David's Wedding Adventure

For the first few years after we moved to Oregon, it seemed like someone was getting married every other weekend. We flew back whenever we could. But one flight stands out in particular. This is the story of that adventure, originally composed as an email.

Our flight to the Bahamas was supposed to take off from Eugene at 7:20pm on a Monday. After a short hop to San Francisco, we’d catch a red eye to Charlotte, wait a few hours in the terminal, then take our final flight to the Bahamas, and arrive in Freeport at noon on Tuesday (all times local).

One thing we’ve noticed with planes is that some are really hot, while some are really cold. Not a big deal for a little hop, but for a non-stop cross country flight, especially at night, it’s important to be comfortable, and to generally have as few things as possible keeping you from whatever little bit of sleep you can get. To be more adaptable to the wildly varying temperatures on planes, Jillian bought a new pair of pants that were especially comfortable and able to zip off into shorts.

Eugene isn’t a very big airport, and our friend Laura was kind enough to drop us off with plenty of time to catch our flight. We took our time, being one of three people in the security line. I got through with no trouble, and even learned that my tablet doesn’t need to be pulled out my bag (11” seems to be where they draw the line)11 This may no longer be the case. But Jillian set off the scanner, prompting a frisking from a fairly apologetic TSA agent, who was kind enough to explain that many zip off pants set of the scanners.

We were frustrated that Jillian’s new travel pants weren’t going to work out, but we were at least able to enjoy our relaxing wait in the quiet area of Eugene’s airport (with a fireplace and rocking chairs!22 Sadly, these have since been removed). We took off without incident and headed south for San Francisco.

When I’d booked the tickets, I’d done it through the hotel we’d be staying at (Grand Lucayan). I knew the layovers and flight times would be terrible, but by doing it through the hotel, we’d save several hundred dollars, since the hotel stay was free with a booked airfare. What I hadn’t realized was that our flight was a codeshare. We’d fly United Express to San Francisco (SFO), then US Air to Charlotte and then Freeport.

This is important, because United lands at Terminal 3 at SFO, while US Air flies from Terminal 1. Normally this isn’t such a big deal—we did a codeshare through Dullas last year, and while it was a pain to take the mobile lounge between terminals, it wasn’t a problem. But it turns out it would make all the difference on this trip.

We landed at SFO and set out for the long walk around the airport to the other terminal. We’d studied the map on the plane, so we knew SFO is a big circle. No matter which way we walked, we’d get there eventually. Imagine our surprise when the terminal abruptly stopped at wall. We turned around and tried to go around the other way. But all the signage directed us back. Confused, so we stopped and talked to the TSA agent at the big sign labeled “exit”. She said that yes, we should just go up those stairs and take the red line over two terminals, and we’d be there in no time. But when we went up the stairs, we found ourselves outside, waiting for a train that also went to the rental cars.

Apparently, at SFO, in order to change terminals, you actually have to go outside security. This made us pretty upset, as now, not only did we only have half an hour until our plane was going to start boarding, but we had to pass through security a second time. The TSA agent that checked our boarding passes was very sympathetic to the terrible design of SFO. But Jillian didn’t have time to change, so her pants got her searched a second time.

We made it to the gate just in time to learn that there wasn’t going to be any space for carry-ons, and that we’d need to check our carry-on free to our final destination. Fine, that’s easier for me. But because our next flight wasn’t until 10am the next morning (and was international, for that matter), the gate agent couldn’t look up our flight number to check our bag. So she told us she’d be back, and went about the other passengers. Then ignored us completely. Thanks, US Air. Also, I’m glad I paid to check my other bag, when apparently you’ll just check it at the gate for free. Fortunately, even though we were boarding with zone 6, there were almost no bags in the overhead compartments, and we didn’t have any problems.

Neither of us slept on the red eye, and we landed in Charlotte at 6am on the nose, ready to relax for the next four hours and maybe find some real breakfast. We sat in possibly the only cold area in the entire airport, and enjoyed some Starbucks, courtesy of a gift card from Jillian’s mother.

Charlotte has a nice airport, although we thought it felt a bit too much like an upscale shopping mall. But the strangest thing is the bathroom attendants. If it’s a quiet bathroom, they just sit in there and try not to watch you do your business, then wish you a good day when you leave. Jillian really got to know her bathroom attendant, Raven, as she kept visiting the same bathroom for our whole stay in Charlotte.

We were very ready to board our aircraft for the final flight at 10am when they announced that there was a maintenance issue that would delay us 20 minutes. Our gate soon changed to one with a new aircraft. We actually started boarding at noon, almost two hours late. Since the plane for this flight is much smaller, we’re asked to gate check any carry-ons.

We enjoyed watching the countryside slip away as we headed south toward the Bahamas and the end of our trip after a very long night. The captain made an announcement, “We’re having a problem getting the auxiliary power unit to power on. There’s no danger to any of us, but it means that if we land, we won’t be able to take off again. We’re talking to maintenance now, but right now they want us to turn around.”

We turned around, with a plane full of people wondering why the captain didn’t want to get stuck in the Bahamas. We landed about an hour later—we’d made it almost half way there.

We parked on the tarmac for a while, while maintenance was on the plane, trying to get things fixed. First it was just a bad switch, but then there’s an announcement that we all need to get off the plane while they power it down (without the Auxiliary Power Unit, there’d be no AC, and it was very hot in Charlotte). But we were allowed to leave stuff on the plane, and they’d have us back inside the plane in twenty minutes. No one believed them, and we all left with our carry-ons, much to the frustration of the crew. Ironically, we deplane at our original departure gate, from before the plane switch.

Forty minutes later, the flight board still says we’re leaving twenty minutes ago. Then usairways.com reports that we’re supposed to leave in six minutes, but arrive in the Bahamas in ten minutes. A flight crew boards the aircraft, and there’s hope. But it turns out it’s only because they’re actually going to move us to a new aircraft, and a flight crew needs to be present while we all retrieve our stuff. One of the passengers asks the gate attendant, “Do we need to get our gate checked bags as well?”

The answer is a clear no. We’re told that they’ll be transferred to our new plane. Very few people actually need to retrieve anything, so this is mostly a waste of a flight crew. We travel to and set up camp at the new gate. Sitting spots near outlets are jealously guarded. When a passenger asks when we’re going to take off, the new gate attendant responds, “3:20.” The passenger responds, “Funny, because it’s already 3:30”.

She ignores him, and a few minutes later makes a new announcement, “We’re getting ready to board the new aircraft, but one of you left your gate checked bag on the old aircraft. Please return to the old gate to get it.”

Several of us try to explain that we were told that gate checked bags would be transferred, but the attendant refuses to clarify anything further, and we don’t want to take the chance of losing our luggage. Half of us stand up, sigh, and take off for the old gate.

We arrive at the old gate, and start asking the gate attendant to let us in to get our gate checked bags. She ignores all of us, then says in a very patronizing tone, “I already told ALL of you that your gate checked bags would be transferred for you” and refuses to listen to us as we explain we were told otherwise. Jillian calls my cell to explain that after more passengers inquired about whose bag was left, they finally clarified that it wasn’t actually a gate checked bag, it was a bag left in the aircraft—a wholly different animal. To make matters worse, it turns out that no one had to go back at all. The bag that was left on the plane was put on a cart and sent to the new gate. The dozen of us who walked back now set off for our new gate on the other end of the terminal. While on our way, we plot to spread a rumor that the airline has agreed to give us free drinks.

We finally board and take off at 4:30 that afternoon, over 8 hours after we got to Charlotte, and don’t arrive in the Bahamas until after 6. Fortunately, David has scheduled a cab for us, with the most ridiculous character on the island. But she’s waiting with the world’s best (and strongest) Bahama Mamas. I’m drunk before we’re even at the hotel. Total travel time, including just waiting around the airport? 21 hours.

Jillian and me
Jillian and I were pretty happy to arrive
David, the groom, and me

The Bahamas were fantastic. Weather was great, and wedding was wonderful. After living in Oregon, we were sorely missing the sun. And while we didn’t get to snorkel, due to a fairly powerful storm making the sea a little rough, we didn’t mind and played beach volleyball instead. All too soon Saturday came, and it was time to head home.

The groom and bride

We knew that it was going to be a bad flight, complete with an overnight layover in SFO. But the only flight without an overnight layover in SFO was an extra $1000, and at the time I wasn’t willing to spend that much money to avoid an uncomfortable night in the airport.

A group of seven of us were taking off together in the Bahamas and flying to Charlotte. Miraculously, we took off at our scheduled departure time, very glad we weren’t flying into Florida, where all the flights were canceled due to weather. Florida isn’t too far from the Carolinas, and we ended up with a lot of turbulence. But they still attempted a beverage service, which resulted in the man across the aisle from us spilling his coffee all over twice.

Once in Charlotte, we said our goodbyes with the other wedding guests, and then had over four hours to kill. While we’re waiting at our gate, we notice there’s a plane already parked at our gate, with a lot of passengers waiting for a boarding announcement. It’s well past their scheduled departure time, so we try to figure out what’s going on. Through announcements, we learn that this plane is waiting on a part. Then we learn the part is for a different plane at the destination airport. Finally we learn the part in question is a volume control knob for an emergency megaphone. We’re speechless.

Once that plane gets underway, it’s our turn. Just before we’re ready to board, they make an announcement: mechanical failure. We sit in the terminal, waiting further news, but it’s getting late. Rather than fix our plane, they decide to switch planes and gate. Some sort of US Air supervisor makes an announcement, “We’ll have a plane ready for you in five minutes at the other gate. But it might take ten or fifteen minutes if we do a safety check.”

Not very reassuring.

But ultimately it doesn’t matter, because that aircraft (which was apparently coming from the hanger) doesn’t materialize. Instead, they give us a different aircraft at our original gate (that’s aircraft 3 for this leg alone). We finally board two hours late. While waiting, we have many awkward conversations with the bathroom attendants, whom we see every time we think the plane is about to board—you always want to get that last trip in before you make a cross country flight.

We taxi over to the runway. Just before turning onto it the captain makes an announcement, “We have a stuck valve. We’re going to try restarting the aircraft to see if that fixes it.” Then he proceeds to turn the plane off and on, while we watch plane after plane land on the runway in front of us. After hearing about how we might skip the safety check, this is rather unsettling.

But we took off with no further delays. Since the new plane was a different model aircraft with more seats, we were at least able to get a spare middle seat for our trip. But it’s virtually impossible to be comfortable in coach, no matter how many extra, empty seats you have. We spent the entire flight trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable. Neither of us really slept at all.

We finally landed at SFO at 11:20pm at Terminal 1. We know we’ll be taking off in the morning at Terminal 3, and since that’s the bigger terminal we decide to spend the night there. We exited security and rode the train over to Terminal 3.

The very nice TSA girl explains that they’re not closing until midnight, and that all the food inside the terminal is closed already, so we should probably go upstairs to Subway and get some food. We get two subs (sans drinks, since we know how the TSA feels about drinks) and have Jillian change out of the zip off pants that keep getting her searched. We head back to security at 11:45.

There we’re informed by a different TSA guy that because our flight doesn’t leave until morning, we can’t spend the night in the terminal proper. We can only spend it pre-security. We’re at a loss for what to do at this point, so we burst out in maniacal laughter. Then we have a lengthy conversation with the TSA guy about where he’d spend the night in the terminal.

He suggested terminal 2, which is the newest, and which matched what I read online. There’s big benches on the baggage claim level of Terminal 2. Around 12:30 in the morning, we arrive at our home for the night. There’s about 8 benches in 2 areas, half filled with odd characters already. We’re not comfortable with us both being asleep with all our belongings available for the world to take. One of us needs to stay awake. Jillian passes out on a bench in the shape of a plus symbol, meaning that there’s no way for her to be really be comfortable. But she’s soon asleep anyway.

A picture of two plus shaped benches pushed together.
Seriously, who designs benches like this for an airport?

I try to pass the time reading on my tablet. But it’s getting cold, now that the airport is mostly empty of people. The only long sleeve shirt I have is somehow in my checked luggage. If I twist just right behind the bolted down furniture, I can sit next to the heater, so at least part of me is warm.

I’m all but laying down by this heater in the baggage claim in Terminal 2, when I see the first rat. Not a gigantic one, but he’s looking hungry. He’s still far away, but here I am, lying on the floor in the only warm corner, and now I’ve got to keep my eyes open enough to watch out for a rat that might want to hang out with me. The good news is that this was mentally taxing enough to keep me awake.

At 4:30am, I decided to wake Jillian up when I’m approached by a recently arriving passenger, who tells me his life story about his father dying last night and his not making it back from Witchita in time due to his bus being slow. I’m not sure what bus this is, as we’re at the airport. Regardless, while a thin man, his ankles are the size of cantaloupes, and the color of a fire engine. He just wants me to watch his bag while he goes to the bathroom. Naturally, they’re locked, and the nearest open one is on the other side of the baggage claim area—maybe 100 yards. He sets off, not even really giving me a chance to respond, and now I’m stuck with a groggy Jillian, our stuff, this guy’s bag, the rats, and two huge frat guys who, after waking, managed to spill three bags of Cheetos onto the ground while having “breakfast”.

Panoramic View of the luggage claim in the morning

By the time the luggage man is back, Jillian is awake, and once we’re through security, it’s 6am. After a brief, hour long nap on a bench in front of a fairly spectacular sunrise, I rode in front of a screaming 6 month old for the flight back to Eugene.

View of the sunrise before I passed out

The only good to come of any of this is that our plane all but flew on top of Crater Lake on the way home, and it’s just as gorgeous from 30k feet.

And that’s why we’re never flying through SFO or via US Air again.

At home, we picked up the mail, and inside we found a wedding invitation for my cousin’s wedding next year. In the Bahamas.

I don’t think we can make it.

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