A United Christmas Carol

A United Christmas Carol

Newark sucks. Newark sucks even harder when weather causes mass delays and cancellations to your entire state and surrounding areas. The limited airline options beyond United make it difficult to escape the giant runt of the Star Alliance.

My first two flights were good. I flew from Lufthansa out of Berlin to Frankfurt am Main in a new A321. The seats were comfortable and the leg room was bearable. The crew was polite in a uniquely German way.

My stay in Frankfurt was short and provided just enough time to change terminals and get a quick meal before boarding began. Our flight included a large group of young children traveling on a sort of hyper-long distance field trip. Despite evidence to the contrary prior to the flight, they behaved throughout the nine hour ordeal.

Ground view of 747 wing

The flight was on a 747-8. The seats were rather good and the pillows were sufficient even all the way back in cattle class. The meals were decent, and the highlight was a rather good Spätzle in the main dish. The snack jus prior to landing was a grilled chicken and cheese sandwich, but had a distinct hint of french toast flavor. I think somebody confused egg yolk with butter at some point in the cooking process.

Lufthansa food
                                                                            Economy class meal.

One complaint that I have to make relates to speed. I get that we are trying to save fuel. I get that the 747 makes hummers look sensible when it comes to fuel consumption. But 340 MPH? That is ridiculous. It is a jet. There is no reason why we should spend hours going between 280 and 350 MPH when the plane is capable of much more than that. It would save everyone a ton of time and suffering inside a metal tube. It feels like we are regressing. We might as well make it out of wood and use propellers at those speeds.

Newark slowly came up. The landing was pretty rough due to the heavy crosswinds. There was definitely some heavy rudder action going on trying to keep the plane straight.

After landing the disasters began. Disembarkation took an inordinate amount of time. We were passport controlled at the gate which likely nearly doubled the time require to get off the airplane. Checking 400 passports individually with two officers is not time efficient. Once off, I made it through Global Entry in fewer than five minutes and headed down to the baggage claim.

The carousel started soon after I arrived. The only luggage that appeared though was Star Alliance Priority luggage from the first and business class sections. Strange. It is usually first, isn’t often exclusive. For the following twenty minutes the carousel just kept spinning with no new arrivals. Finally, around fifty minutes after I had first arrived, my bag came. I quickly went to recheck it in, and ran to security. Boarding for my connecting flight had already begun at that point.

For some reason, my ticket from Lufthansa did not indicate PreCheck despite the submission of my KTN. The security lines in that particular terminal at Newark don’t have any separated PreCheck lines as well. You just get just laminated green card that shows you’re allowed through with less hassle. It took me roughly twenty minutes to make it through a 25 person line at most. The pace was stunningly slow. After I cleared security I threw my shoes back on and ran with all my stuff still in hand to try and make the gate in time.

As I came up to the gate, the door was closed in front of me. They declined to let me board despite having missed the final boarding call by seconds.

I was stuck. I got in line at the customer service desk and quickly discovered that all the irate people standing there were also trying to get to Cleveland. I never thought Cleveland would be this popular. There was one more flight to Cleveland that night, but I was put at the bottom of a long standby list. I headed over to the other terminal using the United Shuttle system to avoid going through security again. When I got there, I settled in for the wait, but also scanned the boards to look for any flights going to nearby airports.

There was one to Pittsburgh leaving an hour later, but every other flight to Ohio was cancelled or severely delayed and overbooked. I called into the United MileagePlus line to try and change myself to the flight to Pittsburgh, since it is within fairly easy driving distance.

I was promptly put on hold for 25 minutes. At that point, an announcement came on over the loudspeakers that United had set up a dedicated line to help people stranded because of the delays and cancellations. I called it immediately and got to a representative for about five seconds before my call dropped. I called again and was on hold for a few seconds before being connected to a very helpful representative.

She was nice, polite, understanding, and fairly upbeat considering the circumstances. She checked all the flight possibilities into Akron Canton, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit, and Erie for me. There were no good options. The best was the long chance for standby on the last flight out to Cleveland. If that did not work, the next best try was flying standby for the next day’s flights, with a possible guaranteed flight two days later.

The problem was, I absolutely had to be home that night because of more arrivals the next day for the holidays. Suddenly, she asked me if Fort Wayne would be a viable option. She had also looked up how far it was to drive from Akron to Fort Wayne for me. I called up my ride to see if it was possible.

It turned out that that was indeed the best option to guarantee making it home on time. I told her to go for it, and she booked it, checked me in, and sent me an email with my boarding pass within minutes. I thanked her and started running for the gate, which was conveniently in a different terminal and boarding was supposed to start about half an hour later.

I made small talk with some fellow stranded travelers until the plane finally began boarding. That went quickly, given that there were only about twenty people on the plane, which was honestly a fairly high amount given the destination. We waited on the ramp for about ten minutes before taking off. The flight was uneventful, with the regular dosage of United’s small regional jet discomfort.

After landing in Fort Wayne, we taxied to the lone terminal and stopped. There was only one ground crew working and we were second in line behind a Delta flight. The temperature outside was a brisk -2 F or so, so work was progressing at an unusually slow pace. After about 15 minutes the pilot came on the intercom and said it shouldn’t be too much longer until we got a gate. Half an hour later he said the same, but this time with the addendum, “I have no idea what is going on out there.” That made us all feel much better.

Finally, after over an hour, our plane made it to the gate. The door took a while longer to open, and finally we made it to the freezing confines of the jetway. Where we had to wait for our gate checked bags. For 20 minutes. When the bags appeared at last, I made my way to the baggage claim area and waited for my ride. I had been told that my suitcase was being sent to Cleveland, and that I should just check the next day if it was there.

Long story short, it wasn’t. It was being sent to Fort Wayne.

Thank you Lufthansa for the incredibly slow flight to Newark. Thank you United for closing the door 10 minutes too early and telling me at many steps that they couldn’t track down my bag or assist in anyway. And most of all, thank you for teaching me that hell is not other people, or even Newark. It is the tarmac in the middle of the night in Fort Wayne inside of a tiny metal cylinder.

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