Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Three air flights but only two horror stories

ITHACA, New York - The day started out badly when the cab that was supposed to show up to take me to the Ithaca Airport was 15 minutes late and I only had a one-hour cushion at best to catch a 5:30 a.m. flight. Still, I got there in time, only had a few surly ticket counter people to contend with and got aboard a propjet to fly to Philadelphia.

The flight attendant, however, made up for the benign experience in the terminal by telling me I couldn't use my IPod while we were flying.

No kidding. No IPods, no computers.

And lest you think it was my ponytail, she told the same thing to other folks on the 25-seat aircraft who likewise wanted some tunes for the ride to Philly in the dark.

Why she cared, I'm not sure, because as soon as we were airborne, she curled up on the front two seats and promptly fell asleep until our wheels touched down.

Asleep, as in out cold, as in practically snoring. (If she did snore, you would never have been able to hear it over the roar of the engines anyway.)

Did I report her to the airlines? Nah. I figured one of these early morning runs, the plane will land with a giant thump and down she will go off the seat and into the bulkhead - a tough one to explain to the main office.

In Philadelphia, the counter folks were bored, not rude, and we loaded onto one of the big United Airlines Airbus carriers. It was almost as comfortable as my flight to France several years ago on a British Airways jet.

But the loveliness of that airbus experience was shattered two hours later when I climbed onto a small United Airbus - like the one in the photo - for the last run from Chicago to Sacramento.

Sardines in a can are more comfortable, but what-the-hell, it's only a four-hour flight, right?

Wrong in this case.

We left gate right on time and taxied out onto the runway apron, then abruptly taxied to an area well away from the terminal, prompting more than a few people to wonder if there was some threat - or if the police would show up, sirens blaring, to haul someone off.

Finally the pilot came on - after about 15 minutes - saying we were going back to the terminal to check out a grinding noise from the front wheels of the plane.

A grinding noise!

And, like every car I have ever owned, when we got back to the terminal and two very bored United mechanics came out to take a look, well, there was no noise to be heard, even as they rocked the plane and banged with what sounded like claw hammers.

"The mechanics think everything is fine, so we'll taxi out again and see what happens," the captain announced an hour later.

See what happens?

What happened that time was we made two huge circuits around the Chicago's O'Hare airport, testing the brakes and the front wheels, which were apparently quiet.

And so nearly two hours after we were supposed to take off, we did, roaring off into the sky, my seatmates already complaining of serious leg cramps and as cranky as children who have been in a playpen too long.

Mercifully enough, the flight attendants on the flight didn't have any problem with people using IPods or computers and so I rocked across the country, listening to some music I intend to put in the next Fox-Fitzgerald rockumentary: Kate & Steve, a Hectored Romance.

Almost exactly four hours later, the smoggy skyline of Sacramento heaved into view as we made our approach, my seatmates reminding me that the reason we were late (and I was going to miss my first class of the afternoon) was because of a grinding noise in the front wheels.

A grinding noise.

And so as we dropped down, the north winds buffeting us from side to side, I noticed that the flight attendants were buckled in very tight in their little seats, exhibiting none of the cavalier behavior most attendants do when their plane lands.

We landed with a decided thump, but no terrible screeching noise or sudden lurches were evident. And it was at that moment that I remembered that the United Airlines mechanics were forced to take a wage cut in their last contract negotations, a fact I was glad I had forgotten when we were in Chicago listening to them bang on things like they worked for Jiffy Lube. (Nothing like a pay cut to make people responsible for things like maintenance want to do a really good job.)

Still, I'm comforted to be home safe - and the earliest air flight in my future is probably Christmas when it would be nice to get out Sacramento's fog and to the warmth of Mexico.

But given what's happening to fuel prices, even that trip is probably in jeopardy.

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