This post has nothing to do with science or climate, but it does go to illustrate how life gets more complex each day thanks to increased bureaucracy, and that you should take nothing for granted in the world of air travel today.
It is also an apology to the chair and attendees, of the Family Forest Landowners and Management Conference where I had been invited to speak today at 2PM. For the first time in my life, due to circumstances outside of my control, I had to bow out of a speaking engagement at the very last minute. My sincerest apologies to all of you there.
Where I live, air travel isn’t always easy, particularly since I have to drive 90 miles to the nearest major airport, Sacramento, and then board from there, which I’ve pretty much gotten down to a science, or so I thought until yesterday.
I think you will all find the following story of the Murphy’s Law domino effect in action quite amusing, and in retrospect, it is really the only way one can look at it now.
It all started out well enough, I even thought I’d be arriving at the airport early.
The first domino was me misreading the flight time before leaving for the airport, though I didn’t know this until a critical moment later. I thought it was 3:25PM, but I read the wrong page, and that was the departure time of my connecting flight. But being a broadcaster, where missing a deadline to be on-air is a fate worse than death, I always make sure I meet deadlines, so I planned to arrive two hours early because I’d known that the Sacramento airport had recently undergone a major renovation, and there might be some changes that affect me. I was right about that, I just didn’t know how much.
Second domino – I arrived at 1:25 PM at the Sacramento airport and discovered that the Southwest airlines terminal had been moved from the familiar and easy to use terminal A to the new glass and stainless steel cathedral known as the NEW terminal “B”, with the old one (also easy to use) having been demolished. So I drove around and reentered the terminal loop to go to the new terminal. I was looking for parking at the new terminal, and I drove around the loop twice looking for daily parking. I could see the daily parking lot for terminal B, remarking to myself there were few cars in it, but couldn’t seem to find the entrance. I decided to drive into the uber expensive hourly lot, and ask the gate attendant…I had plenty of time…or so I thought. The gate attendant explained that there was no daily parking for new terminal B, as it hadn’t been completed yet. My options for parking were the terminal A parking garage (which I’ve used almost every time for 10 years) or the economy lot out in the next county with a half hour shuttle bus ride that stops at every stop even if no people are waiting to get on/off. I opted for the garage, even though I knew it would be a long walk between terminals, but hey, I was two hours early, I had plenty of time. I’d planned for hiccups like this.
I discovered that the new terminal B was like a visit to the Robert Schuler’s Crystal Cathedral in LA. Glass, metal, multiple levels, lots of light…and digital signage everywhere. Only one problem with digital signage and bright light from a nearly all glass building – they don’t co-exist well, and viewing angles on LCD screens mean you have to go in front of them to read them clearly, no cheating by viewing obliquely from afar is allowed.
Gone are the days when I could park my vehicle in the parking garage, walk about 1oo yards, check in, walk 50 yards, go through security, then walk another 50 yards and be at the gate. No, that simplicity is gone forever with this new hallowed glass and steel place of bureaucratic worship. It’s a hike.
The third domino came when I walked up to the check in counter to check my bag. And the attendant admonished me to not speak to her, but use the LCD touchscreen because she was “only there to apply the luggage tag”. I thought to myself “and you’ll be a replaced by a robot soon I’ll bet”. Completing the task, the LCD screen flashed up a red angry warning LATE CHECK IN – NO BAG GUARANTEE. Puzzled, since I had “plenty of time” I dared to make conversation again with the attendant and ask why this happened. Looking at me like I’m sort sort of idiot she curtly replied “Well that’s what happens when you check in 10 minutes before the plane leaves”. It was then to my horror that I discovered I’d misread the wrong flight time, and indeed I had only ten minutes to board. So I said, “there’s no way I’ll be able to make this, let’s just look at other options”. Again she replied, “Well you need to try, THEN we’ll figure it out if you miss the flight.”.
So now I was on a mission, thoughts of a leisurely coffee and late lunch turned to panic in an unfamiliar terminal I’d never been to before in my life.
The fourth domino (and a couple of minutes lost) came when I started looking for the security gate…it turns out there isn’t any in this new aviation cathedral, but you now have to board a train to get to security and from there, the gate. Sigh, it used to be so easy at this airport.
So another two-minute wait for the train…and now I’m down to six minutes left. The train takes a minute, thankfully security was not busy and there were only two ahead of me….but you know how it is, you have to walk that back and forth rope maze thingy to get the 25 feet to the checkpoint.
I get through the driver’s license/ID checkpoint and get to the baggage scanners…and proceed to tear off my belt, my shoes, keys, watch, ring, etc and pack it into the tray for the x-ray machine, something else I’ve got down to a speed science. I got that done, shoved in the trays, and then I saw it, yet another metal and glass behemoth – the full body scanner. I’d never used one before, but I figured “OK this will be quick, they are designed for speed, right”?
Wrong – the fifth domino was my wallet, which I’ve never ever had to remove before in any scanner I’ve gone through. along with the usual assortment of credit cards, I keep an ultra-thin plastic USB drive. It seems the new full body scanner decided it didn’t like that, and on the display put a big red dot on my butt while somewhere I was imagining the robot from Lost in Space flailing it’s arms arms and shouting “DANGER DANGER! WILL ROBINSON”.
So I figured “no biggie”, I put my wallet in a bowl and run it through the x-ray right and I’m done right? Well, no. you see it seems my ticket was flagged due to my lateness and checking a bag, which apparently is one of those “signatures” that bad guys like to use because they want to spend as little time in the terminal as possible to minimize the chance that somebody might “finger” them.
So I get the red carpet treatment reserved for those special cases. Full body pat down, full body magnetometer wand, full body sniffer patch rubdown looking for GSR and explosives residue. Then some questioning, inspection of my laptop, and then when it is decided I’m not a threat, I get unceremoniously ejected like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld where he yells NEXT!
So I look at my watch as I’m putting it back on and it’s a minute past boarding time now. I figured I’m toast, but hustle to the gate anyway. Naturally, gate B-18 is the furthest one away from security. And of course, the plane is gone.
I’m about to see the sixth domino fall.
So I ask (well, blather excitedly) the gate attendant “Wanda” about all this, harping a bit about security delays after she says to me “ I got the call from ticketing we waited as long as we could” I asked about alternate flights. It seems that the next two flights at 5:30PM and 6 something were tours of the western United States, going in the reverse direction I needed, down to Las Vegas, then to Salt Lake City, and then to Portland both arriving at Spokane after 11PM. I could get them on standby too. “Great, how about tomorrow?”. Well I could get there, but then I have an hour to gather bags and rental car, then drive almost another two hours from Spokane to Moscow Idaho where the forest conference was.
Déjà vu is a funny thing, right then I got a flashback about the last time I was flagged as a potential terrorist on a trip to Idaho, way back in 1985. US Marshalls were involved in that one. And this was before today’s heightened security theater.
I’ll share that story.
I had been demoing weather display equipment in Boise in the winter of 1985. In those days I lugged around an IBM-AT with a 16 color CRT monitor, and a separate broadcast quality Sony NTSC monitor in specially designed cases like musicians use for road trips. I was my own roadie lugging around over 100 pounds of computer equipment at a time when people lugging around such equipment was uncommon.
I had been on the road for a week. Visiting Denver TV stations first, doing demos, I then flew up to Boise, where my system was damaged in transit. Rather than return home, I tried to rebuild in the field, using parts from a local ComputerLand store at exorbitant prices. 128K ram chips in stacked DIP packages in those days were hard to come by. They had a habit of failing due to the solder joints and vibration. So I spent the day repairing it, and then decided to postpone the demo until the next day, and sought a hotel room. As luck would have it the U.S Governors conference was in town, and there wasn’t a hotel room to be had. After hours of searching, I finally did locate one at a fleabag hotel downtown that gave far more meaning to the words “transient occupancy” that one usually thinks of when describing hotels. The bed was one of those old one with a trench in the middle of the mattress and a wrought iron frame that looked like something my grandmother owned. The shower, ran hot and cold, mostly cold. I managed to get showered and shaved, but this was the middle of winter and I was chilled to the bone.
The next day I lugged the equipment over to the TV station and set it up. Gathered everyone, and started the demo. About 5 minutes in, the IBM-AT (8 mHz) crashed and gave me a BSOD. I rebooted, started over, same thing at the same point in the demo… I apparently still had some bad memory chip(s). So I asked for their indulgence of 30 minutes, tore the machine apart, reseated all the DIP memory on the motherboard and tried again. No dice. At this point, it was a lost cause. I had to abandon the demonstration.
Meanwhile, the Denver TV station I had called on a week earlier wanted a follow-up, so I had to fly back to Denver, lugging my dead equipment along. Another visit to a ComputerLand store first, more troubleshooting and parts replacement and it looked like I had it. So I went over to KUSA-TV and setup for the demo again…and did the demo, I got about 90% through and got another BSOD. I explained the equipment had been damaged in Boise, and what I’d been doing to repair it, but I could see they weren’t too trustful of the equipment. Remember then, computers weren’t widely accepted and broadcast TV equipment was single use discrete component design, all built like tanks. Tektronix and silver-solder and all that was the norm…because on-air failure during live TV was just intolerable. Nobody wanted a BSOD on-air.
I packed up and left, feeling miserable, and drove to the Denver Stapleton airport in my rental car. I was two hours early, I had “plenty of time”.
I dropped off the rental car and then had to wait a few more minutes for the larger of the shuttle buses that the attendant assured me had the room in the rear needed to accommodate my collection of three roadie cases plus luggage. No problem I said, I had “plenty of time”.
The van arrived, we loaded up and set off. In those days, the rental car areas were behind the hourly parking lots, and the van took some sort of twisted route through some side access for those, and ended up at automatic security gate where it let you out. There were about three cars ahead of us. When the car ahead of us made it to the gate. It stopped, and sat there, and sat there, and sat there some more. The shuttle bus driver honked. Nothing. So he got out to find out why this car was stopped. It turns out the driver in front of us had run out of gas. We couldn’t push the car with the shuttle bus due to bumper height mismatch, and we couldn’t push it by hand due to speed bumps and those reverse entry spikes and the driver didn’t want risk shredded tires.
Great. At least I had “plenty of time”. The shuttle bus driver calls for a tow truck on the radio. So we all sit around waiting, thinking this will just be a few minutes, a few minutes turns into a half hour, another call on the radio – “we’ll be there soon” comes the response. The half hour turns into 45 minutes, and I’m thinking up ways now that I can get my cases out (the biggest one has wheels) and push them the rest of the way to the terminal about 1000 yards away….but, before I can complete those thoughts, the tow truck finally arrives, and moves the car and we are on our way.
By this time I have about 30 minutes left before the flight, and I still have to check my beasts of baggage. The shuttle bus pulls up to the terminal, I flag a skycap, explain my situation and hand him $30. He said he’d handle it, and I had to go to the ticket counter to pay the usual excess baggage fees. So he tells me just leave them here, go to the ticket counter (visible through the glass) and he’d bring in my roadies cases to get it all settled.
So, of course there’s a line. And I wait, keeping an eye on my roadies cases through the big window, waiting for him to move it. My turn comes, but as I glance back, another skycap has the cases loaded on a cart and is headed down the sidewalk, away from the ticket counter. So I take off, flag him down, explain, and he says “well they were unattended”. I look around for the guy I originally tipped well, and he’s nowhere to be seen. I’m down to 20 minutes so I say to this skycap, pressing money into his palm while explaining, look please just bring it to the ticket counter for me?
So we hustle up to the ticket counter, wait again, I pay the fees, get my boarding pass and I’m off. I still have to get through security and to the gate. Security in those days was much simpler, but once again I got hung up at security because I had tools in my carry on bag…the tools I used to tear apart and rebuild the computer, – I had forgotten to put back in the roadie case. It is the scourge of carrying computer equipment and tools and being late. So I explain, I show them my card and my brochures and why I’d be carrying computer tools. They pass me through, tools and all, since I obviously was not a threat, just some nerdy computer guy.
I’m down to ten minutes, and I recreated the famous O.J. Simpson TV commercial for Hertz where I’m dashing through the terminal to make my plane. And of course, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the gate I need is the one furthest away from the security gates. It must be an unwritten corollary to Murphy’s Law that the later you are, the further away the gate is.
I get to the gate, and they are just starting to close the door, but they saw my breathless panting state, unable to say much but “sorry”, took my boarding pass, and let me on.
Walking down the ramp, I’m congratulating myself for pulling this off against the odds, and I can’t wait to get home and get my computer working right again. I board the plane the stewardess directs me to my seat, which of course is the one way in the back next to the restroom (a consequence of being late). As I walk down the aisle, I notice the strangest thing – something I’ve never seen before or since. About a third of the overhead baggage compartment doors are missing. At first I thought they were just “up”, but they had tape across them. “Bizarre” I thought to myself, what next? So settling into my seat, I pushed the attendant call button and inquired with the stewardess about the missing baggage doors. She explained calmly that “the original aircraft for this flight had a mechanical issue and this was the replacement aircraft” I said, “yeah, but wouldn’t you call these missing baggage doors a mechanical issue”? She assured me everything was fine, not to worry, that “the supervisor has approved the aircraft”.
So I sat there, thinking about the run of bad luck I’ve had in the past few days, and visions of some mechanic under pressure to deliver an aircraft gets the call in mid maintenance and hustles this one into service, just running a line down the “approved” boxes on the check-sheet and signing it in the rush because he doesn’t have a choice. I’m thinking to myself, “I’m about to fly on an incomplete aircraft”. Further visions of nuts missing those all important tie down wires to keep them from vibrating loose also went through my mind. I decided right then, I didn’t want to fly on this aircraft.
So I got up, grabbed my carry-on bag and headed for the front door. I explained to the stewardess there that I had no faith in the mechanical integrity of the aircraft, pointed to the doors, and headed up the ramp.
When I got to the gate desk, I explained, said “sorry” again like 25 times, and said to please just have my baggage held at the destination. They said to “wait here please, we are working on this”. “OK “I said and sat down. I watch through the window as the plane gets pushed away from the gate by the ramp tractor, glad I’m not on it. They disconnect the tractor…and the plane just sits there not moving. I’m thinking “A-ha!” they’ve got some other aircraft trouble, and I was sure that thought was confirmed when a few minutes later they hitch up the ramp tractor and pull the plane back to the gate.
I asked the gate agent, “why are they bringing the plane back, does it have mechanical trouble?’. She replied, calmly “no, they are going to get your baggage off the plane”, and then repeated to me again “please wait here” with a bit of urgency in her voice. I said “no that’s not necessary, just have the baggage held at the baggage counter at the destination and I’ll pick it up when I get the next flight.”. And she repeated “please, just wait here and we will get this sorted out”.
So I’m standing there, puzzled, and it hit me. And just about the time I realized why they were getting my baggage off the plane two guys in suits appeared on either side of me and asked “Are you Mr. Watts?”. “Yes” I replied. “Come with us, we need to inspect your baggage”. I asked “who are you ?“…and they showed me badges and stated they were with the US Air Marshalls. Great I thought to myself, “they think I’m a bomber or something”.
So they walk either side of me and escort me downstairs, into some non-descript room, and I get the questions…”Why did you get off the plane?” “What is in those big cases” etc. etc. And I proceed to tell the story much as I’ve told you readers.
They weren’t satisfied. They wanted to inspect the roadie cases. And they were wheeled in and I was asked to produce the key to the padlocks on them. I dutifully handed the key over to the agent, and he unlocked the roadie cases and opened the lids.
“See”, I said, “just like I told you, computers and monitors” and I produced my card and brochure again.
“You need to prove it to us Mr. Watts”, one agent said. “We need to look inside the cases”.
I said “Well you are in luck, I just happen to have tools for that right here in my bag”.
“Sir, open them up.”
So I spent the next 15 minutes taking the cases off the IBM-AT and, pulling out the hard drive (which in those days was a 10 pound beast by itself holding all of 20 megabytes), and opening the cases to the monitors.
Finally satisfied that my story was true and that I was not any sort of threat, an agent said “you are free to go, but think twice before you get off an airplane again after you’ve checked baggage”.
Again after saying “sorry” about 25 times and thanking them for not hauling me off to jail, I reassembled my equipment, repacked it, and headed off with the beasts of baggage stacked and rolling on the 4 casters on the biggest case towards the door.
At this point I’m pretty toasted, and all I wanted to do was just hibernate in a hotel somewhere and have a few stiff drinks.
I headed for the ground transportation area, got another rental car, and rolled the beasts of baggage out to the curb waiting for the shuttle bus. The shuttle pulled up, the driver opened the door, and said “you again?”. So I sheepishly loaded up and explained to him what happened. He was guffawing all the way to the rental lot. I got a new rental vehicle, jammed all the road cases into the trunk and back seat, and took off to find the nearest hotel. I remembered seeing a Holiday Inn on the way into the airport, so I headed there.
One might think this would be the end of the story, but no.
Once I got to the Holiday Inn, I parked in the covered entryway, and went up to the desk, waiting my turn because there were two people ahead of me. I go to the desk, asked if there were any rooms available, and she said “we are nearly full, but you are in luck, we have one left.” . “Great! I’ll take it.”.
As I’m filling out the form, I hear this awful rumble, getting louder and louder, and turn around to see a veritable horde of motorcycles coming into the parking lot. Lots of gnarly looking folks were riding them. Looking back at the desk clerk, she sensed my astonishment at this sight and said “that’s why we are almost booked”.
I said, “Thanks, but after the week I’ve had, I’ve changed my mind.”.
So I drove to the next available hotel, asked if they expected any hordes of motorcyclists (they didn’t) proceeded to order room service (and several stiff drinks) and stayed there for two whole days, doing nothing but not worrying about anything with no plans to go anywhere. The computer remained packed.
So yesterday, recounting in flashback my previous troubles that originated in Idaho with computer equipment, live presentations, and air travel, and presented with what were ugly and untenable travel options, I decided that there are times one just has to know when to walk away from air travel, and I did.
Again, my apologies to the Family Forest Landowners and Management Conference.