Saturday, April 4, 2009

04/04: Wknd w/ Skyteam, part 2: PDX-SEA-JFK / JFK-DCA

It’s been just over a month since my last great jaunt across the bosom of the United States, back and forth and back and forth; but given the amount of novelty and adventure that the trip brought forth, I think it’s worth to return and complete the trip report that I began here.

I’d just filled up with a crisp Portland microbrew and that favourite meat entrée of outdoor shindigs – the humble Polish sausage – when, on the late afternoon of Sunday, March 1, I completed the first installment of the trip report.

Arriving at PDX, Portland’s well-located, pleasant and airy airport, I was feeling quite good with myself. I had a dash up the coast aboard Horizon Air’s Q400 turboprop to look forward to – not just any flight, this would acquaint me with: a) Horizon’s superior in-flight product; b) the Q400, a next generation of Bombardier’s workhorse Dash-8 series, and an aircraft which I researched in some depth for a class presentation on Bombardier vis-à-vis the WTO; and c) Horizon’s self-branded Shuttle Service on the PDX-SEA corridor.

And I was certainly not disappointed. There was a priority security line for Shuttle passengers, the dedicated gate area featured counter space for one’s laptop along with plentiful power outlets and free wifi, and boarding proceeded to occur efficiently via the ramp. Once onboard, the cabin of the Q400 is spacious for a regional aircraft, seat pitch was sufficient, and seat upholstery was in very good condition. Furthermore, cabin noise and vibration were not especially noticeable (as is often the case with other models of turboprop aircraft), although I was seated towards the rear of the aircraft, an area where these bothersome effects are generally less pronounced.

Moments after the mid-evening takeoff down runway 10L, flight attendants sprang into action and – imagine this – provided a full snack and beverage service, including complimentary local wine or beer, on this 129 mile sector. This is the standard for which East Coast regional operations should aim!

Arriving at Seatac, I was quite pleased with my travel on the just-completed sector; little did I know that a challenge of significant magnitude would await for my brief stay at the Emerald City's airport. The account of this challenge, along with the remainder of the trip report, is drawn from an email I composed soon after the fact, and will be arranged into three “time zones” to coincide with the distance I bridged in this last phase of my travels, from Seattle to the District:


Zone one: Global services, 1K and First Class only. Indeed, I felt like in First class – and on Cloud Nine, at that – when I miraculously found my roll-aboard bag just moments before my SEA-JFK sector was to push. I had lost the bag some ninety minutes earlier, right after arriving at Seatac from PDX. Here's how it all went down:

As I disembarked my Q400 turboprop, I distinctly remember picking up my brilliant Samsonite roll-aboard plane-side and then lugging it up a flight of stairs to the terminal. Then, I remember walking to the other end of the airport, the A concourse, where I looked up some flight information on the Wifi network and then proceeded to speak at length with a Delta agent. And, that conversation concluded, I turned away from the counter and reached for my bag, only to discover with utter disbelief that it was nowhere to be seen!

Zone one, final call: I maintained surprising composure at this point, but I was hurting bad inside. Where is my bag? Did I leave it near where I worked on my laptop? In the restroom? No, and no, I soon learned upon rapidly setting about the re-tracement of my steps. Did someone steal it, then? Or was it reported to the airport as an unattended bag and promptly confiscated? I scurried back to the gate, where, sleep deprived and feeling low on confidence about how to proceed, I inquired for the agents' opinions about what to do. The next step was talking to some TSA agents "standing around" nearby, and then I even questioned a janitor who was prepping his cleaning cart near a bathroom. Alas, everyone yielded little in the way of helpful information. Back to the Alaska / Horizon gates I then dashed, but I received nothing more than sympathy from their fine agents. Out of options, I picked up the receiver of a payphone and called 9-1-1.

Zone one, paging Mr. Daaaaniiiiiiiielllllll: "What is your emergency?" I felt like a bit of a fool to be calling this last-resorts number. I did not have a hijacking or a bomb to report but, rather, a mere lost bag. The responder on the other end was pleasant and -- like all the other wonderful Pacific Northwesteners I encountered, genuinely sympathetic -- but unfortunately reported that no one had reported an unattended bag in the recent past. He suggested the airport lost-and-found office, which I ambitiously decided to visit despite its land-side location (i.e. pre-security) and my JFK flight's imminent departure in a mere 35 minutes. Alas, I found the office closed, and the agent manning the 24-hour help desk that I phoned did not have any good news. It was time for the walk of shame back to the gate, er, the mad dash back to the gate, combined with a simultaneously-occurring mental tally of the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars of loss that I'd just suffered. Security cleared, I dashed into every men's room en-route, hoping to see the distinctive bright-orange, neoprene, SAS-logo-emblazoned strap of my jet-black, handsome Samsonite rolly. But I only found wet floors and quizzical glances. Finally, in a supremely climactic moment, I noticed a distinctive all-glass, amorphous sculpture through my peripheral vision as I positively ran down the long corridors of the A concourse, hearing hallucinating echoes of "final boarding call" in my mind's ear. And, suddenly, something clicked; "I remember admiring this work on my sojourn down this hall nearly two hours ago, so reminiscent it is of Chicago's new Bean; didn't I stop to rest -- and call my friend -- in the gate area immediately beyond, when I walked here earlier this evening?" And there it was.

I was on the verge of a happy flow of tears, discovering my long-lost bag at the 11th hour, 59th minute. There it was, all alone, in a deserted gate area. Before the wide glass panes, peering longingly at the empty, dark tarmac beyond. Like a scene from Wall-e, that epitome of personification. Deliriously happy, I ran with a new life towards A-14, at the very end of the airport. Scanning my boarding pass, the gate reader emitted a shrill sound and announced a seat change; no longer in an over-wing exit row, I'd now be in 1B.

Zone two: Our 737 stepped uncertainly down the long ILS approach corridor into JFK. Two steps down, one step up, a hesitation leftward, an uncertain lurch rightward. A skip, a step, a fall. We danced as though the sunrise outside was that of New Years' Day, our having just imbibed far too much. Yet our contact with the runway was firm and decisive, what we needed for steady deceleration on the snowy surface. In the new environs of JFK's Terminal Two, I proceeded for necessary sustenance at Starbucks and then re-booked myself onto an early afternoon Delta Shuttle flight on the LGA-DCA sector. And then I was off towards Penn Station.

The journey down the Airtrain tracks was positively surreal. Immense blizzard outside, snow piling over the tracks at times, my mind still happy after the prior night's luck and stimulated further with energetic European dance music. Out into the civilization of Manhattan, I was again struck by the fairy-tale scene of snow. I must have certainly wielded an unconscious, broad grin. I began walking towards Times Square, where I'd catch the N or W subway towards LGA, but diverted to an independent, eclectic-looking diner for a seat at the empty bar. Some over-easy eggs, grape-jellied toast, and constantly topped-up coffee later, I settled my bill, tipped the friendly Eastern European waitress, and set off again.

Not long afterwards, I was at the hallowed Marine Air Terminal, a shrine to aviation and a location that I was most pleased to finally visit. The structure did not disappoint, having all the cathedral-esque elegance of a fin-de-siecle railway depot; most notably, it featured a grand rotunda in the style of the Pantheon, embellished by a grand mural of flight by James Brooks and punctuated by a grand, angular bust of the smiling Juan Tripp, legendary Pan Am manager. After a spell at the in-house cafeteria (delightfully unaffiliated with any chain restaurant), I cleared the lone, deserted TSA security lane and headed down towards the small handful of gates. To my surprise, I discovered no sterile waiting area but, instead, a veritable lounge -- so I christen it because of free newspapers, fashionable seating arrangements, and computer workstations. My name was at the head of the upgrade list, and I soon boarded the E75, bound for seat 1D.

Zone three: Arrival into DCA occurred after a panoramic overview of the capital's city-centre and further sightseeing of the southern suburbs. The downwind leg was exceptionally long, in fact, and tacked on about ten minutes to our wheels-up time. But soon we were on the ground nonetheless, and I dashed all the way from my seat to the Metro platform, where a blue line train was conveniently waiting for me. This must have been one of my fastest airport-grounds egress experiences ever, quicker than with any taxi! Yet even with this good fortune, I did not succeed in moving time backwards; it was already 3:30p. Thus, I ventured home and straight to bed for a sorely-needed nap.

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