My suitcase and box of documents arrived in Jackson at the same time I did. Fifteen minutes after I deplaned, I was wearing a suit and tie, along with deodorant and clean underwear. I was feeling good. Picked up my rental car, made it to the deposition, no problem.
Fast forward 8 hours from my arrival in Jackson. I’m back at the airport, all checked in for my 5:05pm American flight to Dallas, where I am to have a two hour layover, which means time for a reasonable dinner and a beer. I even have a little time to charge my computer and phone, because my plane is running about half an hour late.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Right. So at 5:30, they announce the plane is cancelled. I watch the other passengers line up to yell at the gate agent, decide that looks pointless and unamusing, and call our corporate travel company. The overworked rep puts me on hold for long enough that I decide to pack up and get in line with everybody else, just in case.
As I’m standing in the line, I notice that the Southwest gate across the hall is showing a flight to Chicago (Midway instead of O’Hare) in 10 minutes. Too bad, I think. No way I can get my bags back in 10 minutes. Until that moment, I didn’t know that anyone had direct flights between Chicago and Jackson. I don’t like to fly Southwest because of Junior’s peanut allergy — I feel like I need to be decontaminated before I walk in the house from the peanuts on the seats — but I’ll make an exception when necessary.
Hey, I thought, if the plane’s leaving in 10 minutes, why isn’t anyone boarding, or even lined up to go? I craned my neck to look out the window. No plane. Hmmmm.
Still on hold with the travel agent, I left the line — which was going nowhere — and sidled up to the Southwest gate agent. “That line looks bad,” she said.
“Tell me about it. I’m trying to get home to Chicago tonight. I don’t see them” I jerked my head in the direction of the American Airlines gate agents, now hiding under the counter to avoid the angry would-be travelers “making it happen.”
Her eyes grew big as saucers. “Why, I have a flight to Chicago. Non-stop.”
“Sounds tempting,” I said, trying to keep my cool. “But I’ve gotta get my bags back from those guys, and you’re supposed to take off in 10 minutes.”
She casually checked her watch, as if to say, oh, is that what the schedule says today? “Well, we’re supposed to, I guess. But that’s not gonna happen. They’re telling me wheels up at 6:15, but I don’t think the plane is even going to land here until 6:30. Call it 6:20 to be safe.”
I thought that over, running time and motion studies in my head. “So your flight won’t take off until 6:45.”
“At the earliest.” She leaned over the counter, and lowered her voice. “And we have lots of open seats.”
I looked back at the line at what I already thought of as my “old” gate. She shook her head. “Uh-unh. Not there.”
I caught on fast. “The ticket counter,” I said, grabbing my briefcase.
“You got it. I’ll see you on the flight,” she called, but I was already moving down the corridor and back out past security.
I had forgotten about the phone glued to my ear until the agent’s voice broke in “Mr. Unfocused? They want to put you on the 6am flight tomorrow. You’ll change planes in Dallas and be in Chicago at 11:25 tomorrow morning.”
I stepped into the line in front of the American Airlines ticket counter. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” I said. “I think I can do better,” and hung up.
When I stepped up to the counter, the ticket agent called the luggage ramp right away. “I need two bags pulled for Mr. Unfocused,” he said. He hung up. “Ten minutes.”
I checked my watch: 5:50. Plenty of time. “Now, about my refund…”
Seven minutes later, I was down by the baggage claim as my suitcase and box slid through the hatch and into my waiting arms. Back upstairs, I walked confidently to the Southwest counter.
The Southwestian was friendly and chatty. I told him I wanted the delayed flight to Midway, he sold me a ticket, sign here sir, sign there sir, put your bags on the scale sir. Everything was going smoothly until he put the pink “TRANSFER” tags on the bags.
I asked him what was with the TRANSFER tags. He answered that they were because the bags needed to be transferred from one plane to another in Houston.
Now, I may not be as familiar with Southwest as I was in 1999 when I earned four free tickets in six months, but I think they still use the phrase “non-stop” the way the rest of us do. And the lady at the gate had clearly said “non-stop.”
Changing planes in Houston before finishing in Chicago is not non-stop. It is, in fact, the very definition of “stop.”
I cross-examined the Southwestian, but he denied that there was a non-stop flight to Chicago. I checked the flight number on the ticket he was about to issue me against the departure board: sure enough, it was the flight to Houston, not the flight to Midway. I gave him the flight number I wanted. He was confused for a moment, then checked the computer.
“That explains it. The flight you want is closed.”
I’ve played this game before. Maybe “this flight is closed” works with most of the people who come through the little airport in Jackson, buddy, but I hang at O’Hare. Telling me the flight is closed is just the opening move.
The first counter-measure is to feign ignorance. “Closed? Whaddaya mean? The lady at the gate said there were plenty of seats. She offered to sell me a ticket right there, but I thought I’d better get the luggage dealt with.” All true, but all irrelevant. If the computer says it’s closed, nobody can sell you a ticket.
Which is what he said. “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.”
I put down my briefcase, body language to show him I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. “Now, really, we both know that’s kind of silly, right?”
He waved at the computer screen as if it were an excuse. “The computer says it’s closed.”
“I know, I know,” I said soothingly. “But c’mon. You’ve got a plane that hasn’t even landed yet, with empty seats going back out tonight. I want to pay for one of those seats. Maybe I could go standby?”
He shook his head. “I’m locked out completely.”
“But the gate agent could issue me a standby ticket, right? If I had a ticket on another flight?” I pointed at ticket through Houston, still in his hand. “Like that ticket, for instance.”
“So you’re going to take this ticket but go standby on the direct flight?”
“Right. It’ll get me in two hours earlier.”
“But your luggage will get there at the original time. I can’t get your bags onto the direct flight.”
“Because it’s closed.”
“Because it’s closed,” he agreed.
So I ripped off the tape with the Houston flight number that he’d slapped on the suitcase and box, and pulled off the TRANSFER stickers. “Guess I’m going to have to gate check.”
He tried to tell me I would have trouble with the TSA running the security checkpoint, but the fight had gone out of him. If we hadn’t just done the whole song and dance about the ticket, he’d have griefed me for another 10 minutes. I got through security just fine, and marched back to the Southwest gate. I had a boarding pass in my hand and gate check tags for the bags in 5 minutes, a burger and a Sam Adams at the nearby sports bar in 10.
Twenty minutes after that, I boarded the plane, with my briefcase, suitcase, and box — the flight attendants didn’t care about enforcing the baggage limits because the flight was so empty. I even had an entire row of three seats to myself.
I thought I’d lost it for a little while there, the ability to negotiate post-9/11 travel as painlessly as possible. In fact, I’d gotten complacent and forgotten the first two rules of 21st Century business travel:
Rule 1: Never check a bag.
Rule 2: Don’t forget Rule 1.