First Class

This is the tale of our return trip from Austin. We’re already in the midst of our Christmas trip to visit Jenny’s mom. While our drive down was relatively painless, there’s a possibility of snow in the forecast for our return trip, and I only want to have one adventure in the writing queue at a time.

The weather was beautiful in Texas, and we got to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. It’s amazing how easy it is to get through the lines without a toddler in tow. Microsoft and Southwest had a display where we could get our pictures taken with Santa. They were using it to show off the impressive automated photo editing in Windows 7–it was pretty cool.

Just before boarding we got the first indication that not everything would be entirely smooth. Due to delays in Atlanta, we wouldn’t be able to take off on time. They had us get on the plane and push back from the gate so that we could possibly take advantage of an earlier than expected release. It didn’t happen. The pilot communicated with us frequently, and the attendants kept us as comfortable as possible, but we almost exhausted the three hour tarmac waiting window. Before all hope was gone, the pilot came back on the intercom with the news that we were next in line for takeoff.

With the three hour delay we knew we would miss our connection in Atlanta. I connected to the in-flight internet, which was free thanks to a holiday promotion, and tried to rebook us. It didn’t work–I think that they closed off the system because Atlanta was so congested that their online systems couldn’t handle everything. I was able to find that there were two flights scheduled for later that evening, but I had no idea whether we’d be able to get on one of them.

As soon as we touched down, I got on the phone with customer service and learned that they couldn’t guarantee us seats before Monday afternoon. When I called my mother, she said it would be fine–she sounded excited to spend another day with Elena and have an excuse to take of work. Our hopes weren’t high, but we decided to at least make an effort to get a flight home that evening.

The later flight was leaving from the gate next to our arrival, but we decided to make the trip to the far end of the next terminal and try for the earlier flight. We saw the gate while we were still far away, because it was the one with a crowd of people around the desk. The plane was already boarding, so Jenny took up a post watching the video status board, where she saw that we were about thirtieth on the standby list, and only moving up slowly. I lingered in the vicinity of the desk for a little while, until I realized that there were many people more frustrated than me, including one woman who had been assured she had a seat, but now couldn’t get on.

At this point the craziness exploded. The desk agent must have reasoned that anyone who had a ticket but wasn’t already checked in wouldn’t be making it, and made the apparently unilateral decision to fill the rest of the plane with people from the crowd in front of her. She only had a small supporting cast: one gate agent scanning boarding passes, and an airline worker in an orange vest who she pressed into service on the other computer terminal.

I can’t be entirely sure about what was going on behind the desk, but I’ve tried to piece things together. The desk agent and orange vest guy were looking for unclaimed seats. Whenever they found one, they reassigned it to someone else and called out that person’s name. That person headed straight to the scanner, expecting to have their ticket scanned. But the gate agent wasn’t processing people fast enough, so there was a line. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it created a feedback loop: because the people in line hadn’t checked in, the just-assigned seat showed up as unclaimed, and whichever person hadn’t just assigned it rebooked it for someone else! So by the time, mere moments later, that the person just called got to the front of the line, their boarding pass wouldn’t scan. It didn’t take too long for this to turn into even greater chaos.

Even though our names hadn’t risen any higher on the displayed standby list, all of a sudden I heard the desk agent calling a mangled version of our last name–Jenny said she wouldn’t have even recognized it, but it was a variant I heard often enough as a child. I called back to her, making sure that she was actually calling us to board, and received the go-ahead. Like others before us, when we got to the front of the line, our boarding passes wouldn’t scan.

We stood our ground–not yelling or complaining, just pointing out that we had just barely been called–until the desk agent told orange-vest to get us on the plane. Just a moment later, he came over to scan our boarding passes personally. As he did, he put a finger to his lips as if to tell us to keep quiet. We didn’t realize why until we saw that we had been assigned first class seats. Proceeding down the jetway, we sidestepped the woman loudly complaining to a flight attendant that she and her husband should have been given first class seats because of his frequent flyer status, and quietly settled into the last two seats in the cabin.

The flight was a dream–our first time in first class. We only had a light lunch, and had forgone dinner to get right to the plane. We asked if the flight had any snack boxes for purchase; that was the most substantial thing that we hoped for, but our flight attendant didn’t seem to know what we were talking about. Just a moment later, the first class snack service came through: fruit, chips, and candy, all free of charge. We were told to take as much as we wanted, because they had plenty.

We stretched out in our big first-class seats and watched an episode of The Office that was on the overhead television. The flight seemed exceptionally smooth; maybe it just feels better in the front of the plane? As we started to descend, the flight attendant reappeared with a snack box in hand. We scarfed it down, both because we were hungry and didn’t have much time before we had to stow everything under the seats in front of us.

After landing we made good time getting our car and luggage, in that order, which is a sad statement about luggage retrieval, even more so because the car was parked in the farthest lot. We drove the almost-deserted highway to my parents’ house for a midnight reunion with Elena. She didn’t sleep in the car on the way home, but didn’t cry either, and went right to bed when we got her back home. The whole day was like a dream. Parts of it were scary, sometimes it didn’t make much sense, but in the end everything turned out better than expected.

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