Why I’m Still Here, or, How I Spent 6 Hours in LAX and Went Nowhere

International travel should be a competitive sport. You watch The Amazing Race and you think to yourself, “What’s the big deal? You buy a ticket, you go. Sure, they’re racing so that adds some drama, but it’s not like it’s really, you know, difficult.”

I beg to differ.

Tonight, my flight plans included traveling from LAX to San Francisco leaving at 9PM, and then flying from San Francisco to Hong Kong leaving at midnight. This would span two airlines, but that wouldn’t be a problem considering that the entire trip was considered “international” and would be all in the same terminal.

It takes approximately 1 hour, 20 minutes to fly from LA to San Fran, all things considered, which gave me a good hour and half after landing to make my connecting flight.

In an ideal world.

I arrived at the airport the requisite 3 hours early (for international). I immediately checked the board and saw that my flight was delayed until 9:30 due to “airplane availability”. This still gave me a good hour to make my connection, so no big deal. I leisurely waited in line and checked in my bag.

This would be, I would come to realize later, my first mistake. Remember this for later: I checked in a bag that was of carry-on size. I did so for the “convenience”.

I made it through security easily and efficiently as usual. I’ve made it a habit to put everything in my pockets, into my carry-on as I wait in the security line. That way, I drop my bag on the belt and breeze through the metal detector without the fumbling that is the hallmark of the non-frequent traveler (or the family with kids).

I make it to my gate to find the terminal nearly deserted. The restaurants aren’t open, there are no gate agents, and there are literally 4 other people in an area that would otherwise hold hundreds. Even the lights are dimmed, and there is the conspicuous absence of any announcements or music from the loudspeakers. In a word, it’s eerie… but I’m in the right place, and all there is to do is wait.

And wait.

And wait. I check the board again, and see that my flight is now delayed until 10:20, still due to “airplane availability”. This was cutting it close, and would leave me with only 20 minutes to make my connection, but I would have to try. 10:20 was still some 2 hours away so I whiled away the time with walking up and down the terminal glaring at children.

Looking at the board again, the time was the same, but the gate had changed. I wandered to another terminal (this one filled with civilization at least), and decided to talk to customer service about the possibility of getting on an earlier flight so that I could make my connection. I waited in line at the desk for over an hour, methodically working on the sudoku puzzles that I thought I would have had to resort to while flying over the Pacific. Something about a flight to Mexico being canceled and everyone needed hotel rooms so everyone else: please wait.

I remain calm.

I finally get to the front, explain my situation, and am told the following, “That is cutting it close… you will have to run.”

Ah.

“I can at least put you in the front of the plane, though.”

Better.

Around 9:50, we finally start boarding, nearly an hour after our scheduled departure time. I get a great seat on a nearly empty plane and wait. A steward talks the ear off of a Japanese woman at the front and explains his life story. He’s been married to a Japanese woman for 20 years, he used to be an English teacher, the passenger has very good English for being in the country for only a few short months, his wife’s family lives in a village near where the Japanese woman is from, and on and on. The captain looking haggard comes out of the cockpit, stands at the front of the plane, and speaks into the intercom:

“Hi everyone, uh, thank you for your patience, it’s been a long day. So here’s the deal. This plane isn’t supposed to be going where we’re going, it was scheduled for somewhere else, but because of the situation this is the equipment we got. Because of that, this plane has too much fuel on it. The problem is, the fuel truck can’t get in to this gate… if you look out to your right you can see it’s pretty tight out there. So, this is what will probably have to happen: You will all have to de-plane, I’ll have to move the plane to another gate have it de-fueled, and then you all get on again. Or we get a new plane. We’re working on it. I know this is frustrating, and I assure you I’m right there with you. This is the last leg of a 4-day marathon and I want nothing more than to get the hell out of here. I apologize for the delay, and I’ll do the best I can.”

>Murmurs in the crowd. I look at the time: 10:30. There’s no way I’m making my connection.

I stop the chatty steward on his way to the back of the plane and explain my situation. My connection is a red-eye, there are no other flights, we’ll obviously never make it. What do you think? He doesn’t want to tell me what to do, but when I suggest that I might take the opportunity to get off the plane, grab my bags, and sort it all out later, he agrees. I’ve never asked to get off a plane before, but it was surprisingly easy.

Once I’m back out at the gate area, I am greeted by a lot of accusatory stares from passengers apparently waiting for the next flight. Any time you see someone coming the wrong way out of the jetway, you automatically assume that they are the reason for some kind of delay. Wait until they see the rest of the plane pour out after me in a few minutes. I talk to the gate agent, and she tells me that they typically don’t retrieve checked in bags, but considering that everyone would be de-plane-ing, I would be in the unique situation to retrieve mine. Talk to Luggage Services at Baggage Claim.

I make my way downstairs and into Luggage Services. There is a nice older woman who helps me, and a mean younger man who does not. The mean younger man shouts at me, “Your bag is in San Francisco!” “But, uh, I’m still here,” I say, “…and my plane hasn’t even left, yet, or taken on the luggage.” “Your bag is in San Francisco!” he repeats, “It went on another flight three hours ago.”

sigh

The nice older woman gives me a number to call about hopefully retrieving my bag. The bag, you will recall, that I did not have to check, but did so for convenience. By the time I leave Luggage Services and check the board one last time, I see that my flight is still in LAX, now at yet another gate, and not scheduled to leave until 12:22AM… 3 hours and 21 minutes late, and 17 minutes after my connecting flight’s departure.

For all I know, they might still be at the gate, though I assume the stronger passengers have mutinied by now.

So, in summary, I spent the day washing and packing my clothes so that I could spend $40 in cab fare, and 6 hours at the airport, in order to send my luggage on a mini-vacation to San Francisco.

I hope my neatly packed socks are having a good time.

The nice older woman explained to me that bags bound for international flights are not put on planes without their owners, so hopefully my bag is indeed cruising around the Mission district, and not on its way to Hong Kong without me.

More as information becomes available.

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