you, and many people refuse to leave until they've been "helped." Let's not even talk about English-as-a-second-language passengers. You can gesture all you want, the help desk lady don't understand yer crazy moon language! Once you see the gesturing start, you just have to hope the person talking to the other help desk attendant gets frustrated and stomps away. You see, like the Sith, there can only be two attendants at any one time, no matter how far the line stretches around the airport. A master ...and an apprentice.

Through Jedi meditation techniques and the frustrated quitters ahead of us in line we eventually arrived at the top of the help desk mountain, ready to be helped. No surprise, the lady informs me that all flights are canceled, the ones for tomorrow are full (but she could put us on "standby"), and there is nothing she could do. Sorry.

*blink blink*

I wait her out in smiling silence, using my "stress test" interviewing skills to get her to continue speaking before accepting her statement, acting as if she isn't done speaking and I don't want to interrupt her. Eventually she caves and continues typing on her computer, telling us that there's a flight out of San Fran to Los Angeles, and then a red eye on Alaska Airlines from Eugene to Los Angeles we could get on very late that night.

Los Angeles? Ummm..."Okay," I tell her, desperate to get home.

"I can't print you out a boarding pass, because its Alaska Airlines. You just have to take this e-ticket receipt to their terminal and they'll give you a ticket," she says.

"How long will I have between flights? Will there be enough time to do that?" I ask.

"At least 45 minutes. Plenty of time," she lies.

San Francisco --> Los Angeles

Arriving late in Los Angeles, with only 30 minutes until the other flight's takeoff, we rush to the terminal exit, as we know that there are other Eugenites on the same plane as us, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the help desk attendants were just trying to get rid of us and gave out more tickets than there were seats. So according to the help desk attendant, we just had to get to the Alaska Airlines terminal, get our boarding pass, and get on the plane. And we had to do it before the hippies got there.

This is where the United Airlines help attendant's nefarious plan is played out.

Los Angeles airport looks like this on the in-flight Skymall magazine map:

Note that there is no label as to where Alaska airlines is, nor where United's terminal is. I could hear the Eugenenites on the plane looking at the map and distressing over how they didn't know which terminal they'd have to go to when they landed. Fortunately, we had investigated this mystery just before we left, and knew that United is at Terminal 7 and Alaska is at Terminal 3.

Now, from that map above you'd wouldn't immediately realize that there isn't a path from one terminal to another. I mean, its true that there's no connecting line, but there's different colors on the map for no apparent reason, which may be levels or something, and common design in airports nowadays to have an underground train or shuttle. So I assumed we'd high-tail it to the inter-terminal subway and get to Terminal 3 while our competitors stopped to ask directions, saving us precious seconds.

However, that map is misleading. Here's a real map of LAX with our necessary path overlayed:

That's right, they're like two different airports, connected by roads. Roads OUTSIDE of the airport. Like...for cars. Meaning, you gotta get on a bus...sucker.

The United Airlines Sith Lord had just dumped us onto LAX to be another city's problem. And in order for us to redeem our tickets for the flight the United help desk attendant gave us we had to leave one airport terminal through security, go to the ticket counter at another terminal, go back through security (in the bustling city of LA this time), and then get to our gate, all within an alloted (but incorrect) time of 45 minutes. As you can guess, this is impossible. It reminded me of a similar situation I read about on the best page in the universe, and only as I was riding in the bus across Los Angeles did I remember it. It was for a different big-city Californian airport, but the lesson remains the same: Never trust any itinerary that goes through any airport in California for a "terminal connection."

But we made it to Eugene. How? How did we deny the impossible? Did we bend space/time like Hiro? I'll get to that, but first I need to pad this ridiculously long blogpost with more monologuing.

As you look at your watch and see the time of your flight tick by while riding on a bus in the city of LA, there's a point at which you just stop thinking analytically about the best course of action, and simply have to soldier on until that final scene where you are kneeling on an empty runway screaming to the heavens as the camera pans back into a wide-angle shot. *fin* I had to take this to its inevitable end.

Maintaining our needless competition with the Eugenenians, Mary and I rushed off the bus and full-tilt ran to the ticket counter, where I slammed my credit card into the express machine to get my tickets. But you have to arrive two hours before the flight to do that, and the machine mocked me by displaying "Please see a help attendant."

So I ran to the line just as the other Eugenians pulled their bulk through the door and stopped at the same machine I had just been denied by. As I tapped my foot in the 'help desk attendant' line, one of the aging hippies from the Eugene group got irate, and started loudly expressing his dislike to one of the Alaska airlines representatives.

This, folks, is a mistake. It is also the punch line of the United airlines help attendant's nefarious joke. You see, the fault is on the side of United airlines, not Alaska airlines. The United attendant ensures that you can get as far as to another airline's ticket desk before their plan is revealed, where they and all United staff are safe from verbal abuse as the witless passenger yells at another airlines' help desk attendant. And as soon as "I was on United and they..." the Alaska attendants know they don't have to listen to you and can just tell you to go to hell. Brilliant!

Well, that lady told him, and all of his group, to go to hell. She said that there was nothing she could do and he had to shut the hell up, and she pointed to the long line I was already in. The two attendants were in particularly bitchy moods and I could see that if I were to trap this fly, I'd have to use some of the patented Scantabulous honey (use with caution).

I get to the apprentice attendant, well past time for the plane to take off, and say in my friendliest voice "Jeepers miss, we're in a bit of a bind here. Can you help us out?" *handing her the ticket while smiling like a lost puppy*

She gives me a hard look, and I can feel a battle of wills playing out between us, as I psychically send calming messages of peace and hope into her tired and angry eyes. To my surprise, without a word she types something on her computer, and prints boarding passes out! She hands Mary and I two boarding passes and sneers "I'll tell them you're coming, but I don't promise anything," and picks up the phone.

I nonchalantly mention there are other folk who want to get on the same flight (only after I have my passes), and quickly point them out, not really caring about their fate but hedging my bets that they'll hold the plane for more than just two people. Then I thank her profusely as she sneers at the other Eugenians and we rush off to go through security.

The security at LAX has multiple redundant checkpoints, where they check your ID and boarding pass, send you through, and then another guy slowly checks your ID and boarding pass, etc. As we were approaching the third ID-checker, I saw him let some folks under the strap to the front of the line, clearly because they were late for a flight or were first-class passengers. So as I get to him I say "Our flight is going to leave any minute and can we please go to the front too?" He mumbles something but just goes to the next person. Well, I come up to the area where the other folks cut through and I excitedly wave to the security lady nearby, telling her that the previous guy told me to tell her that we can go through (this is not literally true, but I felt its what he wanted in his heart). She looks at my boarding pass and looks to the guy, who is now swamped by the pack of Eugeneians (as well as other folks shunted into the United-to-LAX-Alaska scheme), who are all yelling at him at the same time, and she lets Mary and I through with a sigh.

We remove our laptop, shoes, coat, belt, toiletry items in record time and patiently push our stuff into the x-ray. As I walk through the security line and give my boarding pass to the guy he says "Step into this corridor sir, the airline has selected you for a full security screening."

"I've been selected!" I think, excited at my prize of getting a full pat-down and every piece of luggage and clothing wiped for explosive residue. Lucky me! We're humped for sure now!

Then, to my surprise, Mary is also selected and corralled into the plexiglass hallway with me. Hundreds of other people pass by on to their flights who were behind me in line. Then as I smell a mixture of potpourri and weed, I turn around to see the other Eugenians ALL get corralled into the plexiglass chamber (they cut the line just where we did saying they were 'with us', so they had caught up), as well as some other tricked connectors of United ranting about going to Vancouver and Medford.

Every person who had an impossible-to-reach connecting flight scheduled by United Airlines got selected for super-screening at Terminal 3. Basically, if you check in with less than 45 minutes before your flight (which you must do because that's how they scheduled it), you get selected for super-screening, no chance of exception, slowing you down considerably, increasing your chance of missing your flight. Positive-feedback loop. You can imagine how long that line got before the security folks had time to start processing us, and how happy the people were to be in it.

I'll save you the details of the processing, but it took what seemed like forever. Fortunately, Mary and I were in front, and were now over an hour late for our flight. However I was not terrified I'd miss my flight, because like I said I already assumed we'd missed it, so I just calmly went through the motions and waited for Mary's explosive residue test results to finish as I put my underwear back on.

Then we got our stuff, and RAN. We ran as fast as we could. We come barreling into Terminal 3 to find a short line of people at our gate getting on the plane. And I could tell immediately they were Oregonians! I'd never been so happy to see 50-year-old lesbians with butch haircuts and hempy theater majors waiting in a line together.

As I boarded the airplane I saw the group of Vancouver-ites and Medford-ites angrily yelling into their phones at their respective gates, which were empty.

Alaska Airlines had held the Eugene flight for us!

Alaska airlines is the greatest airline company that ever was. On all their flights they offer free beer and wine from the Pacific Northwest. As I sipped my cream porter from Portland, and Mary drank the 15 oz. of Savignon Blanc they gave her (in a big plastic cup), we conversed with the other displaced travelers boned by United Airlines. And as the plane landed in the fog-shrouded Eugene Airport, I was told (rumor-mill no doubt) that the reason that United Airlines had mysteriously canceled all their flights was because of another "computer glitch."

Ha! Foiled again, Skynet! Thanks to the good folks at Alaska airlines!