Well Seated

It was my own fault and I was seething. I had done this to myself, even though I knew better. Now I was going to pay the price. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that could make me feel better. And I knew it.

The object of my scorn was me, myself and I. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get more angry with myself than I ever do with anyone else.  Even though I knew better, the stars had aligned in such a way that I had booked an outbound flight for late in the afternoon—from Dulles Airport no less. As someone who flies to and from all four Washington airports (BWI, DCA, IAD and RIC) with regularity, I know that, above all, you stay away from Dulles on Friday nights, Sunday evenings and Monday mornings.

Yet here I was in the middle of a torrential rain storm, in a security line that they had closed down for 15 minutes to let some bigwig I didn’t recognize through. Mercifully, I was able to take the shuttle to the D Gates rather than go through the new underground train that leaves you off a mile from any sign of civilization. Some bright project accountant must have said “hey, we don’t have money for two train stops, so let’s just put one smack dab in the middle of where they should be and let people schlepp their stuff for an extra 10 minutes,” they cackled. “What a great diversion it will be from our normal, boring lives to watch from behind the ‘under construction’ barricades as people buckle under the weight of their carry-on bags.” So that’s just what they did.  Anyway, I digress.

Now when I booked my flight a few weeks ago I was assigned a seat, number 23A—a nice window seat in Economy Plus on United. For those of you who don’t know, Economy Plus offers two perks: first, you get the whole can of soda and, second, you have enough leg room so that you probably won’t get deep vein thrombosis on flights 5 hours or less.

Somehow, though, between when I booked my ticket and when I printed it out the boarding pass, my nice little 23A had been replaced with the ominous phrase “See Agent.”  For those of you who don’t fly often, “See Agent” is rarely a good thing. “See Agent” on a boarding pass without a seat number is usually gate agent-speak for “you aren’t goin’ anywhere; I just don’t want to tell you yet. I want you to enjoy the illusion of traveling without really doing so. And, with any luck I will be off-duty and long gone when someone else finally has to break it to you.”

So what did I do, even though I knew better? I went up and saw the agent. Now here I will tell you that I fly a lot. I actually have more than one million flight miles with United (and, that’s a story in itself, some other time). I mention this because when the agents know you fly that much, they know that you are fluent in gatespeak. Sometimes they don’t even try it on you, like in this case.

“This means I don’t have a seat for you yet,” said the very nice gate agent with a great voice and a Sideshow Bob-ish hairdo. “Just sit down and I will call you once I have a seat for you.” Smile.

So down I sat. I sat through early boarding, Zone 1, Zone 2, the kid-and-wheelchair zone, I sat through six whole zones until it was just me, the gate agent and a nice but totally bewildered visitor from Chile.

“Uh, excuse me, but I couldn’t help notice that the whole plane is pretty much loaded and I know you told me you would get to me but, given the fact that they are closing the door and all, I just thought I would check again because, see here, it says “SEE AGENT.”

You must never be rude to gate agents. You must remain totally subservient to them because it’s the right thing to do. Besides, if you don’t they will get you. They are so good at this you will not even know you have been gotten until it’s too late. I learned this years ago when I had the audacity to calmly and politely question the wisdom of delaying a planeload of 300 people (most with connections) for more than 90 minutes waiting for misplaced coffee cups. “Given the choice between coffee and making their connections,” I observed sweetly, “I dare say most of us would have opted to forego the coffee and make our original connection.” That earned me a seat in a row with an exit row in front and another in back of me. Not only did it lack legroom, it lacked even knee room on the 6-hour flight. So I treat the agent like the great and all powerful Oz.

“$%^&)*,” said Sideshow Bobette under her breath to the agent next to her. “She doesn’t have a seat and she is supposed to.” This is how I got the only open seat in the plane in the middle seat of the middle section on a 767 in the United Economy Minus section. But at least I was on. So what if I didn’t have enough room to open my laptop— heck, I was going to write this blog on that flight—no big deal, at least I’d made it.  And when we sat at the gate for 57 minutes because, as the pilot put it, they didn’t have enough manpower to load the bags in the rain, I was okay with that. Even the additional hour on the tarmac was no sweat because I couldn’t feel my legs anymore anyway.

Truly, though, deep down I was angry for putting myself through this and I was angry at the airlines for continuing to pretend we are important to them while trying to see how much we will take before we revolt.

But that feeling changed in an instant.

Just as we started to turn to take off, I was able to see across the aisle clearly and out the window. There, not more than what seemed like a few hundred feet away, was the Space Shuttle Discovery, parked bareback atop a 747, in all her unique glory. I had seen the Enterprise circle the Beltway many years ago and that was exciting. But this was even moreso because you could see the knicks and dings and the wear and tear that 147 million miles of space travel bring. She was magnificent.

In an instant, my sophomoric self rantings about my seat and the day faded away. “We did this,” I thought. “The U.S. did this. We made it and there’s nothing like it anywhere else.” Before I could stifle it, a lump of patriotic pride made its way to my throat.

So you got this blog instead of an analysis of changes at the primary manufacturers, but  I’ll make up for it next week. And the United flight attendant who mysteriously ended up in 23A may have had a great seat, but she didn’t have a great view. See I learned a great lesson today: Sometimes, the middle seat is the best seat on Earth.

18 Responses to “Well Seated”

  1. Lyle Hill says:

    Well done Deb. And I will be looking forward to next week’s blog as well. Lyle Hill

  2. Jim Gulnick says:

    Deb, You effortlessly condensed 30+ years of travel experience for me in your story of one trip. Funny stuff! Jim Gulnick

  3. Chuck K says:

    The only uniting United is good at is geting their ticked off customers to fly other airlines… I will not go through Dulles or United again as long as I live. Regardless how many miles you or I have on their books.

    After a 6 hour flight from Dubai, a four hour layover in Franfort ( which should have been 2 1/2), our 9 hour flight to Dulles was late. Having only 30 minutes to clear Customs and make the connection to my connection to Dallas is when the horror begun.

    I walked up to my departing flight just as it was pulling away from the gate. So I went to customer service, and was given a Business Class Seat to Chicago (I was traveling on an Economy ticket, so I thought I was ahead of the game), then make a conn to Dallas. Only to discover that this new flight was going to leave in 20 minutes. From another terminal. At Dulles, that’s virtually impossible.

    As luck would have it, walked up to that gate just as they closed to the door to the jetway. So I’ve been up for 28 hours by this point, am a little “ripe” at the moment, and could not beg mercy from the gate attendant to put me on – she said they knew I was coming from the other terminal and had paged me – like I had heard that on the between-terminal-transfer buss – to get on that flight. So back to the customer service line…

    15 minutes later that same gate attendant comes running down the hall, grabs me from the line, and says if I hurry, she can get me on that plane, it hadn’t pulled away from that gate. which is exactly what I asked for 15 minutes ago, but I’m on, and getting a little closer to home.

    so it comes time to serve the meal in Business Class (on an Economy Ticket, if you’ll recall), and the flight attendant says they can’t give me a meal until the rest of Business Class has finished, first,
    cause they don’t know if they have enough meals (they can’t count, you know that, too, right, even though I’m in a BC seat), and second, EC passengers don’t get meals.

    Patriotic or not, the reason capitalism works is that we take care of customers so that we have jobs tomorrow. Not like this you won’t.

    • Deb Levy says:

      Hi Chuck,

      That’s the things about road warriors like us: just when you think you have it bad, you find someone who had it worst.

  4. Rich Walker says:

    One of the most entertaining blogs I have read. You have a gift for capturing the arrogance of an airline and the futility of a frequent traveler (one of their best customers). I found myself laughing out loud and identifying with certain aspects of your ordeal. The ending was a total and most pleasant surprise. Isn’t it ironic that a flying machine that has orbited the earth in outer space makes it’s final voyage on top of a plane that can’t fly in outer space?

    • Deb Levy says:

      Hi Rich:

      Thanks for writing and for pointing out the irony in it all. Futility is the absolutely right word for it and you got it right about flying — I start every trip wondering what they have in store for me to today–and not in a good way. Again, thanks for writing.

  5. Art Rouse says:

    I have successfully avoided United Airlines for 35 years because of treatment like that received at the Atlanta airport.

    Then, I fired American in 2004 for almost making me miss the Super Bowl in Houston. Luckily able to get the last seat on Continental at the next gate.

  6. Earnest Thompson says:

    You touched a few nerves this time, Deb. Oh, the shuttle salute was nice and the patriotic nerve doesn’t usually get a bipartisan touch these days. But the airline nerve – ouch! You were gentle, to be sure, but you caused shudders around the globe. It’s absolutely awful to fly almost every time. Thanks for making us smile and grimace at the same time.

    • Deb Levy says:

      Thanks Earnest and thanks for mentioning patriotism. It’s amazing how it just crept up on me– as it would hopefully any American regardless of their red or blue state-ism.

  7. Kristi Davis says:

    Loved the blog, and in case you havent tried them, Southwest Airlines allows priority boarding, no blackout date rewards and their flights come in and out as scheduled. I enjoyed reading your adventure, which made me recall my own airline nightmares. Keep bringing your unique humor and perspective!

    • Deb Levy says:

      Thanks Kristi. I do fly SWA every now and then but alas they are out if the dreaded IAD. What was your nightmare if not too tramatic to share?

      • Kristi Davis says:

        While traveling on a 3 day business trip, I arrived at baggage claim (something I rarely do…check a bag) to discover after ALL the bags were claimed, and no one was left in or near the carousel, one lone bag was circling, but it was not mine. I headed in to the baggage assistance area, and handed the agant my claim check. She promised to call me at my hotel with information about the bag. Several hours later, I received the call…another passenger had mistakenly taken my bag but had only just discoverd it. Seems the lady who thought my bag was hers, had just had a death in the family. She had flown in for the funeral. She had checked TWO bags, and one of the ones she claimed was mine.

        Unfortunately, upon arrival, she had been met by family members who had to drive her quite a distance (over 50 miles one way) to the location of the funeral, but she would come back to the airport, retrieve her bag (which had been left with the baggage personnel) and return mine.

        Can you see where this is going? Her family returned to the airport late that night and gave the agent my bag and retrieved her bag, and headed off again. The airline was nice enough to send a driver to my hotel to deliver me (wait for it….) her SECOND bag! First, she claimed two bags..one mine, one hers. When they returned to swap the bags, they returned one of hers and claimed one of hers, with mine still in their possession. Needless to say, I wore the same clothing the two days of business meetings, with the hotel providing toiletries and me making a quick trip to CVS for lipstick and mascara. The day of my departure, the airlines was able to secure my bag (finally) and I flew home with it safely in the overhead compartment, and able to unpack all the clean clothes I had taken on my trip.

        Note: somehow my ID tag had been ripped off the bag in transit/handling. If I am ever forced to check a bag, I always put my business card INSIDE the bag, with my contact information (mobile, e-mail address).

        Not quite as dramatic or entertaining as your story, but thought I would share.

  8. Deb Levy says:

    Oh my gosh, that is always my worst nightmare, going somewhere on biz and arriving sans baggage. Reminds me of the time I was racing around an all-night Walmart (the only thing open in Rapid City, SD at 11 at night) trying to find some decent business clothes for the next morning because United Express liked my bag so much they kept it. I feel for you.

    Have had same happen, someone walks off with my bag. Have learned by experience to keep theirs til I get mine. Have also had taxis take off with my bag in their trunk but a different passenger in their cab. Tracking them down while trying to make the airport was fun.

    As they say, it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. Thanks for sharing Kristi.

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