The long flight

In the Christmas tradition of recounting air travel horror stories, here’s my offering.

Every year I read and hear horror stories involving people’s attempts to travel by air for Christmas vacation. 10 hours in a plane, on a tarmac, surrounded by screaming children. Coming to within miles of one’s destination then having the plane “re-routed” hundreds of miles away. Missing luggage; stolen passports; bizarre medical conditions….

It occurred to me that this would be a great occasion to tell you about my air travel horror story. ‘Tis the season and all that. It’s not about a Christmas vacation, but as you’ll see, it should make those stuck on a tarmac for 10 hrs grateful that they’re not me.

(It also occurred to me that this has little to do with design, unless you consider all the interaction design problems suggested by my story….)

This is a true story.

In 2004, I was to fly to Dubrovnik, Croatia, via Vienna, to attend a conference. I’d booked the flight via Expedia, and chose the cheap fare to minimize the impact on the research grant that was paying for the trip. The Toronto – Vienna leg was on Air Canada (insert foreboding music here). The Vienna – Dubrovnik leg of the flight was on Croatian Airlines. They’re all part of the Star Alliance, so I was pretty limited in alternatives; especially if I wanted to control the cost.

My flight out of Toronto was scheduled to leave at 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday, but that morning I checked the flight’s status online and I found that there was a three-hour delay. Fine; but I was worried about my connection. I couldn’t find out anything about that.

On a lark, I checked the flight status again at about 6:00 p.m. The delay had been removed. I called Air Canada to confirm. Yup, my flight was leaving at 10:00 p.m.

Right. Call a cab; finish packing in hyperdrive; kiss the wife and kids, and off I go.

I set foot in the departures terminal, look at “the board” and see my flight – is delayed three hours.

There’s no line at the Air Canada information desk, because it’s unstaffed. Hmph. Have a coffee, look at overpriced baubles in the shops. Back to the info desk. Now there’s someone there. I explain my situation, emphasizing the connection from Vienna to Dubrovnik. The Air Canada staffer nods sagely and disappears “in back” to consult with…I’m not sure who.

Eventually, he reappears and tells me, with apologies, that since (a) Croatia Airlines is only a regional partner in the Star Alliance, and (b) all the offices in Vienna are closed on Sunday, no one can help me. But, he assures me, they’ll fix me up right once I get to Vienna.

Waste more time watching people close up the shops. Get through security without having to remove my shoes and belt (do I look that harmless?). Wait some more at the gate. Get in the plane and wait while they fly me to Vienna, a wait punctuated by only quasi-organic food and comprehensively unentertaining in-flight entertainment.

We land in Vienna on a sunny morning, but it feels like the middle of the night. The disconnect is especially bad because I know I’m only half-way there.

I then get to stand in line for three hours, for the opportunity to talk to an Austrian Air (Air Canada’s partner on that flight) rep. He tries for a whole hour to figure out how to get me to Dubrovnik that day, but fails. The Viennese take their Lord’s Day stuff very seriously. He told me the best thing I could do was show up first thing at 8 a.m. the next morning at the Air Canada offices in downtown Vienna. Not having an alternative to offer him that didn’t involve him getting himself stuffed, I agree.

So he tells me of a reasonable hotel close to the Air Canada office, and how to book it (they couldn’t do that because, he said, the person who does that doesn’t work on Sunday), and where to get a taxi.

I book a room, collect my bag, and take a taxi to the hotel. Small hotel, with lots of ceramic angels and flowers in the light fixtures. Faucets that looked like they’d been designed by a Byzantine Monk with full-blown OCD. Aesthetically revolting. But at least the bed was comfortable.

By this point, it’s dinner time. I can’t find a map of Vienna (the hotel’s supply had run out, and they couldn’t get more on a Sunday), and 9 out of 10 stores and restaurants were closed. I ended up having an Austrian pizza (YEEEUCK!) and beer (pretty good, but not enough to make up for the pizza). With nothing to do, nothing to see, and no way to get back to the hotel if I get lost, I just go back to my room and go to sleep.

Next morning, dragging my bag behind me, I arrive at the Air Canada office at 7:55 a.m. Five minutes later, the bells of a nearby church start to pound out eight bells. Exactly midway between the 4th and 5th bell, the Air Canada doors unlock, and an employee with skin scrubbed to the point of looking like plastic invites me in. Austrians love their punctuality.

Inside, there’s a kiosk-like counter near the entrance. To the left and right of that are banks of leather-covered bench seats. Beyond, a long counter with 10 stations, six of which were manned by other Air Canada employees, all of which shared the doorman’s obsession with dermal exfoliation.

Cool, I thought. Six of them; one of me. I head for one of the manned stations, but I’m stopped by the door guy.

“Sir,” he said in a heavy Teutonic accent. “Please announce yourself at the entrance kiosk.” He waved me to the one, standalone counter. I shrugged and did as he asked.

I said to the kiosk attendant: “Hi. I missed my connection to Dubrovnik yesterday and I need to make alternate arrangements.”

“Good morning, sir,” he replied. “What is your name, please?”

“Salustri.”

He nodded and typed something into his computer. “Mr. Salustri,” he said. “How may I help you?”

Dramatic pause while I consider telling him that while his walking off a cliff might not help me specifically, it would certainly help the human race in general. Instead, I just re-iterate my problem.

“Thank you, sir. If you would please have a seat, one of our attendants will call you shortly. Please pay attention to the announcement board…” he waved at a big LED display hung from the ceiling “…Your name will appear there when it is your turn.”

I look at the six manned stations, back at the attendant, consider making a run for it…. But no, I really want to get to this conference. So like a good little tourist, I go to sit in the waiting area.

I choose a seat with a good view of the big announcements board – my name still hasn’t appeared there – settle my bag so it doesn’t fall over, and start to sit down.

The instant my ass touches the seat, I hear over a PA system, “Mr. Salustri, please proceed to counter number five.” I look at the board. There’s my name.

I get up and drag my bag to counter 5. “Good morning, sir,” says the attendant. “Name?”

“Ask him,” I jerk my thumb over my shoulder at the guy who’d just called the name of the sole customer in the place.

“You must be Mr. Salustri, then,” he said. “Please sit down.”

I explain my situation to him, and that if I couldn’t get to Dubrovnik within 24 hours, I’d miss my own presentation. He types at his terminal, stares intently, brow all furrowed, at the screen. Types some more; stares some more. Then he checks through sundry lists in a binder. More typing, more staring.

Eventually, he says, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.” And he smiles. I couldn’t tell if he was just trying to be nice, or if he was happy of his utter failure to help.

“No chance?” I asked.

“Not that I can see.”

“Well, I may as well go home,” I tell him. What’s the point of going to a conference, if you miss half of it – the half that includes your own presentation?

“Are you a client of Air Canada or Austrian Air?” he asks.

“Air Canada.”

“To arrange for your return, you’ll have to see an Air Canada representative.” He waves generally at his colleagues at stations 8, 9, and 10. Then I notice the pin on his overstarched shirt. The only difference between his uniform and those of the other employees was the pin. His pin had the Austrian Air logo.

To get to the Air Canada employees, I had to go back to the welcome station, announce myself again, sit in the waiting area again – for all of a quarter second – and then go to station 10.

I tell my story yet again to the rep at station 10.

“Of course we can send you home, Mr. Salustri. …let’s see, that will be three thousand dollars.”

“Ey?” I asked.

“Well, sir, yours is a non-refundable ticket. And the cancellation policy doesn’t apply here because you are choosing to return home.”

Back to the Austrian Air guy, by way of the welcome station and the waiting area. I tell him that I’d rather catch half the conference than miss the whole thing for an extra $3,000.

“You know,” he says, “I may have found something for you.” It seemed that I could get to Dubrovnik in about six hours (note: it’s normally about a one hour flight) by way of Zagreb. But the flight was leaving Vienna at 10:00 a.m. It was already past 8:30.

“Can I make it?” I asked.

“Yes, if you tell the taxi driver to hurry.”

“Let’s do it.” I might still be on time for my presentation.

I got to Vienna airport again within 20 minutes. Plenty of time, it turned out, because my flight did not leave at 10 a.m. but at 2 p.m. I asked them to check again, and to verify my connection to Dubrovnik. Yes, they assured me, everything was in order.

Hurry up and wait.

The “internal flights” terminal at Vienna airport is old and cramped, and smoking was still allowed in that terminal. I swear there were dozens of giant industrial-strength ashtrays – all full to overflowing – at regular five metre intervals everywhere. And there was such a thick haze from the cigarette smoke in the terminal that I spent most of the four hours outside the terminal building. And I used to smoke!

We finally board the flight to Zagreb. The flight lasts ‘way less than an hour.

Zagreb airport turns out to be…small. Two gates, one coffee shop. Four hour layover. Not long enough to go exploring; just long enough to bore me to tears.

Then back on another flight to Dubrovnik. By now it’s getting dark – it’s about 8 p.m.

Another ridiculously short flight. We’re on final approach to Dubrovnik. We’re so low that looking out my window I can see right into the living rooms of houses near the airport. Then I hear feel the engines go to full power; the plane leans back and the ground starts to fall away. We’re going up.

The captain makes an announcement: a rare, strong wind is blowing at right angles to the runway. It is impossible to land. We are diverted to Split, a nearby town, with a sufficiently long runway. We will then be bussed to Dubrovnik.

It took 15 minutes to get to Split. I figured it wouldn’t take more than a couple of hours for the bus to get us to Dubrovnik. It turns out, however, that all the highways had been destroyed during the Independence War that ended in 1995. So our bus had to take the coastal roads, the long and windy coastal roads.

Around 10 p.m., we had to stop for gasoline. The bus service had a contract to use only one gas company, but the one station that we could stop at had a problem. The pumps, all of them, were not working. It took the better part of an hour for someone to come fix them. When he finally showed up, he was wearing slippers, pyjamas, and a dark red robe. He went into the station and fixed the pumps in under a minute. I learnt later that all he did was reboot the PCs that controlled the pumps. Damned Windoze.

I did finally get to Dubrovnik. I set foot in the hotel at 2:30 a.m. local time, 52 and a half hours after I left my home, and about seven hours before I was due to present my paper. But I wouldn’t wish that trip on anyone. Except, possibly, Stephen Harper.

Merry Christmas.

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