Sunday, May 6, 2012

America 1

Where the hell do I begin?

Let's start with the time of the planned journey and the time it actually took. The flights as scheduled had us on a journey of 17 hours. Sydney to LA, LA to Las Vegas. Easy, right? Well, it ended up being 27 hours from Sydney to Vegas. That's not a typo; twenty-seven fucking hours.

Here's how it went down.

All went reasonably well on the flight leaving Australia. Virgin Australia, premium economy. Our travel agent had told us that we'd have access to a special lounge at the airport, but 'twas not to be. Still, no worries, right? We made it into LAX two hours before we left on the same day and then it started - immigrations, customs and the goddamn TSA.

Being as we were premium economy passengers, we were first off the plane after the well-rested our-seats-recline-fully first class toffs. This meant that we were quite close to the front of the queue for going through customs and immigration. So we lined up in the corridor in front of the escalators, where a TSA official told us to stop and wait while people from a different flight that had also just arrived were hustled through first. Fine. Then after a while, we got clearance to go down the escalators. At the bottom of the escalators, there was a small rectangular room and a woman directing us into different lines. After getting out of the line we'd been mistakenly put into at first, we made it to the front of the queue for foreigners. It was not until all the American citizens had been cleared to go to the next stage that they asked about anyone with connecting flights. Our flight was in an hour and a half, so it was getting close. The woman herding us through these lines was taking her orders from the TSA on the desks in the next room and though the system she was implementing was not of her design, she was doing it atrociously.

"We have a connecting flight...."
"Ma'am, I will get to you,"
"It's quite soon...."
"Ma'am, step back inside the line, ma'am."

Time ticked on relentlessly and the room got hotter. There were a fair couple of hundred people to be processed and the queue looked like the final stages of a game of Snake on an old Nokia mobile, where the snake is zig-zagged and curled in and out as much as possible to cram maximum snake into minimum space. And we were at the front of the queue. Poor bastards in the middle or the back couldn't hear what was happening.

We made it through after a forever and were allowed into the next room and the third queue. This was the immigration check, where they electronically finger printed everyone. It took  a while, but it eventually happened. Then to the baggage carousel and out.

OK, so LAX Arrivals Terminal Styx. Finding ourselves standing blearily on the side of the road, we're trying to figure out how to get to Terminal 1. There's really not much in the way of signage and it's very chaotic, so we ask around and eventually figure out the shuttle bus to get us to the Terminal we want to be at. All systems go, we're winning the race.

We get off at Terminal 1 and head to the check-in desk but there's a problem. Wrong terminal, wrong airline. Fuck. We're late as it is but the man says if we hurry, we should be able to make it. We race to the shuttle bus stop and hope for the bus to arrive but it takes ages. Other buses pass but do not stop. Dad gets on the wrong one but I check with the driver and we avoid that particular disaster. Eventually bus comes. right, on we hop. Our terminal is 6 stops away and on the 4ths stop, there's some kind of hold up. Are these people asking directions? Why is the driver getting off the bus? FFS. Time passes and we are cutting it super fine. We make it to the check-in counter for United and get in line but when we get to the front, the woman tells us we've missed our connecting flight.

But all is not lost! She can try to get us on another one leaving at 8:30pm. Right. Tappity, tappity, this lady is working on entering everything into the system. There are three seats left on this flight and we've got them! Yes! My boarding pass is printed first but then there's this error with the computer system.  The United woman, who is herself rather disoriented ("they changed the computer system and I haven't used this one.") gets another assistant to help out. The verdict they arrive at and which we accept as fact is that these three remaining seats have been booked for us and when we get to the gate to board, the staff will allocate us the seats. Which are ours. Which are booked as of...... *click* now.

Right, brilliant, off we go. TSA, shoes off, witnessing pat downs, shoes back on, done. Terminal Lethe, we are in you. The gate is located. It's many, many hours to go until we even come close to approaching boarding time. After a coffee (atrocious) and a sandwich (is this bread sweet?), we we find some seats and wait. I curl up on the floor and sleep like a dog.

While I've slept (jerking awake every time the PA system booms, "US Service Personnel, we salute you," offering free access to a special lounge - "Become a citizen! Enlist today!"), Mum has been going to the boarding gate every so often to ask about those seat allocations. Staff tell her to wait until the plane is ready to board. The good news out of this is that when at the 11th hour (actually, it was more like the 8th hour, but who's counting?)  they change the boarding gate to one a kilometre or so away without making any announcement over the PA, we're already on our way. The plane is arriving shortly and staff are setting up. It's been hours and we feel sick, but we're finally going somewhere and that feels pretty great. We make it to Gate 70B and go up to the guy at the front desk.

"We missed our connecting flight and the woman at the check-in desk re-booked us new tickets. She told us to tell you so you could allocate our seats."
Tappity tappity tappity "May I see your tickets, please?" Tappity-tappity. "I'm afraid only one of you is booked on this flight," the man says. Reality crumbles, madness sets in. The walls shake and crack; the blackness beyond beckons.
"But the woman at the desk said we were booked on. We've been waiting eight hours. She said it was done."
"You're on the stand-by list. If there is a cancellation, you will be allocated those seats."
"But she said it was just a matter..."
"Yes, the flight is over-booked."
"I understand you're upset, ma'am, but you are on the stand-by list."

I have come to the conclusion that in America, "ma'am" is code for "person I happily compare to dog poo."

Samuel's Adagio plays as we head back to the seats. People are staring. The thing about a situation like this is that although you really want to lay into everyone within a five mile radius, you have to smile and be polite and calm, because when the only way out of this fucking insanity trap at in the discretion of one man, you have got to make that man believe you are not thinking of throttling him.

We're desolated. It's been so long. Dad has retreated somewhere and Mum is furious. I'm about to cry but am trying to keep calm for the both of them. It's seeing my parents distressed that upsets me the most. I go up and mention to the guy that if there's anything he can do, we'd really appreciate it; "My father has brain damage and this has been very, very distressing." Meanwhile, Mum starts going through her bag, giving me cash, the receipt for the accommodation in Vegas. If they can't get on the plane, I'm going alone.

You know that scene in 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers' when the wild men are rampaging through Rohan aided by Saruman's orcs and a villager puts her two tiny blonde children on a horse to raise the alarm and get to safety? And they're blubbing and it's all very heart-rending?

Just saying.

The plane is delayed and it looks like everyone who needs to turn up has. We're out of luck. The guy at the desk calls us up. I'm certain he's going to tell us he's very sorry but, etc --- but he doesn't. Someone's late and they're missing out. We're in. The man is told he is a 'golden god' by the twitching blonde woman in the jacket (i.e., me) and we're boarding. Holy fuck we're boarding. It's been over 24 hours by this point in time and I've slept uninterrupted for.... none of them, really. Approximately 4 hours cumulative, I guess.

Listening to 'Space Oddity' by David Bowie while a plane goes through turbulence is fucking awesome.

Eventually, we land. Shuffling like Jack Nicholson at the end of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest', we disembark (I will NEVER 'deplane') and after a crushing tram ride find ourselves at the baggage carousels. We're through, we've done it. Achievement unlocked: luggage obtained. Let's. Fucking. Go.

Out the door marked 'taxi pick up', we are greeted with a picture from a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Crowds of people, smoke, noise, confusion, chaos. Men in uniform shout taxis to the side of the road and shout passengers into them. The line stretches down to the corner of the building and then back up towards us, back again to the corner and then back up to us again, and then back up to the corner of the building and then, yes, back to us again. We join the queue and eventually make it up to its first bend at the other end of the building only to find there's an extra bit in it and it GOES AROUND THE CORNER.

I've never seen anything like it.

Once I went to New Year's Eve at my brother and his fiancee's flat in Milson's Point and foolishly believed I'd be able to catch the train back into the city afterwards. The teeming throng of revellers stretched on and on, and when I was finally able to start making it up the stairs, seen from above, looked like one of those magic-eye pictures from the 90s.

That suburb-wide human gridlock has nothing on the despair this crowd of people evoked in me. It was going to take hours.

Then one of the guards started shouting. Some guys had broken out of the line and had approached the driver of a shuttle bus. "NO HUSTLING! YOU KNOW THE RULES!" But from what we were able to hear from their aborted conversation, there was some hope of alternative transportation.

Can you believe it that when we made it to the shuttle bus side of the building, the man there said it would be faster if we went back to the taxi queue? Well, when the nice young man in the suit driving the private hire superposh SUV deluxe going-somewhere-not-here-mobile drove up and asked where we were going, we got the fuck in, money be damned. A life saver, a legend, a limo driver.

Incredulously, Dad ventured, "It's not like this all the time, is it?"
Diplomatically, the best man in the universe replied, "Not ALL the time...." and then less diplomatically, "but most of the time."

It was midnight when we arrived at the hotel and a while yet before we were able to check in and find our room. But the time in transit stopped at this point at 27.5 hours.

Twenty fucking seven point fucking five hours.


  1. Oh. My. God. And THIS is one of the MILLION reasons I will NEVER again set foot on US soil. *shudder* Oh my lord. I'm so sorry. I would have absolutely bloody lost it - I can't stand airports at the best of times... compared to this, Heathrow is a delight.

  2. Having changed in LAX to get to Chicago, I know how that goes. It sounds like you got it worse than me, though. When I stepped groggily (and alone) out of the landing terminal and asked a man for directions, he did answer by telling me about Jesus, though. (Alex)