Sometimes merely following the advice of air travel professionals — fly early in the day, leave adequate time for connections, pack a change of clothes in your carry-on bag, choose a suitcase that stands out on the baggage carousel — just isn't enough.
For instance, when a wackjob airport worker in Seattle steals a plane and takes it for a joyride, snarling air traffic.
Which meant that planes scheduled to be in Anchorage for predawn flights to Seattle the next day didn't arrive on time or that crews were not available because of those delays. And that meant hundreds of Alaska Airlines passengers were not going to make their connections in Seattle, including us for American's 8 a.m. nonstop to Philadelphia. We could take an Alaska flight to Portland and then its 9:20 red-eye from there to Philadelphia, but getting to Seattle and more options — including another nonstop at noon — seemed wiser.
Once in Seattle, I tracked an American gate agent as she settled in for an arriving flight; she listed us as the first standbys on the booked-solid noon flight. (Saturdays are the disembarkation day for round-trip cruises from Seattle to Alaska; plus there was the small matter of a Pearl Jam stadium concert the night before.) So at 9:30, I felt relief — certainly there would be at least one seat my daughter could use – and even more relief shortly before noon as I watched the boarding line dwindle and numbers on that same desk agent's computer showed 30 seats were not yet claimed.
That's when her phone rang.
The flight would be delayed two hours for a maintenance issue; all the passengers would have to come off. Not quite two hours later, the gate agent announced an additional two-hour delay. Ugh. Fine. At least we'd get home. … Except, 15 minutes later, the flight was canceled. That was about 2:15.
At the three other American counters, agents were busy with departing flights. I eventually headed over to one and was second in line, but even that took an eternity. After about 15 minutes with me, the agent came up with a flight to Portland on Delta, a flight from there to San Francisco on United, and then United's red-eye from there to Philadelphia. Where our luggage was, who could say. At that point, we had been awake, less a short nap or two on the plane from Anchorage, for nearly 28 hours.
We easily made the Portland flight, and during the couple of hours until our next connection, we tracked down our luggage — the bags had been loaded onto that canceled noon flight and then unloaded and were still in Seattle. That would turn out to be a good thing, because in a little while the message board quietly announced that our flight to San Francisco was delayed 90 minutes — too late to make the red-eye. I quickly walked toward the growing line at the single gate agent. After a time, a few folks just behind me started comparing their fouled-up travel that day. I spoke up during a break in their conversation: "My daughter and I have been up for 31 hours."
Eventually, a second and then a third agent arrived. At my turn, I asked whether the flight from San Francisco was running late. And it was! The plane that would be used on the red-eye was 45 minutes behind schedule. If the flight from Portland took off no more than the 90 minutes late, we'd be OK. But that was far from a certainty. Then the agent abruptly made a phone call: "Can I grab two seats that opened up on your overnight to Philly? … Yes? … Great." He quickly attacked his keyboard and printed new tickets for us. It was 8:40. "You need to get over to Alaska, NOW, for their 9:20."
That would be the flight offered to us 18 hours earlier in Anchorage. We had the last seats on the plane, in the last row, against the lavatory — do you have any idea how loud the whoooshhh of a flushing toilet on an airplane is? — but we were aboard.
Our luggage was loaded onto the next day's 8 a.m. American flight from Seattle. Which was canceled. The bags came home through Chicago later in the day and joined the collection of unclaimed suitcases. The baggage claim staff — from both American and Alaska — fairly easily spotted my daughter's polka-dotted suitcase the next day; my black one, not so much. I went to the airport a day later and was able to find it.