A Christmas Story – by Michael Reynolds

  • Bonus Blog! Ignore where it says, “by aratyr” under the title of this post. In response to my Lughnasadh travel tale, my cousin Michael sent me this hilarious, disastrous, totally unique, absolutely relatable, glorious, ghastly, and far more delightful travel tale. It’s too good not to share — so enjoy!

In December of last year, I had to fly to the East Coast on extremely short notice. I really didn’t want to go, but my mother-in-law was dying and I couldn’t not go.  The trip wouldn’t be for her; she’d been beyond recognizing anyone for several weeks. But as support for my wife. I couldn’t not go.

So I cancelled my various appointments, halted the mail and newspaper, found someone to look after the house and wound up booking a flight leaving at 10 pm on Christmas Day, arriving next morning. The various flight search algorithms at first wanted to offer me flights connecting through Denver, but I was not about to risk a connecting flight through snow country in late December. But: the nonstops flights were sold out. That left me with a flight to Washington DC connecting in Miami, which seemed about as warm a transit hub as I could hope for.

I got to the airport, through security, and onto the plane with no problems. But 10 pm came and went. No announcement about the delay till about 10:30. Then we were told, well, the plane was too heavy and there were severe tailwinds which made taking off too hazardous; they were going to wait till the tail winds died down. More time passed. Now it seemed the tail winds were not going to die down any time soon, so the plan was to lighten the plane. This would be done by draining off half the fuel, getting the plane as far as Houston and refueling there.

By this time, it began to seem unlikely I’d make my connection in Miami. Moreover, it was generally known that San Diego has an 11 pm take-off curfew and it was nearly that now! Equally disturbing was that none of the passengers were asking any questions or saying a word during any of this. The thought went through my mind: what are these people? Sheep?? And I actually came within an inch of starting to make ba-a-a! ba-a-a! noises, but at the last minute realized that this would get me taken off the plane as a Danger to Self or Others, with no doubt some later followup with a psychologist who would stroke his beard as he somberly noted down ‘patient exhibits bleating behavior.’ So I did the next best thing—or next worst thing, depending on how you look at it:

I got out my SmartPhone and began looking up applicable Federal Aviation Administration regs and quoting them to the hapless flight attendant as she’d walk by, thereby instantly making me her favorite passenger(!)

Meanwhile, more time was passing, with still no announcement. At about midnight, though, the announcement was finally made that, well, the fuel-draining maneuver had been attempted but the ground crew had broken the fuel tank or broken the fuel line or broken something, but anyway, the whole process would have to be started over and that a curfew exemption had been granted. Still, the planeload of passengers sat as mute as a herd of already-stunned sheep. Except for me.

It was now 12:30 AM – two-and-a-half hours after the promised take-off time. Again, I snagged the luckless flight attendant. By this time I had looked up the airline’s ‘Contract of Carriage’ and so felt empowered to remind her that after two hours, the passengers were supposed to be offered food and drink. I helpfully pointed out that I was OK for the moment but, as a diabetic, I might need something to eat fairly soon. I was grudgingly given a very small cookie, smaller than I’d ever seen for sale or on offer anywhere. I ate it in about half a second, just long enough for the other passengers to gape at me enviously.

But not content with that mark of favor from American Airlines, I then felt compelled to quote the FAA rule that states that after three hours, passengers had to be allowed off the plane. The attendant explained to me that those rules only applied if the plane was stuck on the tarmac, but that our plane was not on the tarmac, but instead still at the gate—which meant that any passenger could still freely get off the plane and take a later flight. A strong implied subtext here was ‘You are welcome to get your FAA-quoting ass off our aircraft at any time, sir.’

What to do? I knew there’d be no other flight from San Diego till morning. But it was already nearing 1 AM; morning was not all that far away. My Miami connecting flight was long gone. Even if the plane I was on might somehow eventually struggle into the air, I was faced with the choice of: do I want to be stuck in the airport in San Diego or in Miami? San Diego was the obvious answer since, even if I couldn’t get a morning flight, I could always just go home and try again later.

My mind was made up. I stood up, got my only bag from the overhead bin and walked out, trailed after a few minutes by three or four other passengers, all looking very sheepish, not making eye contact with anyone. I naturally had the thought that—if this were a movie—now that I had debarked, the flight would eventually take off, but would also crash, killing all on board. Followed immediately by the additional thought that, well, if this were a novel, the flight I would be transferring to would crash, killing us all.

But I was inhabiting neither novel nor cinema, just life.

So my next move was to see the gate agent about re-booking (at no additional charge) and I found her to actually be very helpful. There was a flight leaving at 6:30 AM, connecting through Charlotte and I decided to take it, but then had the thought: a flight that early might not be full and so might have First Class vacancies for not an outrageous amount of money. This turned out to be the case; First Class, I thought, would certainly go a long way towards making up for the misery and discomfort of having to try to sleep sitting up in a semi-deserted airport on Christmas, on my way to a household in mourning.

But American Airlines was not quite done with me. As I tendered my credit card, the agent informed me that, umm, there would be a ‘change fee’ of an additional $200. I struggled to wrap my mind around this: there was no charge for changing the flight; that was included in the price of my original ticket. No, I was going to be charged extra for the privilege of being allowed to shell out several hundred dollars to upgrade in class!

I grimaced, exhaled with genuine weariness, and said ‘I have to be candid here. This makes me disinclined to fly American Airlines ever again.’ But the agent said ‘Let’s see what I can do,’ made a call, and got the extra fee waived. Then it was explained that protocol required that I now exit through Security, pass the night as best I could in the outer portion of the airport and re-enter Security when it opened in the morning at about 0430. So, OK, ‘but will there be any place open to eat out there tonight? I got almost nothing on the plane.’ No, everything would be closed but, again, the gate agent said she’d try to find something for me.

Next stop was the outer area of the Terminal where I sat, unable to sleep, trying to read a book, but mainly passing the time by watching the dozen or so other overnight travelers try to sleep. When will I ever see something like this again? Hopefully, never, I thought to myself as I embarked on a serious study of stranded travelers’ various sleeping styles: some slumped over heads down, others with heads thrown back and mouths gaping open, still others pretzelled over to one side or another. None of them looking comfortable.

So passed the small hours of the morning. But at about 4 AM, my kind gate agent went off duty and passing through the airport on her way home, brought me two blankets and an actual plate of dinner!

Gee, I thought to myself. Maybe this means that (A) I’m really a nice person after all. Or alternately (B) I’m still the same dick as always, but they’re being nice because I’ve just shelled out a lot of money to fly First Class. Or (C) Maybe it’s just….Christmas.

And there you have my melancholy little Christmas story for the decade’s end.

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