The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

ICHEP Journal – VII

The next day was worse. Here we go!

August 4, 2006 – 7 am, Moscow Time

I couldn’t sleep past 7, a disease I acquired in Moscow. International travel always does that to me. I got up, showered and repacked, and then had a delicious breakfast downstairs in the hotel. Afterward, I caught up with Derenik, who’d suggested we get a car together to the airport to make sure we arrived early enough to sort out the 12:30/2:30 confusion. Derenik had a private driver, Dennis, who picked us up. Dennis was incredible – he was so intolerant of ANY traffic that at one point, coming over a rise on the highway and confronted with a wall of stand-still cars, he put the car in reverse, backed up about 100 meters to the last exit, and left the highway. He avoided traffic skillfully, getting us to the airport in about 30-40 minutes DESPITE Moscow morning rush hour.

We started by going to the Delta ticket window, outside security. The woman working there insisted that the flight was at 2:30. Derenik confronted her with the information that Delta headquarters in Atlanta said that this was NOT true – that the flight was at 12:30 and we were on it. Confronted with the suggestion that she was wrong, the woman hurled a nationalist slur at Derenik (a naturalized U.S. citizen, I might add), commenting that she wouldn’t trust such information coming from an Armenian. Thus the day started.

We got through security and got our boarding passes. As I waited in line for mine, I read the info board above the counter: 12:30 Atlanta, 1:15 New York, 1:15 New York. Suddenly, my JFK flight was at 1:15! I got my boarding pass, and headed through passport control. The agent there asked for passport and ticket, which I gave her. She looked at my ticket, then started yelling at me in Russian. “Panglisky?” I asked. “NYET,” she responded coldly.

She demanded my ticket. I gave her my connecting flight ticket. She demanded the sleeve they both came in (now empty), which I handed over. She got more angry. She started yelling at me again, then turned to her colleague in the next window. I thought I was SCREWED, but didn’t understand why. A conversation ensued, and I was waved to the other window. The agent there took my passport and tickets, stamped my passport, and I was free. I then closely inspected the ticket, and saw the problem: “12:30, New York”, “it read”: But there was NO flight at 12:30 to JFK, only to Atlanta. No wonder the passport agent was pissed: her roster said Atlanta, and the Delta people were completely f’ing with her. I would be pissed, too, if an airline was screwing with stuff like that. In fact, I WAS angry . . . and confused.

The truth was that my flight, listed on my ticket as DL9888 leaving at 12:30, was really DL31A leaving at 14:30. Derenik got himself on the 1:15 flight to JFK – the regular flight – so he would make his connection in New York. However, that flight was delayed. It was delayed so long, they eventually gave our repaired plane to that flight (which only left about 20 minutes before us, in the end) and we got the plane coming from JFK that was supposed to be outbound at 1:15.

JFK, two hours later than scheduled

I am told by the Delta ticket desk in baggage claim that I am on the 9:00 pm flight to SFO and that my ticket from the 5:30 flight is my ticket. I just have to go to gate 27 and board. This turns out to be a LIE. I have a nice dinner of buffalo wings and Sam Adams lager, unwind a little, and then head to the gate where I meet my fellow physics travelers. 40 minutes before the flight leave, Fanny L. (our gate agent of doom) arrives. A huge queue has already formed, and we’re at the back of it. By the time any of us gets to the front, it’s nearly time for the flight to leave. We are told we don’t have seats because we didn’t check in 30 minutes before the flight.

Now, chaos begins in earnest. We are all tired, some of us late from Moscow and some late from Turkey. We were all told we had seats on the flight, but now that we make it through the queue the standby passengers have been given our seats and we’re in deep shit. Fanny tells us we didn’t check in early enough, and now one of our group loses it. “You weren’t here until 40 minutes before the flight left!” he yells, and we are all filling with anger. She responds that she was busy, keeps typing and typing and typing on her little terminal. Her supervisor is also at the desk, trying to help. Fanny runs out of ticket blanks, and cannot print boarding passes. The gate security agents, 10 feet away, aren’t letting people without passes board. Confusion grows.

The mob is growing dense at the desk. There are maybe 10 of us: three physicists, three Italians from Turkey, one American also fresh from Turkey, a mother and her baby, and a son-of-a-bitch Russian in a gray a suit with a ‘tude that would make spit feel unclean. The third time Fanny says we were late, the third time she’d confronted with the fact that we were told by OTHER Delta agents to come to the gate and board, her supervisor finally listens and says, “Is that true?” (meaning, “were you only here 40 minutes before the flight left?”). “I was busy!” she protests again, and the supervisor goes silent. Clearly, he’s in a rough position. If he loses it, the mob grows more unruly, so he buttons it and tries to help. They’re both typing, typing, typing but nothing is happening. Empty seats cannot be allocated by the computer, the Russian guy is arguing that I shouldn’t get a seat because he has checked luggage but I don’t.

I remain silent, as silent as possible, throughout. My two physics colleagues have families, and I insist that they should get seats before me and get home to their kids. It comes down to me and the Russian – the three Italians want to stay together, and the mother and child require two seats. With only one seat left, the Russian again argues that I don’t get it because I have only carry-on luggage. I’m quiet, thinking that maybe I can just get a rental car and stay with my parents. I do mutter something about wanting to see my wife.

A burly, surly, balding security guy with a thick New York accent is now in charge of the gate. He’s barking at Fanny, Fanny is typing, typing, typing. At some point, the security guy just calls out, “You! With the glasses!” “Me?” I say, grabbing my bags. “Come here!” he calls. I walk to the gate. “You’re getting on this plane. Seat 41A. You don’t need a boarding pass, just get on.” I walk down the jetway, stow my bags, sit down, and try to sleep through the next, endless 6 hours of the nightmare. I was glad to be on the plane, but I couldn’t stay awake anymore. I slept for most of the flight, despite the endlessly screaming baby two rows up.

August 5, 2:30 am (PST)

Jodi makes soup and we eat some crackers and spinach dip. I am just relieved to be home, ready to sleep and awake in my own bed, away from the bedlam of Delta airlines. I have resolved to never fly Delta again. If it had just been the Moscow crew, I could understand it. But the lack of control the Moscow crew had, coupled with the misinformation and misdirection of the flight times, added together with the misdirections and mismanagement at JFK, adds up to one, giant boycott. I would encourage my physics colleagues to not fly Delta for at least five years. Let’s see them lose all that HEP international travel and see how they like it.