Avoiding a New Year's hangover, the American (Airlines) way
As tends to happen after several days of visiting my immediate family in Charleston, West Virginia, I was ambivalent about leaving.
Scheduling the annual Christmas visit, with New Year's looming a week away, always presents a conundrum: a few more days of quality time with mom, dad, sister, nephews and old friends, or return to Portland, where options for celebration abound?
Though it was bitter cold, and a bit of post-Christmas malaise had set in, I was feeling comfy enough to call the airline to ask what a two-day extension would cost me. Determining $550 was a bit steep for 48 additional hours in the ol' hometown, I decided Plan A — returning on Saturday night, Dec. 30 — wasn't so bad after all.
Little did I know, the nebulous, shadowy forces that control holiday travel had something else in store.
When a check of the American Airlines live flight info revealed a connection-killing delay to Charlotte, N.C., I didn't sweat it too much. I hadn't set out for the airport, and spending one more night at dad's would still get me to PDX the morning of New Year's Eve — plenty of time to nap, regroup and somehow find a ticket to the sold-out concert near my Southeast Portland abode.
Waking up around 3:30 a.m., my dad, still recovering from an extended hospital stay last fall, dutifully drove me and my bags along the icy roads of Charleston to the small, but user-friendly Yeager Airport. When he curtailed his practice — reserved for my departure at more civilized hours — of father-and-son banter before I hit the security line, I completely understood.
"Are you gonna hang out?" I asked.
"I'm gonna hang out," he replied, "in bed."
So, with a bittersweet hug and my grateful thanks, we parted ways until the next visit.
After I boarded the cramped commuter jet — designated on the electronic board as "on time" — the young airline agent standing near the cockpit shared the opening volley of bad news.
"Folks, we need to make a repair that will take about five minutes," he optimistically intoned, "but we're waiting on the mechanics who have to fill out paperwork … Because it's so cold, we're going to let you all deplane and return to the gate."
As soon as he uttered "five minutes," I knew we were in for a long, strange trip.
"This guy wants us to believe an airplane will be repaired in less time than it takes me to scramble two eggs," my coffee-deprived mind pondered. "I know we're sleepy, but do we look that stupid?"
It was the same truth-challenged gate agent who rescheduled my connecting flight, this time with stops in Charlotte AND Seattle, getting me to Portland around 6 p.m. Not ideal for NYE, but doable.
While awaiting (and a-waiting) the five-minute repair, I struck up a conversation with a lady in the same boat named Deborah, and Bill, a younger fellow traveler. They were both from my hometown and also lived in the Portland area. As we'd never crossed paths before, and had seemingly plenty of time to kill, there was plenty to talk about. We compared notes and impressions on the two far-flung locales, laughing at the random ways we ended up so far from home and now were stranded in our hometown airport.
With my now thrice rescheduled flight hours away, I caught a Lyft ride to the home of my surprised mom, just in time for a French toast breakfast. After a couple hours of much-needed daylight slumber, I checked the flight status: "Delayed 128 minutes."
OK, I thought. At this rate I won't make the concert, even if I manage to score a ticket, but I can at least stop by my friend's party near the Portland airport just before the New Year's ball drops.
"Delayed 148 minutes."
Here we go again. "So, wonder what's goin' on in the hometown tonight? Maybe I should make some calls."
The flight updates ricocheted up and down for nearly two hours. At one point, dad was in the car — ready for his second airport run of the day — when I tapped on the window.
"Delayed until 5:15 p.m."
He shut off the ignition and promptly returned to the football game on the kitchen TV.
When I got back to the airport, I reunited with most of the worse-for-wear passengers from the morning, including Deborah and Bill, both of whom, like me, had left for home comforts and returned.
Going through security, I did a double take seeing the fella with the buzz cut right behind me. It was ol' Mr. "Five-Minutes" Man himself, this time in non-airline clothes including a "Star Wars" shirt.
"Where are YOU going?" I inquired.
"Dallas, I hope," he replied.
Unfortunately, rather than excoriating him for his crack-of-dawn fibs (that plane, btw, was completely out of commission on the tarmac), my basic decency got the better of me.
"You did a good job handling things this morning," I lied through my teeth, my inner Homer Simpson shouting, "D'oh!"
"Thanks," he said. "There was some confusion."
By the time I got to the connecting gate at Charlotte, there was no pocket on my person or in my bags not stuffed with accumulated boarding passes and luggage receipts. If I actually locate the one that's still valid, I deliriously thought, I may have a shot at getting home tonight.
Cooling our heels at a Carolina Brewing Co. table near the gate, Deborah, Bill and I laughed ruefully at our ordeal and pondered the availability of cabs/Lyft/Uber at PDX as midnight on New Year's approaches.
When the de-icing process delayed our departure by about 45 minutes, the point became moot. Aside from my in-flight bloody mary, the closest I came to an "Auld Lang Syne" moment was, as we approached PDX around 12:30 a.m., the college-aged girl at the window seat spotted fireworks in the distance. "That's sooo weird," she said.
It kinda was, but topped for me by the first, now hours-old, text message I read after firing up my smartphone.
"Shannon, we have an extra ticket for the Motet show tonight! Text me if still interested."
I guess there's always next year.
Happy 2018 to all!