The opposite of Up in the Air: field notes on a 68 hour trip to Dublin
"All the things you probably hate about travelling -the recycled air, the artificial lighting, the digital juice dispensers, the cheap sushi- are warm reminders that I'm home."
--Ryan Bingham of Up in the Air
While I admired much of Up in the Air, I knew that Ryan's serene enjoyment of air travel was a crock, at least according to my experiences of flying economy class. I did not know how much the movie was an elaborate fantasy until I signed on to visit Dublin using US Airways with a connecting flight with Aer Lingus last week. What follows are my raw notes, written in a Dublin-themed mini-Moleskine notebook, of an excruciating, deranging experience. What did I learn? If you must sleep on the floor of an airport, the carpeting of Charlotte International is far preferable to that of the hard surface of JFK:
I'm sitting by a window in the Columbia Airport. Outside it is overcast. I can see a large wet stain on the tarmac and there's a man nearby endlessly talking on his cell phone. He keeps chuckling at the end of each stream of words as if he's determined to keep the conversation upbeat: "She'll give you a good warm and fuzzy about some of that stuff. Ha, ha, ha!"
I'm here as the Joycean on one of those exchange program ambassadorial missions designed to promote a South Carolina university with some sister school near Dublin. 4 students and 3 faculty members got to go, and I'm tagging along, but thus far a Nor'eastern storm over Philadelphia has held up our initial flight for an hour, and we may not make it there in time for a connecting flight to Manchester, England. So we sit around at the off chance that one flight might arrive early or another may be delayed or we get stuck in Columbia for the night. I drove the Enterprise Rental van for an hour and a half so we can get stuck in the not quite fresh air of the concourse with blue fleur-de-lis carpeting and this irritating guy endlessly chuckling and talking: "Yes, he's so polite, he so polite, ha ha ha! He's so quick to say what you've should've done when he wasn't there."
Holy bloody hell. The evening would've been nightmarish enough even if the three flights lined up as they should. As it is, we're stuck in an airport purgatory, the overcast day gradually darkening outside. It is 4:50. Unbelievably, the same man just moved closer to stand behind me, still chuckling between each sentence: "If you talk to him, tell him I said hey. Have a good trip. Goodbye." This impersonal public space leeches away at my identity. I'm turning into airport slush.
3:16 in the morning
Hours after my last entry, the Manchester 8 (as the airport officials called us) or the "distressed passengers" have gotten absolutely nowhere. I'm writing this in a Clarion Hotel in Columbia, SC because an electrical storm delayed our flights to Philadelphia in increments. We all hung out in the concourse for 6 hours as the leader of our expedition stood in front of various airline desks and tried to negotiate a way out of there.
As the storm rained down on our luggage out on the tarmac, we learned that one sensitive member of our party, a student named Lenny, had never flown before, so I comforted him as best I could by saying that only 50% of flights end in a fiery crash. I told him of the strange sensation of watching a jet load of passengers viewing movies on small screens, everyone neatly media distracted as we plunge thousands of feet before shattering into tiny fragments over the ocean. Look on the bright side! Yes, we may expire, but for a few moments amidst the screams and the oxygen masks dangling, you are never more alive as you plummet.
When it became apparent that we were not going anywhere, we talked of the greater statistical probability of dying in a shuttle crash on the ground.
Now at 3:28 am I sit in a hotel room with a headache that feels like a small pane of glass wedged in my left frontal lobe. We got a few hours of sleep before reattempting to fly to Dublin today through
We are flying to Charlotte thus far without incident. Lay some black velvet on the floor 30 feet below the plane. Stitch in assorted grouped patterns of red and green lights, and that's how the earth looks from flight. Turbulence as we descend.
Hanging around the Charlotte airport. White rocking chairs. "Attention all travelers. Do not leave items unattended. Report all suspicious persons or unlawful activity to your nearest law officer. Thank you and have a nice flight." Finned back halves of jets of US Airways receding into the distance. I'm sleepy.
Here I am in the Charlotte airport. After waiting 6 hours, we learned this afternoon that our flight to New York's JFK airport was cancelled due to high winds and rain. What was kind of funny yesterday is now not. Our luggage has cheerfully continued to Dublin without us. An Indian woman talks in Hindi on her cell phone nearby, but fortunately she just walked away. I've been sitting here as our leader tries to finagle another flight to Newark. Meanwhile, the 4 students ended up suddenly taking an earlier flight to JFK, so they will either be stranded there, waiting for us or they will go on to Dublin unchaperoned. This comedy of errors has gone beyond farce into abject pain. A bunch of wanna-be US Airways flyers stand in a line with their luggage in front of me. "Ladies and gentlemen, it important that you keep close track of carrying items. Report any suspicious activity to your nearest law enforcement officer. Thank you, and have a nice flight."
Now I just learned that no flights will leave the Charlotte International airport for the next 5 hours, although it looks mildly cloudy outside.
We will now stay in Charlotte at some hotel for the night. I have grown very resigned. Blue cubist carpeting turns mauve and then
"One o'clock flight tomorrow."
"One o'clock what?"
"One o'clock flight to where?" Two women make calls on their cell phones. A transport car beeps in the distance.
"Ramada. Is that our only option?"
"You haven't left Charlotte yet?"
"We just got the word."
Homeland Security officials keep walking by. "Attention all travelers. It is important." The line of cancelled-flight-to-JFK people moves very slowly. One mother amuses her daughter by playing rock, paper, scissors.
Still stuck in Charlotte.
At one point yesterday we joined up with another exchange program gang from the same SC university, this one bound to Paris, before they left on an afternoon flight to Newark. After our flight was cancelled, we heard of them lingering on the tarmac, and for a moment it seemed as if we could possibly join them. So we tried to rush to their gate, but first we had to get through security. Several of us got through because we still had the boarding pass for a now defunct flight, but our fearless leader could not find her boarding pass because she left it back at the US Airways D/E checkpoint desk. While we stood around the security area, the Homeland Security officers went into Code Red. A light started to flash, a buzzer sounded, and an officer told us to not move as they barricaded the tables, and closed a large segmented shower-curtain-like thing to further block the route to the secured area. After a moment, they pulled back the curtain and said it was all a drill. Once again, I went through the metal detector, had my bag and coat and shoes screened, and then we made our way down to Gate C13 where it became clear that we weren't getting on any plane, so we gave up and went to drink a Guinness Stout at the airport bar.
Later we learned that the Paris gang endured the "worst flight they had ever been on" due to the Nor'eastern trade winds. The turbulence was so bad, multiple people in the cabin vomited into their white bags. Other prayed and shook with fear until they landed in Newark.
Meanwhile, we walked outside. I laid down on some concrete, laid my head on my bookbag, and stared up at the concrete indentations overhead, noting the blend of fresh air and exhaust. A grungy Ramada Inn shuttle picked us up, and we arrived 15 minutes later at a rundown convention center hotel where all of the maroon furniture in the lobby looked stained and worn, and a frowsy woman behind the counter got us a room down an endless corridor. We got a "distressed passenger" discount.
Meanwhile, the 4 students managed to get on an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin at JFK, but the 70+ mile-an-hour winds grew too strong, so after lingering on the tarmac for 5 hours (Lenny sounded like he was going to cry on the cell phone), they finally disembarked and I assume found a hotel in the area. [Note: no hotels were available, so they slept on the floor of the airport with their luggage for the night. Keeping guard over their stuff, Lenny never slept at all.]
This morning on the 3rd day of nonarrival, after 2 days of waiting around in airports, we head out to an IHOP for breakfast before foolishly trying to go somewhere.
Another detail about this hotel. It has a cavernous dark inner space that was once a giant restaurant with windows from rooms looking on. The restaurant appears defunct now, but I could see a small party eating a buffet off in the distance in the huge room.
Sunday. The long vigil begins again. Here I sit on the blue and mauve-patterned concourse floor, near gate B11. Our flight has already been delayed an hour, and when I asked the US Airways rep what she thought about the status of our flight, she said she didn't know. When I asked her about the now 2 pm time for our departure, she said she didn't know. Our flight has been held up due to flight traffic delays over JFK, but it has not been cancelled yet. The three ladies and I have not been getting anywhere except to Charlotte for the past 3 days, and yet we woke up with good spirits. The sun shown. We ate a good breakfast at the IHOP near the decrepit Ramada Inn, but thus far, we have gotten used to 8+ hour days in airports, and we seem to have embarked on our third.
I noticed a pilot sheepishly leaving the plane and walking off. There is a plane at our gate this time, something of an improvement on yesterday, and since we have no idea where our luggage is, we won't have to worry about picking it up if the flight is cancelled. "Ladies and gentlemen, please continue to use caution when entering and exiting . . . "
Delay, delay, delay. After our flight time delayed from 1:05 to 4:30, our take off time just delayed until 4:45 although we have made it on the jet and the pilot announced that we should be able to arrive at JFK airport without any holding pattern over there. Instead, we sit on the tarmac, waiting for the go ahead to take off. Someone snores loudly behind me. The 3 professors chat nearby. One of them has cold ears. We may have to sprint to the Aer Lingus flight to Dublin in NY, but we don't have boarding passes with them yet.
The problem with the Charlotte airport. The recorded announcements about foreign packages feed our paranoia, fear, and suspicion of others. I have learned, however, of the convenience of lying on the floor of the concourse. The music of Air on an iPod works well to help one zone out when lying against a blue rubber matt on the wall. One gets metaphysically attuned to waiting in these situations. I am here, and whether or not I arrive there ultimately becomes immaterial. One looks at the strangers in the rows of chairs as sacks of flesh negotiating a space to have some semblance of dignity in. The luckiest of all can sleep through the whole experience.
We now have the release time at 30 after the hour, as the pilot fires up the engines.
We landed at 6:19 in JFK, but then we got stuck on the runway. The captain explained to us that traffic in front of us on the ramp blocked us from getting to the gate. The jet at the gate didn't move for some reason, I think, because other jets blocked the way.
"At least we landed alive. That's one thing."
Just now the captain assured us that the jet was backing away from the gate, so now we can finally arrive. Someone said all of the bad weather blocked all of the air traffic for awhile and now all of the jets have landed at once, clogging up the tarmac.
"It has not been a fun flight."
The guy next to me keeps cheerfully writing JAVA code on his Powerbook while another fellow gives his play by play on his cell phone. "I'm assuming that there's a line behind us." Outside, it has darkened and started to rain. The plane tends to rock slightly, but we have not moved. The next flight to Ireland is at 8 something and we don't know if we will obtain boarding passes on that or not. The irony of all this is that no matter what, we are likely to have a good dinner and a hotel room at the end of this strange tunnel of a day.
[The journal cuts off there, but later that night, at about 10, we arrived at JFK airport. We asked one of the US Airways officials if we needed anything to catch a flight on Aer Lingus, and she said we should have no problem. After making our way all across the huge sprawling airport littered with luggage, we learned from the Aer Lingus people that we needed to go all the way back (by shuttle) to the portion of that airport to find the US Airways people and get the numbers for our flight from them so they (the Aer Lingus people (in cheerful green suits)) could hand us our boarding passes. We dashed back to that wing to find that the US Airways counter had closed, whereupon we started asking anyone wearing a uniform for help. Eventually, a baggage claim man helped us locate a long distance number to US Airways headquarters and a sweet woman from United Airlines earned our endless gratitude by hacking into US Airways database somehow and finding the numbers for us. We then ran back to the Aer Lingus area, got the boarding passes, and ended up waiting for several more hours in a concourse over there. I noticed, groggily, as I lay on the hard surface of the floor of that gate that an Aer Lingus worker was wearing a faux mohawk. As we boarded the plane at 1:30 am, all of the drinkers at a nearby Samuel Adams bar cheered us on. The next day, 68 hours after we left our homes in SC, we finally arrived in Dublin. We will never fly with US Airways again.]
"I am here, and whether or not I arrive there ultimately becomes immaterial." I like that.
Here's hoping for Part II of your journey, chronicling the PERFECT time you had in Dublin.
Anyway, I mostly wrote the field notes in an attempt to convey the impression that there's something deeply deranged about air flight these days. A chemist friend of mine says that all indications are that peak oil has hit, and therefore air flight will become prohibitively expensive once fuel prices continue to rise. In the meantime, airlines continue to cut costs where they can, and that, combined with the paranoia of heightened security, can create a nightmare experience. The mobbed JFK airport at night, after the storm and littered with luggage, reminded me of the lowest point of Dante's Inferno.