Monday, August 03, 2009

Back to Miami, Part 1: Airport Cluster Fuck

A retrospective series on how I missed my trip to San Francisco and found my way back to Miami from Atlanta, traveling as a single woman alone, using only public transportation to visit friends and do some backyard tourism in Florida.

delta airport atlantaSomething I never got to see! Photo courtesy of hdport on Flickr.


Everything happens for a reason ...

... even when we don't know why. I was supposed to spend a week in San Francisco and Mendocino, but boy what a cluster fuck that turned out to be.

The plan was to stay with my dear friend Stephanie from Skinny Jeans and meet some twitter friends at Mendocino. San Francisco, the Pacific Coast Highway, friendships, forests, mountains and wine ... ah!

But little did I know, that flying on the Delta buddy program (my brother started working for Delta a year ago, shortly after he moved to Hawaii), would be so challenging, if not impossible.

On Wednesday, July 23, I left Miami on a 6:45 am flight and actually got a first class seat. I arrived in Atlanta-Hartsfield two hours later only to spend the next 14 hours trying to get on at least six different flights to the bay area.

I was always last on the list, competing with about 20 other people for about 5 seats. No matter what the agents told me, I never really knew if I could board the aircraft until scant minutes before departure. Stranded in Atlanta-Hartsfield close to midnight, with my only hope of another hit-or-miss ordeal to start again at 8:25 am, I said FUCK IT and took the free shuttle to the Westin (yes, their beds are truly heavenly) for a good night's sleep.

I scrapped the whole trip to the west coast and here's why:

Another day of schlepping with a carry-on all over the massive Delta terminal to miss so many flights was not exactly appealing. (Oh yeah, I couldn't put my carry on in a locker, because we were under Code Orange, and Department of Homeland Security prohibits use of lockers under those conditions. Fucking terrorists. I'll send you the bill for my sore forearms.)

Another day of having to spend money on an unbudgeted hotel room was like watching the meter run while standing on idle, hoping I would have enough money left to spend at my destination.

Another return trip from San Francisco, having to deal with the same cluster fuck, wasn't exactly making me sing in the rain, either. And yes, you guessed it: everybody in the god damn world wants to come to Miami through Atlanta, so guess which idiot would be waiting on standby to get home, only to get stranded again?

So live and learn: Atlanta is a major hub and San Francisco is a major cross-continental destination. Major European and Asian flights go through Atlanta to get to San Francisco. You'd think Wednesday wouldn't be a busy day, but in fact, it's the busiest. Every freakin' plane on that day was COMPLETELY FULL, including the final 9:10 PM flight.

(Yeah, it was a 9:10 PM flight, literally one minute away from the most feared series of numbers today: 911.)

Everybody says the economy is bad (and it is) and everybody says the airlines are suffering (I guess so). But step foot inside Atlanta's airport and try to get a standby flight -- you'd never fucking know.

I tried alternative routes to San Francisco. For example, flying through Salt Lake City to get to Oakland or San José. Those flights were heavily booked as well. I was up the proverbial creek, with no pilot or propeller.

The thing is (as my brother tells me) airlines are using smaller craft and overbooking, which basically means, that unless you're traveling to some podunk destination, you aint gettin' on the plane on standby. And if you want to be persistent, plan for a hotel budget, unless you want to sleep in the airport. (I don't know about you, but being a single woman, the idea of sleeping overnight in a deserted terminal is about as sexy as staying in a clinker after a wrongful arrest.)

Had I known all this, I would've just bit the bullet, booked a regular flight and paid an extra $100 - $200. I ended spending as much at the Westin, especially after a late-night supper of delicious lobster ravioli (actually reasonably priced, all things considered, and I had leftovers for breakfast).


This picture was taken at 10pm, Terminal B. Multiply by 10 and you'll get a sense of Atlanta airport crowds earlier in the day. Courtesy of richmanwisco on Flickr.

Ok, so I spent a day in Atlanta-Hartsfield. It was frustrating. It was exhausting. Yet, I always try to learn from life -- and what an experience this was.

Atlanta-Hartsfield airport is amazing, not because it's some work of art or anything, but because it is so gargantuan and handles bazillions of passengers a day. It's simply dizzying. This kind of thing just fascinates me -- you know, it's an organism that needs to work and flow somehow, with the potential for disorder and malfunction a constant threat. Just like the human body, an airport like this is a masterpiece of logistics, not to mention design.

If you're phobic about crowds, don't fly through here during peak hours. Thousands of bodies rush about like ants in a shaken pile.

By the time I left the airport, I knew its every nook and crannie. How did I spend my time?

I took a nap by lying down on a bench, using my purse as a pillow and wrapping my carry-on strap around my wrist. (It really wasn't a nap, what with all the noise, but I felt perfectly safe.)

I enjoyed a 20 minute neck and shoulder massage at Spa Express, followed by a complimentary session on this incredible lazy-boy style chair with massaging rollers. Had it not been for this, I would've been seriously miserable.

I met some very friendly people, including a couple of interesting gentlemen who've been Delta customers for years and fly this route every week.

I met a lovely and sweet young mother from Peru, who spoke no English and was also flying on standby. I'm not quite sure why she had a standby ticket, but she had been dealing with this even before I arrived, with her toddler in tow. It was really sad, actually. She had to ask me where and how she could make a phone call, and then what coins to use that would work in the public phone, as she was completely unfamiliar with US currency. (I offered her my cellphone, but she insisted on using a public phone.)

To make matters worse, she didn't understand the standby process at all, and apparently I was the first person that day to explain it to her. I could only imagine her confusion. She put her hand on my shoulder and said: "Eres un angel quien vino del cielo. Te lo agradezco muchisimo." (You're an angel that's come from the sky above. I am so grateful.) The irony of her words doesn't escape me: we were waiting for something from the sky, and my name translates as Maria of the Angels.

Fortunately, she did eventually make it on a flight, which is a good thing. At that point, she was already running out of diapers for her kid. Whew ... and I thought I had it hard.

I also made a new friend, a gorgeous and sassy 61-year old nurse who didn't look a day over 45. This twice-divorced grandmother made wonderful company. She had been here to visit her elderly mother and was also waiting to fly back home on standby to San Francisco, because a regular ticket was just too expensive.

We shared a cocktail and an appetizer together. "I'll have what she's having," she told the waiter without hesitation while she finished a cellphone call, not ever having tried a vodka martini. "It tastes like lemonade," she said as she winked on her first sip. And by the time she reached the bottom of the glass, I knew a lot about her. She told me about her favorite club, where she dances to hip-hop and rock and roll. She also uttered the single woman's universal lament. "I'm tired of the west coast," she complained. "Can't find any good men in San Francisco." I held up my glass to hers. "Honey," I replied, "it's the same everywhere."

Oh, I also met an adorably cute spring chicken, a blond guy with the face of James Dean and the wink of Elvis, who left an Eastern European country (I won't say which) to avoid compulsory military training. He was reading from a hand-written journal, which is such a rare sight these days. Our conversation was cut short by his flight to a very famous musical city just shy of the Midwest. When I went to pay the bartender, I learned he had taken care of my drink, but he was long gone, and I couldn't thank him.


twitterI should've spent my time doing this, but I part of the pleasure of being stranded meeting new people and sharing stories. Photo courtesy of ahockley on Flickr.

Something very important -- besides my relative sanity -- was missing from this picture. Yes, my friends, believe it or not, if you haven't already guessed, I spent the entire time at the airport without any access to the innernets.

The LCD panel on my trusted Nokia N95 is out of order. So basically, I have a bare bones telephony device and a data plan, but I can't see squat on the screen. I've been walking around with pieces of paper in my pockets, because I don't even have a proper phone book that isn't digital. I've been getting text messages from would be booty calls, not knowing who the heck is contacting me, because everyone who is close to me knows not to leave text messages. No live-streaming video on Qik, no live photos uploaded to Pikchur, no Twitter, no Facebook updates -- nada. This would decidely be the anti-social media trip.

Atlanta-Hartsfield doesn't have free wi-fi and I didn't want to pay $7.95 for 24-hour internet access at the airport, because I never knew if I would be pretty much soon be on the next flight.

I realize now that one of the most frustrating parts of this trip was not being able to kvetch or stay connected to my friends on twitter, many of whom are part of my life for real -- not just online. I was going through serious withdrawal. At this point, I hadn't been on Twitter for over 48 hours.

And yes, I had my laptop, and I could've done some writing during this time, but I was so exhausted and overstimulated by my surroundings that I simply had no creative energy. And besides, I my laptop battery barely has any staying power. Seriously, it needs a good dose of viagra or a case of priapism to stay charged for over 4 hours.

Oh and as if that wasn't enough, my camera's card reader decided to get wonky, which will explain the sporadic number of original photography available to this blog series.

So yeah, basically, every piece of technology I usually depend on was just as reliable as my standby status. And this would be an important lesson for me in the days to come. Just living, breathing -- all exercises in patience and all with minimal technology.

So when life gives you mint leaves, you make mojitos.

I came up with a Plan B.

Instead of going to San Francisco, I decided to take my time getting back to Miami from Atlanta through the Florida peninsula, by way of Greyhound bus, Amtrak trains, Tri-Rail, taxi and the kindness of friends. I never expected this, but got to see a side of travel life I would've never known. I reconnected with old friends and made new ones along the way. In the coming days, I'll be filling you in on what happened -- or didn't happen -- on the way back home to Miami.


martinog said...

Hi Maria,

Sorry to hear that your trip to Mendocino was canceled. My family has a place in Mendocino County, it's gorgeous. It sounds like you had quite an experience in the Atlanta airport. After hearing your story, I'll avoid the airport, especially during the summers.

- Martin

Anonymous said...


That sucks. Big time.

Everytime I fly Delta I have problems getting on my plane, even with a ticket. I'm sorry about your trip to San Fran though. Next time you get out there you deserve extra time in the vineyards!

SteveBM said...

Flying standby is tough on a companion pass has always been a tad difficult but nowadays its even harder. When I used to do it, there were tons of flights. Now, not only have the airlines shrank the size of the planes but theyve reduced the amount of flights. I travel a lot for work and my usual flights have almost all changed due to routes being canceled. Sorry to hear you didnt make it to SF. Probably worth the $$ next time... ;)