Connections

For one week of every fifty-two, we like to go somewhere warm, sit by the pool or on the beach at a nice resort, and relax.  We’ve been to a variety of such destinations in the Western Hemisphere, and this year it was Baja California.  Making our travel plans months ago, we found routes to Cabo San Lucas from Dulles Airport through Denver, Chicago, and Houston.  Our travel window, late February through mid-March, made the choice simple: Houston would be the most reliable transfer point.  How could we have predicted that by March 1 Chicago would have recorded no snow on the ground all winter, a 136-year-old record?

Only thing about Houston was that the outbound connection was tight, at 55 minutes from arrival to takeoff.  Understand that it’s really only 45 minutes, since aircraft doors are scheduled to shut 10 minutes prior to takeoff time.  And that 45 minutes is really only 25 minutes if we want to arrive at the gate in time to board the plane with our preferred passenger boarding privilege, which allows us to get to our seats in time to be sure our carry-on luggage can be stowed overhead.  (Lots of folks use only carry-on for warm-climate vacations, since you only need beach gear and enough clothing to pass muster at the resort restaurants.)  In that 25 minutes the plane has to taxi to the gate (“arrival” means when the aircraft wheels touch the tarmac) and get attached to the jetway, we have to debark (leaving no personal items behind, of course), to determine what gate our connecting flight departs from, and walk/run to that gate, toting our carry-on luggage, in time to line up and board with our group.

The wild card is that we have no idea where in the airport the departure gate is relative to the arrival gate.  It could be five minutes away.  It could be fifteen minutes away.  Usually you can count on 5 to 8 minutes from touchdown to gate, 2 or 3 more minutes until deplaning commences, and 3 or 4 more minutes until the seats in front of you have cleared (if you’re located about halfway back in the Economy section).  So that’s 10 to 12 minutes from touchdown to being inside the terminal building, leaving 13 to 15 minutes for the walking/running part.  That’s sufficient time, IF nothing goes wrong.

Our flight, it seemed, would get to Houston on time.  It was slow leaving the gate after the doors were shut 5 minutes before the 8:15 a.m. takeoff time, and actually left the ground 15 minutes after that scheduled time.  But airlines build some slack into their schedules so that they can claim a higher “on time” statistic.  And so it was that our airplane touched down just about exactly on schedule.  The pilot bounced the landing slightly, though, which proved to be ominous.   Because he got to the gate, turned off the seatbelt sign, and allowed us to grab our stuff and line up in the aisle.  THEN he announced that he parked the plane incorrectly, so that the jetway couldn’t attach to the plane.  Seriously?  I thought those folks on the ground gesturing with sticks assured that the plane would be right on the painted markings that indicate correct alignment.  Geez, if I had half that much help parallel-parking my car I would nail it every time!

We had to sit down, buckle up again, wait for the pilot to re-park, and only then disembark.  Luckily the rest is anti-climactic, as we discovered our gate was “just around the corner.”  In airline terminals that means only a five-minute (quarter-mile) walk.

So we got to Cabo San Lucas and spent a week in San Jose del Cabo at the Royal Solaris, a very nice place.  We left at the perfect time, sort of wishing we had one more day, but also looking forward to getting home.  This would be the easy trip, because we had one hour and 50 minutes for the connection, double what it was on the way down.  Yes, we had to go through immigration and customs, and yes, we had to go through security again, but so what?  The layover was almost two hours, and doing the math we still had an hour and 25 minutes for all the in-terminal processing.  Piece of cake.

The shiny new International Terminal at Cabo San Lucas relaxed us; we waltzed into the aircraft on time; we settled in, buckled up, and taxied what seemed like 15 minutes to the end of the runway (I hate it when the window-seat passengers keep the shades down to “preserve coolness” and “avoid glare,” because I want to see exactly what the plane is doing and where it is on the tarmac).

Then came the announcement: the plane was overweight, unsafe to take off.  It was an unusual situation, we were told, but we’d have to go back to the gate.  What?  WHAT!?!  This was a Boeing 737, the domestic workhorse of the medium-range fleet.  It’s practically the jet equivalent of the DC-3: been around forever; solid, functional, durable basic design.  After all the years they’ve used this plane, United still doesn’t have a way to figure out ahead of time how to prevent this aircraft from getting overloaded?

United wanted four volunteers to stay an extra day in Los Cabos.  It got them in a hurry.  (Having done this ourselves once in the past, we were not anxious to volunteer.  The airlines make it so hard to collect and use the financial reward you’re given that it’s just not worth the hassle.)  A quick, rough math calculation suggests the issue here: let’s say each passenger plus luggage = 250 lbs.  If so, they needed to lose 1000 pounds.  There were about 230 people on the plane, most of them having just spent a week at an all-inclusive resort.  That means that each passenger was responsible for about 4 pounds of the overweight.  If only everyone had eaten more healthily!

By the time the volunteers and their luggage were deplaned, the aircraft re-prepared for departure, re-taxied to the end of the runway, and ready to roll, an hour and ten minutes had elapsed.  We were down to 40 minutes for our connection in Houston, including deplaning, immigration, customs, re-screening at security, getting to the gate, and doors closing before takeoff.  I knew from experience that one jerk at any point, like the idiot Customs Agent we ran into at Dulles one night, could burn up 15 or 20 minutes of that time all by him- or herself.  Spending the night in the Lone Star State seemed inevitable.

By the time we got to Houston, a couple of new factors emerged: our pilot had made up 10 minutes or so on the trip, and the connecting flight itself had arrived late in Houston, giving us another 15 minutes.  The flight attendant with whom we had discussed our dilemma told us that United was monitoring several flights feeding into the one back to Dulles, and suggested the departure time could be set back further.  He also said that the departure gate had been changed, but that news was not good.  The original gate was one gate from being the farthest from Immigration in the entire airport.  The new gate WAS that one farther gate!  But we deplaned figuring we’d just give it our best shot, and hope.

Immigrating into Houston is better than the Dulles experience.  They have the same new automated machines that read your passport and require you to take a selfie.  But when you go to the agent at the desk with the printout, they don’t go over all the information with you again the way they do at IAD.  They simply provide a human verification of the automated process, which is exactly what they should do.  Likewise, customs has sufficient agents to handle the crowds, another contrast to our home airport.

On our way through customs, the same flight attendant was right behind us.  He said “you are going to make it.”  That seemed less sure to us, but we embraced the assurance with a passion.  Then we hit security.  There was not TSA Pre-check, and the line was fairly long.  Suddenly we realized we’d need to be in the mode of toiletry bags out, belts and shoes off—all the intricate rituals of regular security.  The line was moving, though, until we got near to the screening point, and some ill-trained TSA person strode out to lecture us about his intention to deliberately slow the line down to “teach us” that he really meant it when he said we could have nothing in our pockets.  Nothing like being talked down to in such an urgent moment as if we were children by a guy who seemed to barely have made it through high school himself.  At such times it is a real effort to hold my tongue.

However, sanity prevailed.  I didn’t even have to go through the full body scan because I am over 75; only had to reassure the agent that I did not have a pacemaker or any metal in my body.  But coming out of TSA screening we realized that the route to our gate was the longest way, looping backwards, and that time was running out.  You won’t remember the old OJ Simpson commercials for Hertz that involve running through airports if you are (1) too young or (2) settling into senile dementia, but they come to mind in these moments of crisis.  Unfortunately, we are not in the kind of shape OJ was in his prime, nor do we have his innate athletic ability.  But we were doing our best OJ imitation.  There were several defibrillators in the corridors along the way, well-marked for emergency access.  I asked Jane to note their locations because I might well need one.  Finally, about six gates away, I told her to run ahead and try to get them to hold the plane, because I could not keep up the pace any longer.

A while later I looked up and saw the last gates in the far distance.  Jane was just disappearing into the crowd, the crowd of people waiting to board the flight at Gate C-31.  Our gate!  I chugged up, a sweaty, panting mess; got into what I thought was the end of the Group 2 line; was advised it was longer; relocated.  It didn’t matter.  We all were going to be on that flight, in our seats, with our baggage securely stowed and our seat belts fastened snugly across our laps, remembering that in case of emergency we would put on our own face masks before helping others.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2017

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