Friday, April 2, 2010

A Flying Adventure But Still On Time

I’m a business traveler, following roads all over the place, flying when necessary, trying to get from point A to point B, trying to get to meetings at the appointed time. Years ago, my Father, the ultimate salesman, offered this advice: Get to where you’re going the night before and make sure you fill your gas tank before you go to bed. Anyone who is in sales understands those instructions.

Earlier this week, I had an appointment in Syracuse NY. Just a one-day meeting; just a few hours. A week or so earlier, I checked airline schedules and ticket prices, made reservations and suggested to my customer that we get started around 11:30 a.m. I figured with an expected 11:15 arrival and just a 10 minute drive to the site, I would be there in plenty of time, especially leaving the Raleigh-Durham Airport on a 7:15 a.m. US Airways flight. Fly to Philadelphia, change planes, depart the City of Brotherly Love at 9:50, and arrive in Syracuse on time.

Even my vast travel experience didn’t deter my idea of getting there when I should. I’ve come to rely on the airlines, taking off on time, arriving early. I guess flying Southwest Airlines does that for me. It should. Despite the weird policies for claiming seats and boarding, that’s my airline of choice. At one point, when Raleigh was its hub, it was American Airlines. Then AA pulled out for greener pastures in Miami, and AA Jr.—Midway Airlines—cranked up in the world’s largest Kentucky Fried Chicken look-alike facility, Terminal C at RDU. But my desire to fly Midway vanished after four straight consecutive flights when my golf clubs didn’t make the trip.

Imagine this: pull up to the curb; check one bag and a golf bag. Direct flights to Boston, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale. Each time, tip the Sky Cap while stressing the importance of seeing my golf clubs on the baggage claim carousal at each of those destinations. Boston: Sorry, next flight. We’ll deliver to your hotel. Newport, Rhode Island! Are you kidding? We’ll have them there by the end of the day. Orlando: Missed the flight for some reason. Your game’s this afternoon. Not sure we can get them here on time. Tampa and Fort Lauderdale: Same stories. I switched to Delta. Then travel patterns changed and, when Southwest hit Raleigh, I hit Southwest.

Except to fly to Syracuse, the options are limited. Southwest to Albany and then drive a couple of hours. No. Continental, Delta, Jet Blue, American. All possibilities, but for schedule and price, US Airways and its ample supply of feeder airlines was my choice. But the trip didn’t start out with much hope. It was rainy Tuesday throughout the Northeast. I was concerned about possible delays, but that was not the immediate cause for uneasiness. As I found a parking spot on level 3 of the huge deck at RDU, my telephone rang. It was an 800-number, and I almost didn’t answer.

“This is US Airways calling to inform you that your connecting flight from Philadelphia to Syracuse has been delayed for 30 minutes.” That would mean an 11:45 a.m. arrival, right when I needed to be talking to my customer. So, I stopped at the US Airways counter, showed my pre-printed boarding passes and my identification and mentioned the delay. She casually but systematically typed away and soon suggested I get on the 7:00 a.m. flight to LaGuardia, connect to a flight that would put me into Syracuse at 11:00 a.m., 15 minutes early. Done deal! And with plenty of time to get to the new gate upstairs.

Going through security wasn’t a problem. Boarding the plane was a breeze. It was a small commuter aircraft with which I have no problems whatsoever. We pulled from the gate and taxied towards the runway and then stopped short. The pilot said, “I’ve just been informed of a 45 minute ground delay at LaGuardia so we’re going to cut the engines and wait right here. I’ll tell you more as they tell me more.” I studied the schedule and tried to figure what that would mean to my schedule.

Nearly 45 minutes later, the engines started to hum and the pilot said we were on our way north. Take off was smooth, but not very far off the end of the runway, we hit a bunch of potholes and kept hitting them all the way to LGA, in a driving rain with high winds. Still it was okay with me. I’ve been there, done that plenty of times and I do not have a weak stomach. I was concerned about making my connection at 9:29 a.m., but it was not a problem. In the rain, flying low over Brooklyn and Queens, we landed safely in New York and taxied to US Airways commuter airline terminal. In a driving rain.

And we had to get off the airplane. With a one-night, carry-on piece of luggage and my brief case, I made a run for it, down the steep and narrow stairs of one plane and up steep and narrow stairs into the terminal. I was not soaked but I was wet. I ran from plane to building, up and down, so I was a little winded. I search quickly for my gate and found it about 20 feet away. My flight was being called. I wanted to stop for a moment, gather myself, make a rest stop and the board, but the gate agent didn’t want any of that for me. “We’ve got to get the plane loaded.” I checked my watch. Departure at 9:29. It was about 9:05. I went along with her orders.

The plane was loaded; cell phones shut off; seats brought forward; tray tables stowed; steps pulled in; door secured. I was wetter than when I was in the terminal because to get on this plane, I had to walk down steps from the terminal, through a sizeable water puddle and driving rain for about 30 feet and then wait for a couple of singing in the rain slow-pokes as they boarded. I did notice two things as I waited and inched forward: this commuter airlines was named “Piedmont” and the plane was the Winnebago-with-wings-over-the-top type (actually a Dash-8), same type (actually a Fairchild Hiller) and same airline name I had flown with the NC State men’s basketball team during the 1973-74 season for a game at Purdue. That’s when Norm Sloan wanted to toss me from the plane. That’s when I learned how to drink bourbon straight. We came home in a driving rain. It was a flight I have never forgotten.

But I didn’t consider any problems with the connection to Syracuse. What I recall, though, is that both planes are turboprops. You know, not jet engines. Propellers. I still had no worries, but we sat there for a few minutes, and then a few more minutes and then more. It was 60 minutes later when we started towards the runway. And the one-man flight attendant was sleeping. He didn’t wake when we took off. But, all I thought about was that rest stop I had wanted and, with the exception of two Nutra-Grain bars, my foodless stomach for the day. But, the pilot made excellent time, flying below the radar, I think, and arriving at the gate at 11:17 a.m., just two minutes after my original booking through Philadelphia would have put me into Syracuse.
I made it to the appointment in plenty of time and all was well. Successful meeting. I remember all the business details, more so than my flying experience this time, but for some reason, I can remember trip details just like I remember every shot of every round of golf I’ve ever played. It’s weird. A day later, I made it home with two easy flights, Syracuse to Washington-Reagan and a connection to Raleigh.

Getting the telephone call from US Airways to start my Tuesday turned out to be a good thing. I checked on the original itinerary Tuesday evening. That 30 minute delay was for maintenance issues. It lasted longer. That connection from Philadelphia arrived at its gate in Syracuse at 12:48 p.m., one hour and 33 minutes over due.
NOTE: Easter Monday is a traditional day off here, coming from a -used-to-be NC State baseball tradition. The Wolfpack annually hosted the baseball team from Wake Forest College, when the Deacons were in Wake Forest NC. It was such a huge game for Wake County, businesses and State Government offices closed for the day. My point: Even though the Wolfpack is not playing anywhere Monday, I’ll be taking the day off on Easter Monday. No posting here. See you Tuesday.

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