Friday, September 15, 2006

Re-post : One Year Ago Today

It was one year ago today that I flew from New York to San Francisco, on the occasion of my first trip back to the states after having moved to France. I had spent a week in my home town of Albany, NY, and drove to Newark Airport for the flight to San Francisco. I was traveling First Class all the way through using frequent flyer miles. What I learned in Newark was that there are two classes of First Class on Un-tied Airlines (typo intentional): them what pays and them what flies free with miles. On the international legs of my journey there was no distinction. But on the domestic US leg of the trip, I learned all about the American "classless society." I was not in the paying class. I was in a class beneath, and was therefore not allowed to set foot in the First Class Lounge unless I agreed to surrender thousands of additional miles. I did not agree, and spent my waiting time in the main terminal.

In honor of the anniversary, I'm re-posting my description of that day's flight. A true story...


Newark airport was a mob scene. Crowds pushed onto the people mover between terminals and the lines at the ticket counters and the security checkpoints snaked unnaturally through the corridors, making easy movement through the terminal impossible. I thought that this might be normal, until I finally made it into the gate area to find that most flights were delayed due to weather. Including mine. A harried gate staffer announced that our flight was originating in Chicago, and had not left the ground yet. We would be at least 3 hours late leaving Newark making our estimated departure time between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. Passengers were not happy, but they seemed to take the news in stride.

What really got people edgy was the fact that here, beyond security, we were like caged animals with nowhere to go. There was only one eatery, a TGI Friday’s that was not built to handle a terminal full of hungry and thirsty passengers. There was a line at least 20 deep of people (with their bags) waiting for a seat. Anywhere. At the bar. At a table. People sat with strangers just to get a beer or burger or something. The wait staff was overwhelmed. I made several attempts to get in, but each time I ended up leaving the line to walk around the terminal or sit and wait. On my last attempt I was invited to sit at a table with a few other people, so I did.

I’m not the kind of person who’s comfortable with strangers, but I wanted a glass of wine. Each traveler at the table was taking turns telling the others where he was from, where he was going and in many cases, why. I am always amazed at the personal questions people will ask total strangers. Questions about marital status, family situations and employment, your brand of cell phone service, how much your laptop cost you, and more. I am even more amazed at people’s willingness to answer such questions. I’d rather talk about the weather and how the airlines just might improve service.

And the food. Ugh. I didn’t eat, but I watched in amazement as normal looking adults devoured huge plates of mega-burgers, gloppy barbeque sandwiches, greasy fries, and other gastronomical horrors that they would never have had the opportunity to order had they not been delayed in this particular terminal with access to this particular restaurant. It was as if our travel delay was an excuse for these otherwise responsible parents, professionals, and, by their own admission, Martha Stewart devotees, to regress into teenage mall rats.

After my second glass of wine, our flight was announced. Once everyone was aboard the plane, the captain announced that he had good news and bad news. This is never a good way to begin a flight. The good news was that we were going to push back from the gate in about five minutes. The bad news was that ground control had stopped all departures. We were going to park somewhere on the tarmac and wait for something to happen. There’s nothing I hate more than sitting on an airplane that is not moving. Well there is, but not on this particular night. The flight attendants calmed us down a bit by serving wine (yippee!) and other beverages.

During our thirty minute wait, I listened to the ground control tower talking to the flight crews around the airport on United’s nifty “From the Cockpit” audio on Channel 9. Ground control was lining up planes to leave, telling some to start up their engines and others to cool their jets, as it were. You could tell these guys were just a little stressed. Our captain finally got clearance to start the engines and we rolled onto the taxiway. We were number 22 for departure. I could see planes taking off through the window as we inched our way toward the end of the runway. We were now number 17 for departure. Then we were number 12. Number 7. Finally, it was our turn, and four and half hours late, we took off.

The flight was smooth and calm, I ate my airline meal (and I noticed that the people who ate at TGI Friday’s also ate their airline meals), and settled in. (Just a little note here: in Un-tied First, the class that pays gets to choose their meals before the class that is flying on miles. The flight attendants actually skipped us freeloaders as they went about the cabin asking people what they wanted to eat, then came back around after to offer us the leftovers. I can't believe that this airline forces their staff to treat people this way. It is not subtle. I chose the chicken just because I didn't want to hear the flight attendant tell me that she was sorry, there was no more filet mignon.)

We landed in San Francisco a little after 1:00am. Baggage claim took forever as did the airtrain ride to the rental car terminal to rent the car. The rental car terminal at 2:30 in the morning was just a bit eerie, but everything worked out fine. I called my friend Cheryl to let her know I was on my way. I got there around 3:30am. She had left the key under the mat and gone to bed. She had also left a note saying to feel free to log on to her computer to send Ken an e-mail, which I did. She got up briefly and we said hello, then it was back to bed. I crashed in the guest room pretty soon thereafter.

Oh, I almost forgot about Sarah Jessica Parker!

When I checked in for the flight back in Newark, the woman behind the counter said, “Do you know who’s in the first class cabin with you this evening? Sarah Jessica Parker!” I said, “Wow. Does she know I’m in there, too?”

“I’ll be sure to let her know,” she answered. I don’t think she followed through.

I really only know SJP from an early movie (L.A. Story with Steve Martin, in which she played a bouncy character named SanDeE*). I’ve never seen Sex and the City, although I have seen a lot of its advertising. At any rate, there she was one row behind me and across the aisle. Her hair was perfectly straight, no curls, and her tiny body was obviously made for TV. She wore very little or no make-up. She was not glamorous. She looked a little like the French tennis player Mary Pierce. She wore black.

I didn’t chat with her. Although, had I known that our friend from Alabama, Evelyn, knows SJP personally, I certainly would have introduced myself with great Hollywood-esque finesse as a close acquaintance of hers. Then we would of course have had coffee together – half-caf non-fat mocha-ccinos – and explored our common interests. I would likely have been invited to her home back in New York where she and her husband, Matthew Broderick, would regale me with show business tales while we sipped fine champagne. What would I wear? Something black, to be sure. But I digress.

SJP was traveling alone, apparently. I noticed this at baggage claim in San Francisco when she loaded her cart with 3 or 4 large suitcases, not to mention the 3 or 4 very small ones, all by herself. With such a small body, you’d think she could get everything she needed into one carry-on. Go figure. No one had met her at the airport. Our flight was 4 hours late, but still, you’d think a big star like that would have someone to help lift her bags onto the cart. Perhaps doing it herself is what keeps her trim. Oh, the life of a star! I would have given her a hand, but I think you’ll agree that applause was not appropriate at 2 a.m. in baggage claim.

I wondered what her connection to the Bay Area was. I was to find out the following week while having dinner with friends in San José. One member of our dinner party mentioned that SJP was appearing at Macy*s Union Square in San Francisco to promote her new line of clothing or fragrance or beauty products. I’m not good with details, but I did notice how the star that Macy*s uses in place of an apostrophe is just like the star at the end of the character’s name that SJP played in L.A. Story: SanDeE*. Coincidence? I think not. Cue Twilight Zone theme music.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

6 comments:

  1. I enjoyed reading this entry again. I'd forgotten about Sarah being on your flight. She'd let you wear your jeans, never fear. She hasn't taken on airs yet and has been a star since she was 14.

    I'd also forgotten the scene in LA Story where everyone orders "special" coffees. That scene was hilarious!

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  2. I'm glad you "reran" this story--I think of it when I see ol' SJP on TV.
    Re: airlines. We gave up on United and Northwest years ago because they seem to hate their customers.

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  3. Evelyn & Chris,
    Glad you enjoyed the re-run. I must say that the flight attendants were very professional and nice. They were just carrying out the stupid policies of their employers. Excepting, of course, the desk clerk inside the terminal who, when looking at my ticket, said to me, "You were thinking First Class Lounge, weren't you. I'm sorry..." I mean, sheesh. I did have a first class ticket in my hand after all. I certainly wasn't thinking, "Gosh, I hope I can crowd into a tiny TGI Fridays."

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  4. That desk clerk needs to go to PR school! I've only once been in Delta's Crown room. We were ticketed to fly out of Atlanta to Denver the afternoon of 9/13/01. Friends that were going with us canceled their flights, well you can understand why.

    We decided to go ahead and luckily Hartsfield opened up about the time our flight was to go out. The plane was just about empty.

    While we waited, I decided to talk our way into the Crown room which was just about empty (actually the entire airport was empty that afternoon). No problemo. Lewis and I had a few snacks while we wrote to friends online.

    Oh, the airport smelled great that day- the staff had throughly scrubbed the terminal down.

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  5. J'ai relu ton compte-rendu avec beaucoup de plaisir et ai apprécié tes remarques sur "the American classless society" et sa façon de se goinfrer... :-) Marie

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  6. Aha! How silly of me not to have realized that Un-tied has no class -- in first or business. That explains why I munched on lukewarm chicken bits while all the suits in business dined on filet. Yuck.

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