Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Day a 747 Came to Pick Me Up

I submitted this story to This American Life. If you're familiar with the show, you'll understand why I believe it to be the perfect venue for such a strange experience. Since I haven't really shared this story with may people since the event (given that it is so long), I thought I'd also put it here.

My Mother booked what was to be a “vacation of a lifetime,” to Fiji in December 2004. She and her Husband, along with my sister and I and our spouses were geared up for a 10 day tropical getaway.

Getting there turned out to be among the most interesting, and strange things that has ever happened to me.

The problem began at our home city airport in Denver. We had a layover at LAX before heading on to our flight to Fiji on Air Pacific. The associate at DIA offered to check our luggage through, so we could head straight to our next gate. She handed each of us one of those standard airline ticket envelopes with tickets that were clearly marked “boarding pass,” for our connecting flight.

I should mention that my Mother and sister were terrified of flying. They each took a Xanex before leaving Denver.

So, right, back to the story. The travel agent that booked our trip did not provide enough time between flights at LAX. And on top of that, our flight out of Denver was delayed. This meant that when we got to LA we had to RACE across the airport, to get from the United terminal to the International terminal, which I swear were three miles apart! There is only one flight out of LAX to Fiji EVERY OTHER DAY.

While my step-father, my Husband, my brother-in-law and I were running to catch our next flight, my Mother and sister were happily strolling behind us, completely unaware and uncaring of the emergency we faced. Xanax, remember? They may as well have been star-gazing or catching butterflies.

Finally making it to the International terminal, we headed straight for security. Right, because we had “boarding passes.” The TSA officials eyed our boarding passes a little suspiciously, but still let us through. We got to the gate as they were boarding the flight. Whew, right? Not so fast.

When we got to the front of the boarding line, we were informed that we did not have boarding passes and would have to GO BACK to the check-in counter, the one before the security check. We argued and argued knowing that this seemed silly, we were already here, and couldn’t they just check us in at this counter? But we were only losing time with arguing. They would not budge.

Those of us who were not all high on Xanex flatout ran back to the check-in counter. There we found one employee who was clearly about to leave. We explained that we needed to get our tickets. She told us that it was “too late.”

This is where the story really takes a turn for the weird.

I pounded on the counter, telling her she had to check us in. Our bags were already being checked through, the flight is still boarding, just CHECK US IN!

At this point we were about 15 minutes from the scheduled departure.

She repeatedly told us “no,” but when she realized that we were not going to go away, she strolled back to a back office and got someone I can only image to be a supervisor involved.

This person strolled back out, very unaware of our near total-panic-state and proceeded to ask us for our passports. We happily obliged. And she sauntered (I’m not making this up—no sense of urgency at all), back to her office.

Fifteen minutes come and go. Thirty. Maybe even forty-five (I can’t quite remember) before she comes back. Obviously, at this point, we’d lost all hope that we’d make it to Fiji that night.

She proceeds to explain that she can get us on the flight, but that there will not be enough breakfast’s on board to feed us, and, is that OK? We all look at each other dumbfounded and agree, that yes, of course we can forgo breakfast.

She needed a breakfast decline confirmation, though, so the solution? She pulled out a blank sheet of copy paper, and had each of us sign it. She didn’t write anything on it, just had us sign it.

We are now probably an hour past the regularly scheduled departure.

Once we signed the blank sheet of copy paper to prove we did not require breakfast, she gave us our passports and the real boarding passes and told us to follow her.

She mentioned that the flight was now at a different gate. So the six of us followed her quickly through security, down a flight of stairs, onto the tarmac, and into a waiting shuttle bus.

The shuttle bus driver proceeded across several runways, and then parked the bus in a row of other buses, apologized, and got out. We peered through the bus windows to see that the gentleman was, well, taking a leak. Yes, he took a bathroom break in the middle of the tarmac, at LAX, in plain view of his passengers. I guess our destination was just too far to wait.

We get to our destination (which I’d guess took another 5 minutes—he must really have had to go). The shuttle bus driver indicates that “this is the place,” but doesn’t give much detail. There was no plane here. Just an isolated building, with a door. Inside the door was a ramp, leading up to a room. A room with a door, and a breezeway. No Plane, just a room with a door. And we were the only six people in this room with a door.

Forty-five minutes we waited in our room with a door. No one came to tell us what was happening. We started contemplating how we might escape our room with a door without getting run over by airplanes attempting a landing or a takeoff, or perhaps a deranged shuttle bus driver.

Finally, an Air Pacific employee shows up at our room with a door. She said no words, just waited with us.

And then, the most incredible thing of all happened. Two hours after its scheduled departure, a Boeing 747 bound for Fiji pulled up to our room with a door. It was there to pick us up. And, it was full of hundreds of passengers. Passengers who’d been sitting on that plane for the last two hours. And, our seats were at the back of the plane.

After pushing and shoving each other into the breezeway (no one wanted to go first, to face to angry mob of passengers). We all marched past rows and rows of wary passengers, and took our seats.

As it turns out, the plane was having some sort of mechanical issue. We sat on the tarmac for another two hours before finally departing for Fiji. Though the passengers didn’t soon forget us, and in fact, some even recognized us on the flight home and congratulated us for making it on time.

We made it to Fiji, our bags even made it with us, and the rest is, well, history.

We also enjoyed a lovely airline breakfast on the way. We’re not ones to turn down food when it’s presented to us, after all.

Note: I have a picture or two, I'll post later tonight when I get home.