Friday, August 03, 2007

Transportation lesson

There's nothing like the humidity of the midwest/southern part of the country, especially when it hits near 100 degrees and the humidity is about 100 percent. We get spoiled here in the West in the summer with our dry heat. But a few days in Kentucky and other places such as Chicago were a reminder that summer can be quite challenging for people in other parts of the country.

I was able to experience another day of Kentucky heat and humidty because of problems with planes. Some of my fellow travel companions and I who attempted to fly from Louisville to Dallas spent several quality hours in and out of our plane and the airport terminal.

Different reasons contributed to this exercise: we had taxied out on the runway at one point and then were told all flights in and out of Dallas were shut down because of bad weather there. That was supposed to be at least an hour and a half wait. As we sat on our hot plane on the tarmac, it got hotter as the plane's power system shut down a couple of times. That includes the air conditioning. People were now getting cranky and a wee bit sweaty. Eventually the pilot decided to return us to the terminal. But we needed to wait for another plane to move first ... so time continued to pass.

Inside the terminal, hours passed. We learned the weather got better in Texas, but a mechanic was working on problems on our plane. Then it was all the paperwork the mechanic had to do before the plane could take off. The captain kept coming out to chat to us in a small group huddled around him: he shared our frustration, since his vacation was supposed to start the next day.

Suddenly we heard that for all those who wanted to make the flight, we needed to board IMMEDIATELY. That caught our attention. Forget special treatment for anyone, row numbers, or anything like that: we all rushed aboard, and the whole plane was boarded in probably 10 minutes or less.

Unfortunately, we weren't quick enough. The pilot came out again from the cockpit, and told us he wanted to look us in the eye with the latest news. Strict regulations cover how many hours pilots and others can work their jobs, and his First Officer had just timed out. The pilot explained that if we could have left a few minutes earlier, we would have been fine, but now we couldn't use this staff member. And without a First Officer, we couldn't leave.

The pilot assured me he would try all he could to find another person to take that place, and was making calls. He'd get back to us.

We waited. And waited. The sun was setting nicely. We watched other planes come and go.

He finally informed us no other staff could be found. The flight was now officially cancelled. He pointed to another plane beside us, half full, leaving to ... Dallas. He said they would see if some of us could make that flight. More time passed...

Eventually, we were informed that other flight was also in danger of being cancelled, and had to leave without us. We later heard from some of the passengers on that plane that they could see our pilot and some of our staff arguing with airport officials out on the tarmac. Then those passengers stretched out over two or three seats later in the air, enjoying their extra space ...

The day continued to progress in the same way. Not enough people to handle rebooking flights. Not enough shuttles to take us to airports. The problem we heard over and over again was that people had gone home from their jobs, people who worked certain jobs wouldn't respond to calls, or some people just wouldn't show up to do jobs.

For the people who were there who tried to help us, I can't say enough about how great they all were. A lot of us had great respect for the people who took the time to keep us updated, and who made sure they did that in person. The pilot did this several times, and a woman from inside who had to make a tough call on whether to try to get any of us on the other Dallas plane. As she explained, if that plane missed its time to depart, she'd need to reschedule all the passengers from both planes and we'd need several days to straighten everything out. She accepted the brunt of the frustrations from our flight, but she made the right call.

As we rebooked, some of us changed routes home completely so we could get back to home or near home the next day. A few of us saw each other on the Chicago flight the next day, heading north instead of to Dallas, and then catching flights from there.

At 10 p.m. Wednesday, we got to our hotel, weary from our day. Entered the designated nonsmoking room that obviously was actually a smoking room ... asked for our 4 a.m. wake-up calls (gee, is that really only 1 a.m. Salem time?) and switched on the TV.

It was sobering to watch what had happened less than 3 hours before: The bridge collapse in Minneapolis. We thought about people we knew that commuted each day over that bridge. We watched news footage of people pleading for people to find their loved ones in the twisted mess of steel, concrete and muddy Mississippi water.

We felt ashamed of all the complaining we had done so far. Our problems in life seemed pretty simple compared to what was happening in Minneapolis that night.

In this world of travel, and transportation that is designed to get us to our destinations on the ground or in the air, we are so dependent on everything working smoothly that we react strongly when things go bad.

Sometimes it's just an inconvenience. But other times it's a case of life and death.

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