State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Gracelessness Under Pressure: An Air Travel Story

by on July 08, 2011 5:48 AM

The itinerary looked like this: State College to Detroit. Detroit to Minneapolis. Minneapolis to San Francisco.

So: We get to Detroit. We board the flight to the Twin Cities. The pilot informs us, in the folksy-jokey style that Tom Wolfe nailed in "The Right Stuff," that a line of thunderstorms is headed our way. We could fly around 'em, Cap'n tells us, it's just that the tower doesn't want runway personnel getting in the way of any lightning bolts.

This appears to be standard procedure for the airlines: Board first, then make your customers wait out a delay on the plane because it's just so freaking pleasant to sit back and relax in a seat where the width of the space between your knees and the seat in front of you can be measured in microns.

Should we give them the benefit of the doubt and say perhaps they didn't know that the angry red spots on the radar screen would delay us until after we boarded? Nah.

The storm itself is convincing, though. The tail of the plane, which is where my son and I are sitting, does the hoochie-coochie. The extravaganza lasts for 90 minutes, which is just about the length of our layover in Minneapolis.

As we make our descent into Minneapolis-St. Paul, the flight attendant asks the lucky so-and-sos who aren't trying to get anywhere else to yield to the desperados in the last row who are trying to get to San Francisco (and others in a similar predicament). This gives me hope: They're going to hold our flight until we get there.

Alas, it still takes 15 minutes to "deplane." Ever wonder why they don't use multiple exits? I have. We missed our flight by 15 minutes.

Disappointing, sure, but I pride myself on not behaving as if the universe was supposed to have been designed to my personal specifications, so I remain calm. Indeed, the airline is impressively on top of the situation insofar as all of us have boarding passes waiting for us for the next available flight.

Which in our case is the following morning. We also have a phone number to arrange a night of half-price lodging. (Since severe weather is not the airline's fault, half-price is as far as they'll go.)

While waiting to get through to the hotel booking service, I take a closer look at my new boarding pass. I'm not flying from Minneapolis to San Francisco in the morning. I'm flying from Minneapolis to Atlanta to San Francisco. Specifically, I'm being routed to an airport that will put me 232 air miles closer to my destination than I was when I left Sate College the previous day.

This is when the kettle begins to boil.

Still, I do not rant. I ask the ticket agent, do we really have to go all the back to Atlanta? She checks. We don't. We're rebooked onto a direct flight at 10 a.m. So now I'm as happy as a guy can be who has been up for 18 hours, has spent nearly half of that time in transit and who will get to his destination 12 hours later than planned.

All this time, I am still waiting for the next available hotel booking person. Finally she gets me a room. Sadly, the hotel's shuttle quit running a half hour ago, so we'll have to cab it.

I tell the driver the name of the hotel. I don't have the address. Though I had never heard of this hotel before, it's a chain, with multiple locations in the Twin Cities. After multiple consultations with his dispatcher and his GPS, our driver puts his hack in a forward gear.

En route, I count the number of hotels that are closer to the airport than the place we're going. There are at least a dozen. The cab fare will come to $40.

Despite having located the hotel on his GPS, the cabbie can't find it. We turn into the parking lots of various establishments that clearly do not provide beds for weary travelers.

Finally we arrive. The desk clerk, sounding exactly like Frances McDormand in "Fargo," asks for my voucher from the airline. I hand her the boarding pass with the instructions for getting a hotel room. This, she tells me, is not a voucher. This, I tell her through clenched teeth, is the only document the airline gave me.

Frances frowns, opens a ledger book, squints, types. Finally she gives me the thing I covet most in the world: a key card to a room with a bed in it. But there is further annoyance: The hotel's airport shuttle doesn't make its first run of the day until after we need to be off. So we have to book another $40 cab ride.

Ah well. Now we're where we want to be. But I should have been nicer to that desk clerk in Apple Valley, Minn. My son was watching.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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