Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The overnight business trip that really sucked

I was supposed to fly to Dallas Monday afternoon for a short overnight trip. I planned to attend a public meeting in Denton County Monday evening, stay in north Dallas overnight, stop by my company's offices in Addison for a couple of hours on Tuesday morning, and then fly back home. Simple enough, right?

Not really. As it turned out, just about everything that could go wrong on that trip did. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I was flying on September 11th; in fact, there was something satisfyingly defiant about participating in commercial aviation on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. On this particular trip, the weather, not terrorism, was the enemy.

My flight was supposed to leave Hobby Airport at 2:30 in the afternoon; under normal circumstances that would have gotten me into Dallas at 3:30, well in time for my 6 pm meeting. But it was pouring rain when I got to the airport, a "ground stop" was in effect preventing crews from servicing any of the planes on the ground due to lightning, and we weren't even allowed to board the aircraft until after three. We were then stuck at the gate for the next thirty minutes because Dallas was having its own weather problems and we had not been given clearance to depart the terminal. Once we were finally pushed back from the gate, we simply taxied out to the end of the runway where we waited another half-hour before the flight was finally cleared for take-off. And the flight itself, which usually lasts 35 to 40 minutes, was much longer this time because the airplane was forced to vector around thunderstorms all the way from Houston to Dallas. Once we finally landed at Love Field, it was already after 5 pm.

By now, the chances of me arriving to the meeting on time were slim. But I still might have had a chance had my luggage arrived with my flight. No such luck, however; I waited and waited and waited at the baggage carousel, along with a bunch of other people who were on my flight. Some people got their bags. A lot of us did not.

It turns out that, the disrpution caused by the rain and the subsequent "ground stop" at the Hobby Airport tarmac meant that not everybody's bags were loaded onto the plane. They'd be here on a later flight, the Southwest baggage agent told us. Some passengers were irate; I was just annoyed. Not so much because my bag wasn't there - I knew it would be delivered to me later on that evening - but because I had to stand in a long, slow line at the baggage office with everyone else to fill out a lost baggage claim. By the time I had completed that task, it was already after 6.

I took the courtesy bus to the rental car place, only to find out that my flight had been delayed for so long that they had given my car to someone else and they needed to find a new vehicle for me. They ended up giving me a white 2006 Ford Mustang. Sweet! This was the only good thing that happened to me that day.

Of course, the bad weather had not completely cleared out of the Metroplex; I ran into a nasty storm as I drove up I-35E. I got to the public meeting just as it was ending. Damnit.

After stopping by my aunt and uncle's house in Plano for dinner, I went to the hotel and checked in. I expected my luggage to be waiting at the front desk for me; after all, the Southwest baggage agent said that it should arrive there later that evening. Of course, it had not. So I went to my room and called Southwest's baggage hotline. "Oh yes, the bag was picked up earlier this evening and will get there no later than 1:30 am," they told me.

At about 12:40, the phone rang. The front desk was calling to let me know that my baggage had arrived. I walked back to the lobby, only to discover that the bag sitting at the reception desk wasn't mine. It turns out that it didn't even belong to anyone staying at the hotel! They had delivered the wrong bag. My suitcase was, well, somewhere in Dallas, and I was simply too exhausted to wait for it any further. I went back to the room and went to sleep.

The following morning, the phone rang. "We're sorry about the mix-up, we have your luggage and we're bringing it to you right now." However, 8 am came and went, as did 9 am, as did 10 am. I really needed to get to my office. I'd just have to wear yesterday's clothes and hope that nobody got to close to me to notice how bad I probably smelled.

My bag finally arrived at the hotel at about 11:30 am: an hour and a half after I had already checked out. Luckily, my company's office is near the hotel so I went to get it during lunch. It was good to finally be reunited with my bag, even if I really didn't need the clothes or the toiletries anymore since I was about to fly home. The flight back to Houston, for the record, was fine and my bag actually made the trip with me.

I'm not really mad at Southwest Airlines for Monday's misadventure; they can't control the weather, after all. They could have hadled the luggage situation better, although I realize that they contract people to deliver lost bags for them and it's not the airline's fault that they delivered the wrong bag to the hotel. Besides, if this is the first time I've ever been separated from my luggage after all the times I've flown, then I'm probably doing pretty well.

It was all a huge annoyance, however, and one that made me wonder if overnight business trips are even worth it anymore. It used to be that I could pack a small bag of clothes and toiletries for an overnight trip and take it on board the aircraft with me. The recent prohibition against liquids and gels in carry-on luggage now makes that impossible, unless I want to leave items like toothpaste and shaving cream at home and just buy new toiletries when I get to my destination. Even though it doesn't make a lot of sense to buy a whole tube of toothpaste that I'm only going to use for one night, it makes even less sense to check a small bag for an overnight trip.

Especially if crap like what happened to me on Monday is going to happen.

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