(In the slim possibility this travel blog takes off (no pun), I will not mention specific airlines, or ticketing websites in case some day, I’m offered a sweet deal for my kind words. The particular airline carrier I will be referring to in this tale is actually very consistent for domestic travel here in the US of A, but internationally…well, yikes.)
To preface, any flight you reach your destination safely in one piece is, in my opinion, a miracle. I still can’t wrap my head around the science behind jet propulsion, and to this day find myself saying, “Whoa” like a small child (or Joey Lawrence) watching planes take off. It just doesn’t make sense planes can get off the ground with all those people, luggage, and crappy $7 meals.
But the awe of jet propulsion wears off quickly during a really, really bad travel experience. I’m not talking about the weather-related kind, where your plane lands sideways in Salt Lake City; or where your abject paranoia of crashing creates a fictional carpeted beast staring you down from the plane wing; or where an electromagnetic pulse maroons you on a Pacific Island in a state of purgatory with a bunch of horribly beautiful people directed by JJ Abrams (Oh Kate *sigh). No, I’m talking about the kind of soul-sucking, mentally-draining complete and total airline incompetency type of experience.
The worst airline muck-up I’ve dealt with took place last summer, traveling to Kazan, Russia for my best friend Paul’s wedding celebration. Paul and his wife Nastya were already legally hitched here in the US, but wanted to have a second celebration with her family/friends in Kazan, and cordially invited my girlfriend Marti and I as ‘ambassadors of fun’. Nastya was already in Russia for work at the time, so the rest of us bought cheap tickets through a cheap ticket website. Significantly less expensive than other travel sites, yes, BUT, the flight plan was Columbus – Chicago – Helsinki, Finland – Moscow, and a separate Air Flotsam (of course, not the real name) flight from Moscow to Kazan.
To begin with, we were given a slim 45 minute connection window in Helsinki, which we would just miss…by four hours. The problem(s) started at the gate in Chicago, when a few very official looking orange-vested Village People started bringing out rows of seats from the plane. We discussed collectively, trying to keep things positive through humor, and came up with the notion that either the airline was simply selling off furniture to the YMCA due to the economy, or an all out mid-flight WWF match broke up during the last flight An agent mumbled the announcement over the intercom – the seats broke (no explanation how they broke) – and we would be delayed a few minutes.
Two hours later, we still hadn’t boarded. By this time we were getting nervous about making the connecting flight in Helsinki, but the agents at the gate doubly assured us we were fine on time, and that Helsinki was well aware of the issue. We asked to have the three of us booked on the second morning flight to Moscow as well, in case we missed the first connection. The agent told us he (supposedly) already had.
The seats were finally replaced, and we boarded the plane. A half hour went by, an hour, hour and a half – nothing; we still hadn’t left Chicago. The pilot came on, told us he was sorry for the delay, but they were waiting for – I kid you not – the “Captain’s Log”. For those not familiar with the picture above, it’s a screenshot from an episode (‘Nightmare at 20,000 feet’) from the tv series The Twilight Zone , starring a young, dapper William Shatner, obviously most notable for his role as
Stan in ‘Miss Congeniality’ Captain James T. Kirk from the original Star Trek. Captain Kirk never lost his Captain’s Log, you know why? Because even the writers of a fictitious character had enough sense to not have him misplace the flight logbook.
Where the logbook was hidden we’ll never know, but we took off from Chicago, after a two-hour book-search-party. After arrival in Helsinki at 9 am, we were herded to the airline’s customer service desk, and waited in line for another hour. The lovely agent told us we were never booked on the later flight to Moscow, that it was no matter; we had missed the connection standing in line anyways. Blood pressure ratcheted up, Paul asked where the Air Flotsam customer service desk was at the airport, being that we were now going to miss our Moscow to Kazan flight. She said we would have to call, there was no Air Flotsam desk in the airport. Then, she handed us a map of Helsinki, and told us to take a bus or taxi downtown to try to enjoy Finland while we were stuck here.
A great idea!
What the nice woman didn’t tell us was that it was a non-working holiday in Finland called Juhannusaatto – a holiday celebrating the beginning of Mid-Summer, or ‘Real Summer’. Majority of the cabs and buses were running on minimal staff, so getting back to the airport would be difficult to impossible. Plus (so the cashier at the airport cafe informed us), downtown Helsinki would be a complete ghost town even if we did make it there. Everyone was celebrating; the shops, and sights were all closed. We decided not to chance the trip.
Defeated, we ate quietly, devising a possible contingency plan to get to Russia. My phone was from the late 1990’s, took pictures in 8-bit , and could not call other parts of Ohio let alone internationally. Marti didn’t have a phone, or computer. Paul’s charger was in his checked bag, there was no alt. flight plan. The computer bay at the airport was shut down, and the stores were closed for the holiday; Marti joked we should just drive to Moscow. Paul ribbed Nastya would sic the KGB on him out of spite if he didn’t make it to Kazan, but joked at least they would give us a free ride to Moscow before the torture commenced.
Walking around the impressively clean, thoroughly modern, empty corridors of Helsinki Airport after breakfast/lunch – we spotted an Air Flotsam logo above a closed customer service kiosk on a lower level. The agent from earlier had (thankfully) lied about the lack of Air Flotsam representation in the airport. The kiosk had a little sign that read, ‘Out to lunch, back at 2:30 pm’. It
was now 11 am.
A friendly Beta Airline representative waved us to her station next door, and asked if she could help. We told her the situation. She looked up our info, said she could reroute us through Hungary, and have us in Moscow in time for our flight to Kazan. Relieved, we told her to please book it asap. As our tickets were printing, the agent asked for a credit card for the extra charges. I asked how much the extra charges would be, and she nonchalantly informed us it would be $500/ticket. Sorry, but no way. We canceled the transaction, leaving the formerly friendly Beta Airline agent now deeply disappointed with our lack of financial independence.
Two hours later, a few steps outside the airport doors, I asked Marti and Paul if our situation constituted being able to check Finland off the travel list. Marti said airports don’t count, but Paul said, (paraphrased for those offended by adult words) “Oh, it blankety blanken blank counts. We’re in blanken Finland. Blank YEAH we are!”
Of course, he was joking in a very Clark Griswold mental-break-down kind of way, but neither Marti nor I wanted to rebuke his answer. We had a beer at a café to chill out – Paul watching over his shoulder for lurking KGB members – me watching the Air Flotsam customer service for signs of life.
Another hour or so later, the Air Flotsam customer service representative showed up. We descended upon her like rabid zombies, overwhelming her with stories about Paul potentially missing his Russian wedding, broken plane seats in Chicago, and general madness. She stared at us blankly for a few moments, and without saying a word, started typing in her computer. After a couple of minutes of awkward silence, she said they had three seats left on a flight leaving Moscow for Kazan at Midnight, for an $150 charge/person. We bought the tickets, but she had to cancel out our old flight – which took an hour and a half to do – with multiple signatures from each of us, something we would become very familiar with in Russia.
Sore from the extra ticket charges, but happy to finally have some semblance to our trip, we headed towards the gate to await our 5 pm flight to Moscow. Paul and I let Marti take a quick nap, and she luckily missed the delayed flight announcement – this time there was something wrong with an engine. Fortunately it was a minor fix; we went through the gate, and boarded a bus that whisked us to our plane. We took-off just an hour behind schedule, landed, and after smiling cheerfully to the horribly intimidating Customs Agents in Moscow, they let us into Mother Russia to collect our bagskys.
It’s a horrible feeling, waiting for your luggage, watching everyone else from your flight collect their items and move on, slowly realizing your bags aren’t coming through the hole with the car wash dangling-plastics on to the conveyor belt. It’s an even worse feeling tallying the amount of gifts for your hosts in said luggage, imagining the worst – like Russian officials rifling through your bag, finding that bottle of Scotch you hadn’t declared. Marti started laughing like Tom Hanks from ‘Money Pit’, mumbling ‘of course they lost our luggage’ repeatedly, having a mini break-down. Paul kept surprisingly calm, realizing his wife’s wedding dress was in his suitcase. Death by KGB hit-squad was impeding.
Paul and I walked up to the customer service desk after checking the baggage office for our things. No luck. Paul had bought a Russian Rosetta Stone prior to his wedding, with aspirations of giving a standing ovation worthy speech in Russian. Unfortunately, he didn’t fare well against the intricacies of the Russian language, and gave up two weeks in. His Russian was a thousand times better than mine, which consisted of, ‘Da’, ‘Nyet’, ‘Pivo’ (beer), and an imitation of Sean Connery from ‘Hunt for Red October’ saying, “Perish-cope down, Koomerad Bozsh-nya-hertzsh-goveenya”.
Paul smiled apologetically, and timidly asked – in Russian – if the customer service representative spoke English. She stared at him, through him even, deep into his soul; slammed a book shut (possibly the Captain’s Log?) and hurried away, disappearing into an office. She then threw open the door to the baggage claim area, slammed it closed, glared at us, and walked out of the corridor, heels clicking, out of our lives forever.
I asked Paul what he said to her, flipping rapidly through my Russian phrase book. He said he wasn’t sure, but was 50/50 on her return. Another agent walked up to the counter, and Paul asked her the same thing, apologizing frantically in Russian for not speaking the language. The agent knew a little English, so through pantomiming, Engl-ussian, and flight documents; we told her our story.
Here’s an interesting tip before going to Russia: be ready to procure documents in triplicate. Nastya had warned me about this before the trip, seriously, if you have to sign anything, show your papers, make a detailed list of all the contents of your luggage, design a menu; you need threes copies. And if one of those copies has, say, a scratched line through it – you have to start all over again. We (I) found this out, the hard way, in copying our (my) items. Bleary-eyed, delirious, and sleep-deprived, I tried my hardest to copy things correctly, but could not do it. I would hand my papers to the Official with the red ‘freedom stamp’, and he kept saying, “Nyet. Broken.” pointing out a flaw in my copies. Paul and Marti were already through growing impatient at my lack of concentration. I would race back to the customer service desk, copy it down again, race back, “Nyet. Damaged”, back to the desk, again…you get the idea. I finally got my freedom stamp, making the Official crack a smile by yelling, “Da? Da? Daaaaa!”. Marti and Paul facetiously greeted me on the other side of the seemingly arbitrary border with cheers and big, stinky hugs. Daaaaaa!
It was past midnight. We were sitting in the last row of a brand new Air Flotsam plane, getting hit in the face by whiffs of bathroom sanitizer, and other such stench. An announcement over the intercom said the plane was waiting on a group of passengers just getting through customs, it would be a few minutes. A collective groan went up from the passengers. The stewardesses gave
everyone apple juice boxes to pacify us like little children. I started to feel like we were really being pulled into an episode of The Twilight Zone, and had trepidations about drinking the Russian kool-aid. But then, Paul broke the negativity. He pointed at the box and said it was ‘made from 100% Cok’, speaking phonetically. All three of us were so slap-happy, we laughed until we couldn’t breathe
Forty-five minutes went by before or tardy co-passengers finally arrived. I was half nodding off, when Paul slapped me awake and informed me the people entering the plane were the band of gypsy-punks, Gogol Bordello. I’m not one to get crazy star struck (unless it’s Christopher Walken, or Bobby DeNiro), but the ridiculousness of our travels, compounded with one of my favorite bands sitting on the plane had me uber-excited – so excited, I completely passed out and drooled all over the front of my shirt.
We landed in Kazan safely, around 2 am (MSK, Moscow Standard Time), shuffled off the plane to a bus, which drove us a few miles to the main terminal. On the bus, I introduced myself to Pedro, the band’s MC, and told him I was a huge fan, and had seen them twice (live) in NYC, and Columbus. He thanked me for the support, and we chatted about the Kazan Creation of Peace festival (future blog), which they were playing. I told him we were going, and he slapped me on the shoulder and said they had a lot to say politically, and were very excited people from the States were making the trip to the show to hear their cause. I wanted to (jokingly) ask him if they would play Paul and Nastya’s wedding, but after the politically charged hoo-rah, I deemed the question highly inappropriate.
Nastya and her step-father, Ramil, were waiting for us in the very Soviet looking cement embankment of a gate, which looked more inviting than you could imagine. It had been over 30 + hours since we left Columbus, Ohio – on a trip that normally takes less than half the time. We stunk worse than the gypsy punk band we rode with; we were tired, stressed, and drained, but ultimately safe. As we headed out the door, I overheard a member of Gogol Bordello yell out, “Where the (blank’s) my (blanken) guitar?!!” Even rock stars are prone to the wrath of airline incompetency.
[Our bags showed up two days later, crushed, but wedding dress, and Scotch were in tact. The bags had apparently never left Chicago]