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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