I’m sitting at my regular computer writing this. I should be sitting at my laptop at my mother’s house somewhere between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains writing a much different story. But the reason I am back at my own home is the result of a series of events that would even make the Marx Brothers shake their heads and say, “No, we can’t do that. It would be inhumane.”
I booked a flight on a national carrier to go visit my mother who lives in the Midwest, whom neither I nor my daughter have seen in four years. I won’t explicitly divulge the name of the carrier, but its initials are United Air Lines – as if you couldn’t tell from the title of this article. To say that our trip was a fiasco would a gross misrepresentation of the facts. As you know, I like to be honest with my articles. They may not be popular, but you can’t call me a liar.
So, the day starts out fair enough. The closest airport to me happens to be the one in Palmdale. And since I’m no fan of LAX, I chose good ol’ PMD to begin my trip. I walked into the terminal at Palmdale International Airport – a hustling and bustling, full service air terminal complete with Los Angeles World Airport Police vehicles parked out front. Okay, it's one car sitting on blocks with grass growing around it. This lovely terminal is a whopping 110 feet long by 50 feet wide – slightly larger than a double-wide mobile home trailer. The sign over the door read “Welcome to LA/Palmdale Regional Airport, Hair Care and Tire Center.”
I walked up to the ticket counter and was warmly greeted by a friendly troll who immediately berated me for not arriving at least one hour before departure time. Her -- I assume it was a her; it's so hard to tell with trolls -- sweet caring growl reminded me of a Rottweiler I once knew – if only briefly. “I doubt there is any room for you on the flight. You were supposed to be here an hour ago so you could be through security thirty minutes before take off. I’ll be back.” At which time she slammed the door.
A few moments later another less troll-ish ticket agent came over and helped me. She had a pleasant smile and calmly called a TSA representative over to check our bags. A moment or so later, the troll returned and began barking at me again, “You need to go over there and go through security.” She seemed unaware that I had been asked by the TSA agent to remain where I was until he finished checking my bags. The troll began to growl at me. The TSA agent assured me that I could leave and I politely informed the troll, “I was asked by this gentleman to remain here until he was finished. I didn’t want to leave until he gave me the all clear.” To that, the troll’s eyes and nostrils flared and I quickly executed an abrupt about-face and made my way through the throngs of people – namely the two LA Airport police officers, the lone TSA security agent and my wife.
My daughter and I made our way to the plane. We ran out the back door, across the tarmac and right up to the waiting DC-1. Okay not really, it was a little more modern than that. I can’t be sure how modern but the toilet had a 1972 Sears Catalog next to it with several pages already missing and a white porcelain pot with water. I hurried her up the stairs ahead of me. When I came to the top, I turned to find my seat and discovered that the plane was indeed full – of nothing! Well, that isn’t fair to call the seven other passengers nothing. This plane is equipped to carry no less than 60 passengers. My daughter and I almost made the passenger manifest break into the two-digit numbers. Including the flight crew, which had the pilot, the co-pilot and all one of the flight attendants, there were enough people on that plane to start a pick up game of regulation basketball complete with referees. Oh the humanity!
The first leg of our day-long journey was uneventful. Pleasant as the stewardess – oops, excuse me flight attendant – was (she was very polite, courteous and an all around good person. My daughter even commented, “She’s pretty”) I was not prepared for what the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company had in store for me and my nine year old daughter. We were served our complimentary sodas and for the first time in my life, I was actually almost too cold on an airplane. Usually I find them to be overcrowded, high-altitude saunas travelling at close to 350 miles per hour. But this was a very welcome experience. It had the potential to change my opinion of flying.
Then we landed in that lovely city by the bay, San Francisco. Now, I’m sure that San Francisco has its high points. In fact, I would even say that I’m sure that San Francisco is a lovely city. I wouldn’t know; I couldn’t see any of it either from the plane or the airport. Apparently the Big Sur fire has some personal vendetta against SFO as the city was practically obscured by smoke. Or maybe that was fog, but I’ve never seen yellow fog. I’ve seen yellow snow and know not to eat it, but I’ve never seen yellow fog – sorry marine layer!
We left the plane at SFO and headed up the gangway into the concourse. We performed the necessary bodily functions so often required by those who fly and then proceeded to the gate where we were to meet our connecting flight. Our two-hour layover was quiet – if you don’t count the woman with the two crying babies, the too-loud television monitors blasting Wolf Blitzer’s almost religious description of Senator Edward Kennedy’s triumphant return to the U.S. Senate chamber and the frequent over-head public address announcements that mimicked the wah wah wahs of the old Peanuts TV shows.
When we were called to board our plane, we did so in the most orderly of fashion. “Group One you may now board!” and 25 people clamored for the gangway; followed by groups two, three and four. Once on the plane, my daughter and I settled in for the two hour flight to the Mile High City, where we would change planes once again and resume our journey to meet my mother. A young woman, I’d say 35, attempted to stow her large carry-on suitcase in the overhead compartment of our Boeing 737-500. When it wouldn’t fit, she left to check her bag. Remember this, it’s coming back later.
Meanwhile the third person to be assigned to our row plopped his well-toned lard-butt into the seat next to me. Imagine my fortune when the man began to curse every person on the plane who boarded with more than one carry on bag. After about seven “Jesus Christs”, four “f----ngs” and a “g—da—it” He settled down. He demanded that the arm rest between our seats be lowered – as if he were trying to establish ownership of the portion of my seat into which his fat butt was encroaching.
Finally, everyone was on board. The young lady returned with a flight attendant who, with the help of a crowbar and some well placed WD-40, managed to stow the oversized bag into the overhead compartment. She sheepishly found her seat, sat down and fastened her seat belt. I did comment to myself that I didn’t think the bag would fit, but I was proven incorrect. I laid my head back on the seat and closed my eyes mentally preparing myself for the ensuing two hours of Whose Arm Rest Is It Anyway?
I was jolted back to reality when the chief flight attendant informed everyone that due to circumstances beyond her control, the pilot scheduled for our flight was refusing to take the plane to Denver and that they no longer had a pilot for the plane. As a result, we were going to have to de-plane, return to the concourse and proceed to the next gate to take a different flight. Begrudgingly, we all gathered our belongings and filed off the plane in the same orderly fashion as the helpless residents of a city being trampled by Godzilla might leave town. We then proceeded to the assigned gate to board our new plane – that wasn’t scheduled to leave for another half hour.
This change in our itinerary meant that my daughter and I would miss our connection in Denver. To accommodate those of us on the flight who were destined to the same final airport, we were told to report to the ticket counter and we would be on our way to an airport other than Denver to make a connecting flight that would take us non-stop to our final destination. Did I mention that the alternate airport was Los Angeles International – the airport some 70 miles from Palmdale that I was trying to avoid in the first place!
My daughter and I boarded the new plane an hour later, which did take off on time, although we taxied for so long I thought that perhaps the pilot was going to drive us to LA instead of fly. While in flight, we ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had packed that morning, drank more complimentary soda and snoozed for the one hour and 10 minute flight from SFO back to LAX.
Now I wanted to avoid LAX because its juxtaposition to the Pacific Ocean makes it one of the worst airports into which one can fly. The wind coming off the ocean makes any take off or landing far more unreasonable than is necessary. I get physically ill at LAX and in fact, I’m getting sick just retelling this story. Take offs and landings are rough and landings consist of far too many sudden drops in altitude for me to keep my stomach contents where they belong. But I survived. We arrived at the gate, exited the plane and made our way to the other end of the terminal building to catch what was supposed to be the last plane of our trip.
We boarded the plane, made some new friends and pulled away from the gate as scheduled. I suffered another LAX take off and once safely in the air, I attempted to relax. My daughter was talking with the girl in front of us and I was trying to snooze.
I was unable to get comfortable and began to notice that the plane was becoming hotter than usual. Then I noticed my ears were popping more than usual. My suspicions were confirmed when I began to feel the plane make a sharp turn to port and noticed the sun was definitely in the wrong place for a plane flying east-northeast. At that moment the flight attendant came over the P.A. and informed us that we were returning to LAX because the plane had developed some sort of pressurization problem that kept the AC from working properly. Immediately the young woman sitting across the aisle from be began getting hysterical. I was sweating like a Boy Scout at Neverland and my head was pounding. My ears were still popping. The pilot came over the P.A. and told us we would be back in LA in about five minutes. The woman was crying uncontrollably across the aisle.
I completely understand that the pilot was concerned for our safety and appreciate the fervor with which he returned to LAX, but of all the landings I’ve experienced at that airport, this one succeeded in making me fill two of the little white bags in the seat pocket in front of me. We got back on the ground and taxied longer than we were in the air! I was beginning to think he’d landed at Ontario (CA) airport and was driving us back to LAX.
When we got off the plane again, the guys in the silver suits were there to meet us. We returned to the concourse and they already had a plane waiting for us to take to our final destination. By this time I’d had it. I was too sick to endure another up and down on an airplane and at this point might have considered a once-around on the California Screamer at Disney’s California Adventure if it would have gotten me where we were going instead of having to get on another damned plane.
I told the counter agent I wanted a different flight on a different day. We agreed on Saturday and I told her I needed to collect my luggage. She called down to the baggage handlers and told them to pull my bags. She assured me that they would be at claim belt 4 in about twenty minutes.
Thirty minutes and two rounds of luggage later, they were not there. I went to the baggage claim desk and told the lady there what was going on. She told me that my bags were already where they were supposed to be. So, I had to fill out paper work and leave LAX hoping that my bags hadn’t been launched into orbit around Saturn.
My brother in law picked us up at LAX and drove us to his house where we met my wife who drove my daughter and I back home. And thus ended my wonderful excursion to explore the unknown regions of California known as San Francisco and Los Angeles International Airports. I tried to find humor in all of this. I joked with my wife saying, “Yeah, I was hoping that I would get to take our daughter to the San Francisco Airport just so she could see what it looked like.”
“That’s not funny, Daddy!” came from the back seat where my daughter was trying to sleep.
Oh, just to ensure that my trip would be easy as possible, I held this article until after the trip to visit my mother was over and my daughter and I were safely back home. The trip went well, except for landing in Denver coming home and the fact that the airline gave me great amounts of grief because the itinerary had changed. The three hour layover in San Francisco wasn’t too bad – I won’t be eating at The Buena Vista Café in Terminal 3 near gate 83 again any time soon. I’ll save my rant on that joint for another time.
I can say that considering everything I had to endure next time I want to go visit my mother, I think I’ll drive.