Who needs to go home?

I spent most of yesterday playing the traditional post-WisCon game of trying to get home.

I would love to have a web app that could aggregate data from WisCon attendees about traffic and weather and flights and such, and provide the aggregated data in various forms (web page, data feed, text messages, etc)--kind of like traffic-monitoring systems, but focused on travel (by any means) to and from a particular location or event. And it would also provide realtime ride-sharing info--who's renting a car, who's taking the bus, who's figured out a good way to switch airlines and a good route for getting home. But I'm too lazy to write such a system myself, and probably not technically qualified to do a good job anyway. But I suspect such a tool would be really useful to a lot of people--not just conventiongoers. Anyone looking to start a startup?

Anyway, so here's my travel story, with some notes on other people's stories as well. It is quite long and probably tedious, though it includes some possibly interesting asides here and there. Feel free to skim or skip.

Recall that on Thursday, Cheryl and Lenny and I rented a car in Chicago and drove to Madison. The part I didn't mention in my previous entry about that is that I received a voicemail on Thursday from the United automated system, letting me know I had been re-booked on a Friday morning flight. But when I talked with a United rep by phone later, he said I had not been re-booked. When we called about the baggage, we spoke with a very nice woman who, in addition to telling us where our bags were, told us that the itinerary issue was all taken care of--that she had indicated in the system that none of the three of us were going to be on the 7 a.m. flight on Friday, so we didn't have to worry about it.

You can probably guess where this is headed.

Monday morning I called United to let them know that I wouldn't be on the Monday evening flight from Madison to Chicago, but would still be on the 8:15 p.m. flight from Chicago to SFO. I was a little nervous about this; I worried that they might tell me that I had to be on that flight or they would cancel the rest of my itinerary, and if that happened I didn't know how I could get home (because I had to take the rental car back to Chicago).

But it turned out the situation was, at first glance, worse than that: the customer-service guy on Monday morning claimed that I had failed to show up for the Chicago-to-Madison flight (presumably the 7 a.m. Friday one), and that they had therefore cancelled the rest of my itinerary. I told him that I'd been told it was all taken care of, but he reiterated that I hadn't shown up and that my itinerary had been cancelled.

Trying to keep from panicking, and trying to keep him on my side instead of getting mad at him, I asked him what my options were; he said he would rebook me on a Chicago-to-SFO flight, but that I would have to pay the difference in fares. I said fine, and he put me on hold.

I spent several minutes on hold planning what to do next; if the difference in fares was going to be a thousand dollars or something, I was going to talk to the guy's manager and make an indignant-but-pleading speech about how they'd screwed me over, but then the customer-service guy came back and said that he could put me on the 10:05 p.m. flight out of Chicago and (after several more minutes on hold) that there wouldn't be any additional fee. Which rather took the wind out of my indignant sails, so I said sure, let's do that.

I called Cheryl and Lenny to let them know what had happened, but it turned out they were both fine; the woman we had originally talked with had in fact done the right thing for them, so their itineraries were still in place. Whew. And the weather was looking fine, so it sounded like nobody needed to be driven to Chicago.

So we proceeded with the plan. Naomi B (who had offered a wide variety of travel help--all very much appreciated--including offering to cancel her flight and ride with me to Chicago) also stayed with her air travel plans, and I gave Jenn R and Lisa M a ride to Chicago.

Unfortunately, we didn't leave Madison until about 1:40 p.m., and their flight was at 4:55. So we were already running low on time when we hit heavy traffic somewhere around the halfway point of the drive. And we spent about 45 minutes crawling along at 10-20 mph. Also, despite the earlier reports of good weather, we ran into a thunderstorm. (We felt sorry for the couple in the tiny yellow open-top car that didn't appear to have a way to close the top, but they seemed to be smiling as they pulled on bright yellow rain ponchos, and they must've known what they were getting into by traveling in that car in that area at that time of year.)

Eventually I dropped Jenn and Lisa at curbside, something like ten minutes before their scheduled departure. When we'd last called United, ten minutes earlier, they had said the flight was still on time but might still be delayed. I don't know yet what ended up happening; got a text message from Jenn around 11 p.m. Chicago time (I think?) saying they still weren't home yet, but I don't know where they were at that point. At any rate, they got home sometime in the middle of the night.

Somewhere in there, Cheryl called to let me know her flight was stranded on the tarmac in bad weather (but I'm not sure whether that was at MSN or ORD), and Naomi texted me to say flights from MSN were being delayed or cancelled and that she was being routed through Minneapolis. (She did make it home late that night.) And Diana S and Simran's flight from MSN was cancelled; they were going to rent a car and drive to ORD, but they later somehow ended up in Las Vegas in the middle of the night. (They did arrive home sometime early this morning.)

So I drove around and eventually found a gas station near ORD. By this time there were big gusts of wind (though the small car we'd rented was remarkably stable throughout) and intermittent downpours and lightning and thunder. Returned the car, took the Avis shuttle to the airport, stood in line to check in. I could've done curbside checkin, but the line inside was moving pretty fast and I wanted to talk to an agent about how to do standby and whether I could stand by for SJC as well as SFO. (Turns out, at least according to one gate agent, you can't stand by for a destination other than your original one. Too bad.)

Checked my bags, signed up for standby on the next flight to SFO, which was originally scheduled for 6ish p.m. but had been delayed 'til 8ish due to weather and/or the plane not having arrived from its previous destination.

Hung out in the airport for a couple hours--ate my leftover friend rice fried rice [corrected nearly a year later] and egg roll from lunch (from the smoothies stand parked near Michelangelo's), signed up for the airport's wireless Internet system, started reading Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania (which has been getting rave reviews, and which Tor had given free copies of at the con).

Eventually they boarded the flight and called three or four names for standby, mine not among them. They told the rest of us that we'd all been automatically rolled over to standby on the next flight, in another terminal a couple hours later. So we all (probably 20 or 30 of us, I think) made our way to the other gate and settled in to wait.

Eventually (I probably should've titled this entry "Eventually"), after a couple of near misses ("A. Hartman" and "G. Hartman", the latter of whom turned out to actually be "G. Hartnett"), they called my name and gave me a boarding pass, and in the end they let all of the standby passengers on this flight. (I suspect we took the seats left vacant by all the people who were stranded elsewhere.) The funny thing is that this flight was the 8:15 p.m. flight that I had originally been scheduled to be on, before all the kerfuffle and rearrangements and standbys.

That flight was originally supposed to reach SFO around 10:30 p.m. CA time. By the time they started boarding, the departure time was listed as 10:20 p.m. Chicago time, and the arrival time around 12:30 p.m. CA time. Kam had volunteered to pick me up, and said that that still wasn't too late, so I figured we were all set.

But then boarding didn't finish until about 10:40, and then we had to wait for a bunch of luggage or cargo or something to be loaded. And I sort of dozed for a while, and eventually looked at my watch (the great Curious George/Style Monkey pocketwatch Karen M. gave me a few years back) and saw that it was now 11:45, and looked out the window and saw that we were still sitting on the tarmac.

Shortly after that, the captain came on the PA system and told us that it would still be "a few minutes" before takeoff because there were 12 or 13 planes in line ahead of us and they were taking off at a rate of one every 2 to 3 minutes. Which is to say, "a few minutes" was a euphemism for "half an hour to 45 minutes."

Around that time, I plugged my iPod earbuds into the seat sound system to listen to Air Traffic Control--United broadcasts ATC on channel 9 of their in-plane system--and then the captain reminded us that we could do that. That actually made the time pass a lot more quickly; I'm fascinated by the glimpse into air-travel culture.

I think it turned out that we were about 20th in line, and there was a 5-minute delay at one point when the first plane in line, which I think was United flight 1141, had some kind of passenger situation and had to return to the gate. (Jay L., who was stuck in the same takeoff line, says it was a medical emergency; that was my guess, but it wasn't clear from the probably-intentionally-vague language used by the captain of that flight over ATC radio. And at one point another pilot snarkily asked "Are we going to shut down the whole airport for this?" and ATC said "I think we pretty much already have shut down the whole airport" because nobody could go anywhere 'til that first plane in line could move.) (One other side note: there was at least one female captain--on a Scandinavian plane--waiting in that line, and possibly one or two others (a couple of gender-ambiguous voices). I was pleased.) (I'm not sure whether I should say "captain" or "pilot" in this entry, but I'm not gonna bother looking it up right now.) But eventually we took off, I think somewhere around 12:15 a.m. Chicago time, about four hours later than originally scheduled and two hours later than the departure time they'd told us at boarding. (Which just baffles me. Surely they knew that there was a two-hour-long line to take off?)

So we arrived at SFO around 2 a.m. CA time, and Kam was there, and I was relieved and exhausted (having barely slept on the plane), and all set to go home.

And then we spent 45 minutes standing at the luggage carousel to get my bags. At the end of which time, it turned out that my bags had come on an earlier flight and had been put in a luggage cage around the corner from the row of luggage cages that we had already searched twice for my bags.

I felt really dumb for not having asked someone earlier, and really bad for keeping Kam up for an unnecessary extra 45 minutes in the middle of the night, after she'd been nice enough to come pick me up. (She had actually slept for 3 hours in the car in the airport parking lot before I arrived.)

But we finally got back to my place somewhere around 3:30 in the morning CA time, which is to say 5:30 a.m. Chicago/Madison time. I was a little unhappy about the various delays and so on, but also thankful that I had actually managed to get home, and sad that so many others were still (presumably) stranded.

I'll close with two further notes, unrelated to each other:

Re the airlines and airports: Can't they handle this stuff better? It's the same every year. Pretty much every Memorial Day weekend, there's bad weather at O'Hare and/or other airports in the region, and it ends up with hundreds of passengers stranded and/or delayed. Can't they schedule in some delays, list flights at that time of year and in that area as taking longer than they'll actually take, space them further apart? Can't they work out various contingency plans ahead of time and make passengers aware of them? Can't they be more flexible about changes of itinerary that time of year, knowing that they're going to happen? I still view it as near-miraculous that I can travel from my home to WisCon in under 12 hours, with skilled and usually friendly people taking care of me the whole way; but I would be even more appreciative if their system were flexible enough to cope better with bad weather.

Re sleep: I have averaged roughly four and a half hours of sleep a night for the past eight nights. I'm not lying awake fretting or unhappy, and I'm not waking up stressed; I've just been staying up too late (haven't been to bed before 3 a.m. local time since last Tuesday night), then sometimes too restless to sleep, and then suddenly waking up after four or five hours, unable to get back to sleep. I'm going to call my doctor and see if I can get some Ambien or something; so far I'm remarkably alert and coherent (and I never got sleepy during the 3-hour drives), but this can't be good for me.

Okay, that's all for now. I have half a dozen other WisCon-related entries I'd like to write, but not sure when or if those will happen, especially since I go back to work tomorrow.

Hope those of you who were traveling this weekend, whether WisCon-related or not, arrive safely at your destinations soon if you haven't already.

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8 Responses to “Who needs to go home?”

  1. AndyHat

    The agent who told you you couldn’t stand by for SJC on an SFO ticket was wrong. SJC, SFO, and OAK (like ORD/MDW or JFK/LGA/EWR) are “sister cities” or “twinned cities” and thus can be treated as the same endpoint for purposes of rescheduling. Finding airline personnel who know the airlines’ own rules on this can be a problem, though. One night, being rebooked from United to America West due to a delayed flight, I had to explain four separate times to different agents (each time requiring a manager to be consulted) that it was in fact valid to reroute me from OAK to SFO.

    I do hate ORD. On Friday afternoons going home, I have my choice between flights with 20% and 30% ontime ratings. I am always very pleasantly surprised on those rare weeks when I actually get home within an hour of when I was supposed to.

  2. Cheryl

    Glad you made it back at last. Looks like Lenny got stuck in Madison. What a mess.

    Anyway, thanks for the help with getting to the con. Let me know if the final bill on the car turned out larger than expected.

  3. .: hhw :.

    I happily pay more (if necessary) to fly through Minneapolis to Madison (usually on Northwest). I will fly =to= ORD, but I avoid having to make connections there if at all possible. In 7 years of flying from Portland, OR, to Madison, I don’t think I’ve ever had a significant delay going through MSP.

  4. Jackie M.

    What I learned from this trip was that United generally performs less well than, say, American. For example, when all of the flights to Madison were canceled on Thursday, most United personnel I talked to told me not to claim my luggage in Chicago — that I in fact couldn’t claim my luggage, because it had to complete its itinerary once it was checked. This was told me twice, by two separate United representatives working in two completely different O’Hare concourses.

    As a result, I didn’t receive most of my luggage until the next morning. Worse, because I’d taken the van Galder bus, which didn’t stop at the airport at all, I hadn’t filled out a missing luggage form…. they wouldn’t take my information over the United customer service line, so they wouldn’t bring my luggage to me, so I was required to take a taxi to the airport on Friday morning to claim my bag. Again, two different United representatives told me this on two separate occasions.

    The American fliers I talked to were all told to claim their bags in Chicago, or had them brought from the Madison airport to their lodgings without any hitches. I certainly haven’t heard anyone “canceled itinerary” stories from any flying American (which doesn’t meant they’re not out there.) I feel really bad picking on the struggling airline (all of the United representatives I talked to were very pleasant and helpful), but they were just giving me a lot of bad info and forcing me to do things that weren’t in my financial/temporal interest. A lot of the inefficiency I experienced was plainly the fault of the airline, and not of the infrastructure overall.

    I flew out through Denver, not Chicago, and didn’t have any problems. I also flew out at 6AM from Madison, which I think minimizes the chances of being negatively impacted by pile-ups at the hubs from problems earlier in the day.

  5. Spacecrab

    FWIW, here’s my story.

    So is your journal actually part of LJ? I thought from the domain name and format that it wasn’t.

  6. Jackie M.

    Also, I’ve only been sleeping 5 hours a night since Wednesday, but I’m pretty sure it’s just excitement and hormones. I’m planning on crashing horribly in the next few days. But medicate if you’ve got to, I guess.

    And I’m actually really tickled that there was (were) female pilot(s). And you should post that “pushing the envelope” sheet online sometime, if you haven’t already. Please, pretty please?

    And it was nice to meet you, however briefly!

  7. worst spy ever

    Oh, that was my flight, the UA1141 to Vancouver. (Hi Jed, we haven’t met, but we party with the same folks.) A couple of twenty-year-old wannabe rapper kids came on board at the last minute, then proceeded to complain loudly and with increasing frequency about the lack of air conditioning, the quality of UA customer service, the quality of the UA flight attendants, the lack of meal service, etc. etc. After two hours circling on the runway, we had actually managed to jump the queue, had a runway and were cleared for takeoff when the level of obnoxiousness reached a point where the flight crew decided, rightly so, that they needed to be removed from the plane. 75 minutes later, we were in the air, having delivered the children into the hands of the Chicago police.

    So there you go. No medical emergency, just a pair of juveniles who couldn’t suck it up like the rest of us.

  8. Jed

    AndyHat: Thanks for the info! Next time I’ll push harder on that. (Actually, I would’ve pushed harder this time, except that I think the SJC flight was a little later than the SFO flight.)

    Cheryl: Thanks for the company!

    hhw: Thanks for the advice! I’ll seriously consider going through Minneapolis next time.

    Jackie: Yeah, now that you mention it, United’s baggage handling has not been my favorite. I still need to follow up on the juggling bags and sunglasses that disappeared from my luggage a year ago; they were really really annoying in dealing with that. (The only person at the company who’s capable of handling lost baggage goes home at 4 p.m. Central time, and apparently likes to regularly go on long vacations. I spent months trying to reach him by phone, though a lot of that was my fault for not managing to call earlier in the day and not arranging to have easy access to a fax machine.)

    Good idea re Denver. But even with all the problems I had, I’m not sure I could cope with trying to get on a 6 a.m. flight. I took early-morning flights a couple times a few years ago, and was so miserable that I decided it was worth the extra money to not have to do that. But yeah, good point about avoiding hassles from earlier problems that way.

    spacecrab: Sadness! I’m sorry to hear you got stuck in O’Hare. 🙁 Re LJ: my journal isn’t part of LJ, but it has an LJ feed (jedediah) and allows LJ sign-in for comments.

    Jackie again: My sleeping problems are vast and long-term and variable; sleeping medications of various sorts are sometimes the only thing keeping me sane.

    I’ll post a link to the “pushing the envelope” resource list sometime in next couple days.

    Good to meet you, too!

    worst spy ever: Wow — thanks for the info! I wasn’t expecting to be able to find out what happened so easily. …Sounds like a bunch of WisConites were in various planes in that queue; too bad we didn’t have any way to contact each other.


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