Travel is slowly coming back and I’m looking forward to it. I still can’t go any of the places I want to go, but things are moving in that direction and I’m hoping that by the time the summer ends, I’ll be able to visit the people and places I care about. But some travel sucks. And I have more than one story from hell, this one when I was much younger.
That’s one hell of an itinerary, but it was kind of necessary. My brother was going to school in Brussels at the time. I was going to visit family in Tel-Aviv and wanted to stop to see him on the way back. Because airlines tend to provide the best pricing for round trips, the best possible itinerary involved going through Brussels in both directions. There were no non-stops from LAX, so I had to go through New York/JFK. It was worth the trouble to save the amount of money I would be saving. Or so I thought.
The problem with those kind of long itineraries with multiple flights is that the odds of something going wrong increase dramatically, and I didn’t have to wait long for that to happen. We boarded on time in LA, then sat, and sat, and were de-boarded to the waiting area, and sat, and eventually were told the flight had to be cancelled and we would be re-booked.
The option I was offered was basically, “we will fly you to Frankfurt, where you will sit for several hours and then connect to a flight to Tel-Aviv, arriving at roughly the time you were originally supposed to.” It would involve 10 hours in a middle seat because I was booking this only an hour or two ahead of departure. A part of me was thinking, “maybe I should just tell them I’ll come back tomorrow.” I should have listened to myself.
Well, maybe… LAX-FRA-TLV
The flight was uneventful, at least by the standard of being in a center seat in the center section of coach flying from the west coast to Europe. There was a German family with two small children in front of me, and the children thought it was fun to periodically get up on the seats, face back at me and shriek. Things fell into a long stalemate during which the children would periodically scream at me, and I’d kick the backs of both parents’ seats. If I can’t sleep, they can’t sleep. That’s detente.
I arrived exhausted.
Then I spent an hour getting from the far end of the arriving terminal to the far end of the terminal where the TLV flights departed. At that point in time, all TLV-bound flights had their checked luggage inspected and if you were connecting, you had to go to a baggage inspection location near the gate. To get to the gate I first went through special security which included a vigorous inspection of my camera and computer equipment using chemical sniffers, then walked about another mile, and finally came to the luggage inspection facility near the secure gate.
My bag wasn’t there.
Not only that, but I was advised that there was no room on the flight, whoever had given me the ticket at LAX was obviously in error (they declined to say “full of shit,” but that’s the truth), and that I should go back to the main terminal and talk to Delta customer service about my options both for finding my bag and getting to my destination.
Stuck in FRA
FRA sucks. No matter how many times they upgrade, reconfigure, update, redecorate and change it, FRA sucks and always will suck. Don’t go there. Ever. For any reason.
But I was stuck there.
The two women at Delta customer service were nice. Clueless but nice. They declared that my bag must be in FRA somewhere because the computer said it had been put on my flight. They kicked off a search of all the baggage storage areas, the hold of the plane I had arrived on and… I don’t know… probably the parts of the airport where baggage routinely falls off carts. All very polite and teutonically efficient, but as I said pretty clueless. I was certain my bag was nowhere near FRA.
They told me two other things: the only other flight to TLV that day was leaving in a few minutes and was also full, and they couldn’t get me a hotel room because there was a big convention in town so they were all full. For my trouble they gave me a voucher for a late lunch/beer and got me out of their hair for an hour or so.
I returned and they still had not found my bag, but had come up with a scheme to get me to TLV. I would fly to Amsterdam on a Lufthansa shuttle, where I would connect to an overnight KLM flight. The shuttle flight to Amsterdam was showing as fully booked, but I was assured they never check in full.
They were getting close to the end of their shift, as the last flight had already left, and had not found my bag. I was sitting at a desk in the work area behind their station and I finally asked them, “does this phone connect to everyplace Delta has an office?” They assured me it did, and I asked for a directory. It was in German and didn’t seem to include anyplace outside of Europe. I asked if I could get an outside line. They said I could, just dial 9…
9. Wait for dial tone. 00-1-718-555-1212
“NY Telephone information, how may I help you?
I felt better already.
“I need the number for Delta Airlines at JFK.”
“Oh, we have a lot of numbers, there’s customer service, baggage service…”
“That’s it, I need baggage.”
“For an additional 50 cents I can connect you directly, are you…”
“Sure, we’re not on my dime, put me through.”
The phone rang a few times, and a tired, probably African-American voice, but absolutely a fucking New York City voice answered.
My Savior #1
“Delta baggage,” he mumbled.
“Hey man,” I said in my native New York tongue, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I’m calling from Frankfurt…”
“What the FUCK are you doing there?”
It was a pretty good question.
Somehow, I knew I was saved. After 18 hours of dealing with airline bullshit, I had a person I could talk to.
I explained the situation, he responded:
“Yeah, those fucking assholes in LA never took any of the bags off that fucking plane. It got here six hours late and I’ve got 200 bags and I’ve got no idea what the fuck to do with any of them, which one’s yours?”
I’m certain that is not how Delta Airlines trained him to talk to customers.
I told him my name and described the bag, he told me to hang on, and was away for two minutes.
“Yeah, I got it. What the fuck do you want me to do with it?”
Like I said, I’m pretty sure Delta did not approve of his communication style.
I told him where I was going, what hotel I was staying at, etc. He said he’d get it on the next nonstop flight, leaving in a few hours.
“Pretty sure it’ll be there before me,” I told my new friend. “I have no idea how I’m going to get out of this place.”
“Good luck,” he said.
“I’m gonna need it.”
“Yeah. You will.”
FRA-AMS with sandwiches
Before leaving for the day, the two Delta people gave me the vouchers for my flights, reassured me that the FRA-AMS flight would probably have space and finally told me that if I had to, I could take the last flight out, but I’d miss my connection to TLV.
“At least in Amsterdam you will be able to get a hotel room” one of them stated.
That wasn’t very reassuring.
The flight was not full, but it was delayed. Lufthansa had to switch us to a different plane, which meant we had to be bused out to the other end of the airport where the aging 737 awaited us. Then we had to wait another 25 minutes because they hadn’t loaded the little cucumber sandwiches or whatever it is they serve to “business class” customers on a 45 minute flight that they absolutely can’t depart without.
We departed late, but at least the people in whatever qualifies as “business class” in an old 737 got their precious sandwiches. (It was a section of the plane towards the front, identical in all ways to the rest of the airplane but they didn’t use the center seats and they served little sandwiches.) On arrival we were instructed to wait for the “business class” to get off first. At that point I didn’t care anymore and barged out ahead of everybody.
My Savior #2
With the delay, I had only 25 minutes to connect, but at least the people in business class weren’t deprived of their late evening sandwiches. The shuttle flights from FRA arrived at one end of the Schiphol complex, and the TLV flights left from the last gate at the far end of the furthest concourse. If you know the place, you know those aren’t good odds. I ran.
I pulled up to the gate sweaty and generally a mess. The woman at the gate didn’t flinch, took one look at me, and said “You must be Mr. Gat. We saw your connection was late and have been waiting for you.”
I gave my voucher to the woman I now think of as Savior #2. She handed me a boarding pass. I headed to the jetway, past the security people who gave my carryon a quick extra look, and let me go.
They shut the door behind me. I was the last one on. The flight attendant pointed to the far aisle.
“You will be in 1C tonight, sir”
My Savior left me the last seat on the plane. In first class.
There isn’t much to say about the flight except that they gave me a glass of wine as soon as I sat down, and I was asleep within a minute or two of being in the air. They didn’t wake me until it was time to put my seat back up for landing.
We arrived at some god-awful early morning hour and I went straight to the hotel. I rinsed my t-shirt, socks and underwear in the sink and hung them to dry, then crashed for several hours. I forced myself to get up, enjoyed the afternoon, had some dinner, and tried to get onto something approximating a normal schedule.
I crashed early, slept for 12 hours, and woke up the next morning when they called up to let me know that my bag had been delivered.
I will never again book a connection if I don’t have to. The savings aren’t worth it. As it was, my brother and I never even stayed in Brussels. We hopped on the train to London and I re-arranged my itinerary on the fly to return directly to LA from there.
I will also never travel without spare socks, underwear, t-shirt and toothbrush in my carry-on bag, in addition to the requisite towel.
And finally, given the choice between an army of well-intentioned customer service reps or a single disgruntled NYC baggage handler, I know which one I’d rather depend on.
[Extra clarification: This is a while ago. International cellphones weren’t quite a thing yet. You could get them but they were ridiculously expensive. Typically, you’d rent a phone when you got where you were going. I had one waiting for me to pick up at the airport in TLV, but nothing that worked in FRA.]