Saturday, March 17, 2007

Tell me WHY I don't like airports...

The reason is that they are the work of Satan himself. They are hellish places when you just have to spend the merest of timespans in them, but when you have to spend entire days, or more, of you precious life in them they become all the more unbearable and maddening. This rant is courtesy of a rather large amount of icey weather in the North East of America, and the general astounding lack of preparedness by the staff of Continental Airlines (as may have been picked up from my last post - BTW I'm now approaching 36 hours of sleep deprivation). The reason these things have effected me is that I had to leave the gorgeousness of the Moriond meeting in La Thuile to attend the rather less attractive prospect of the LSC (my collaboration) meeting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So let me take you back two days...

A slightly hungover me leaves the Moriond to travel the much trod road to Geneva. This all goes well (apart from having a large - yet reclaimable - amount of money extracted from my wallet by a greedy coachman). After about 40 mins semi-random wandering I find my hostelry, where I will rest before my early flight the next morning. I partake in victuals at a local eatery, dispatch myself to a pubbe to quaff ale and watch borish sporting endeavours, and then drink with a local comely wench - sorry Helen ;) - forgive my olde worlde tone in the last sentences for I have mostly been reading a lot of Quicksilver in the last day, which is set, for a large part, in 17th Century England.

This flight was directly from Geneva to Newark Airport, for which I arose at the ungodly hour 5.30 am (cue the start of my sleep deprivation). The flight was as pleasant as any long hall trip can be, but the pilot said there might be some light snow in New York. No-one's too worried as there was no word of delays. We get to Newark and it's fairly snow laden all around, with snowplows whizzing around the tarmac a breakneck speed to clear the snowy slush, but the planes seem to be moving ok. Little did we realise that this movement was a rouse. The planes are leaving gates and new ones are arriving, but barely any are actually taking off. Various people are sitting on their planes on the runways for several hours before being recalled. This seems an obvious point for the local airport staff to start preparing people for the fact that their flights are rather unlikely to take off, and maybe diverting some of the incoming flights to more hospitable airports. However this isn't what happens. They just keep putting back and back the departure times of all the aircraft, with more and more people arriving all the time. When the staff do eventually bow to the inevitable there are thousands of people with cancelled connections all wanting the same thing and with very few points of call to get it. The connections desks develop huge queues, which move at a snails pace and snake around with many hours waiting time. No-one really knows if any flights will be able to take of the next day either, so people just have to hope that a connection can be found. Continental, who were the only people I dealt with, as they control pretty all Terminal C of Newark, where I had landed, gave out a phone number to ring to get a connecting flight, but this was inundated by half the North East of America, so became practically useless - which I found out after many failed attempts at getting through, including a brain sapping, 2 hour 10 min stint, which almost LEFt mE InnSAyNE! I hadn't done the clever thing if just brazening out one of the check in queues from the start (which would have been at least a six hour wait), but had assumed things the numbers of people would dwindle as the night progressed - the only dwindling of people was from the check in staff though, slowing progress even further. This meant that, after a few aborted attempts to sleep in variuos parts of the terminal building, I had to try to rejoin a queue in the morning check in, which would start at 4am we were assured. At 4.40am the check in staff finally arrived. This time I stuck out the line (to use an Americanism), before being told that I wouldn't be able to get a flight to my destination until Monday. The attendant I had spoken to didn't seem to have tried particularly hard to find alternative routes, but I accepted things (in most situations a couple of free days in New York would have been great, but my mood was rather strained at this point) and said to just book me the earliest flight back to Glasgow - I just wanted to go home and sleep - but again this wouldn't be until Monday evening. I walked off to collect my baggage, which had spent the night all comfy in the hold of its plane, feeling distinctly emotionally drained. There was so much stress and high tension in the air from the mass of pissed off and tired people that it just got into you.

Now I don't blame (most of) the check in staff for the situation, or the weather for that matter. What I blame is just piss poor management and planning. Snow and cold weather aren't exactly uncommon phenomena in the northerly parts of America. Indeed it's pretty much expected during the winter, so these situations must occur at least yearly. However there seemed to be no contingency for it at all, with people having a very poor idea of what should have been done and when. The fact that planes weren't going to be flying should, and could, have been spotted earlier. This would have allowed people to arrange their connecting flights as they arrived, which would have been in a more orderly manner with a far smaller flow of people to deal with. Flights that could have been diverted, should have been, so that so many people wouldn't have been stuck in the one place. The phone system should have been more helpful, and at least given an updated message of how long it would be for a call to be answered. I just don't know whether any of this will be done, and it's certainly taken the sheen off what before was one of my least hated airports.

However my luck did change. When attempting to arrange for Continental to at least put me up in a hotel for the next couple nights I came across a rather more competent and professional set of check staff, the very people who I should have gone to in the first place. In their room, which was tucked away at the far end of the main terminal, past the luggage carousels, the atmosphere was a lot calmer. This eased me and when I got to the desk I asked whether a more concerted attempt could be made to get me to Baton Rouge. After a short while it was found that this was indeed possible, and all that had to happen was that I went via Memphis, rather than the original route via Houston. So now after about 26 hours in Newark I'm nearing my flight time. I've still not slept, so no doubt soon my normal sleep deprived experience or audio hallucination's is just around the corner, but hopefully I'm actually on my way somewhere. In fact at this point I don't care where, I just want to be moving and get out of this BLOODY AIRPORT!!!