Although I do quite a lot of air travel, I normally don’t post trip reports here, as they’re normally nothing out of the ordinary. However the trip I have just completed was my first since 11 September and things didn’t always go according to plan.
Over the past several years, I have accumulated about 600,000 Air NZ / Star Alliance airpoints and decided to use some up to visit friends in the U.S. I booked non-rev flights on NZ from CHC-AKL-LAX return and UA on LAX-SFO-LAX. A separate side trip from SFO to LAS was arranged by a friend on National Airlines.
Things started off OK on the CHC-AKL leg on the NZ 737-300 but upon arriving in AKL, I found that my flight to LAX (NZ6) departing 1700 on 19 October had been cancelled due to a bird strike. However, another flight NZ2 AKL-LHR via LAX was due to leave later that night at 2200, so I managed to get a seat on that. Actually I thought it a bit suspicious later on when found that everyone that was originally booked on NZ6 was re-booked on NZ2. In other words, they managed to get everyone to LA who was booked to go that day flying just one 747-400 instead of two. Hmmm… Once I had re-booked on NZ2, I rescheduled the LAX-SFO flight also before leaving AKL.
The first thing I noticed different about the security procedures since 9/11 was the secondary security checkpoint at AKL. The far end of the terminal seemed to be set-up for flights to & from North America and there was a second security check-point and identification check, so that both recently checked-in and transit passengers could be screened.
Just before we were due to depart, we were informed that the flight was being delayed because a security seal onboard the aircraft was found to have been broken, and the aircraft had to be searched. We finally departed just after 11pm – six hours later than originally scheduled.
The business class service on the AKL-LAX was great and being a night flight, it went quickly. Didn’t even get around to taking in any of the in-flight entertainment!
At LAX, I was expecting a lot of questions about the purposes of my visit to the U.S. and more stringent customs checks of baggage. I told the immigration officer that I was planning on doing some rock climbing and found that he was also an avid climber. He was more interested in recommending some worthwhile climbs to do in Yosemite than anything else. There was a fairly long queue at customs (which isn’t that uncommon for Terminal 2) but passed through that without any unusually detailed questions and I didn’t notice any other passengers being pulled out of the line for random searches. The only additional security precaution was that all passengers on NZ2 (even those destined for LHR) had to go through US customs & immigration (and take their baggage with them) instead of normally staying in transit and baggage staying on board.
Normally after passing customs in Terminal 2, there is a interline baggage transfer desk just before exiting into the arrivals hall. Although I wasn’t able to check my baggage for the LAX-SFO flight (due to increased security), I was able to re-book my LAX-SFO flight again from 4:00pm until 5:00pm due to the extra delay in AKL.
Upon arriving at United Terminal 7, the first thing I noticed was the queue! It looked like it was going to take an hour for check-in, and it was clear that I was going to miss the 5:00pm departure. I stood in line for about 45 minutes, getting almost to the front of the line when a police officer approached the front of the check-in line and said “Would everyone very calmly, very calmly, exit the building now, walk out of the building and turn left”, which we all promptly did. We were moved down to Terminal 6 where we stayed for about 2 hours. Fortunately I was right at the front of the line and we learned from the police that the terminal was being searched due to a bomb threat. However, at no time were any announcements made over the public address system, so most of the other several thousand passengers had no idea what was going on. Also being right up by the Police line meant that when the all clear was given, I was one of the first back into the check-in area and managed to get on the 8:00pm UA flight to SFO. Interestingly, the security staff asked me to take off my shoes and put them through the X-ray scanner! This flight left half an hour late due to late arriving aircraft (B737-??? I can never figure out the differences between B73X’s!). Finally arrived into SFO about 10:00pm, seven and a half hours later than expected.
The next leg of the journey was 24th October SFO to LAS on National Airlines. It was my first flight with them and the aircraft was a B757 (-200?). Flight left on time, which made for a pleasant change! The return flight LAS-SFO on 28 October was also a B757, but departed about an hour late, also due to late arrival of the aircraft. We arrived back into SFO at 12:00 midday and because I was flying out that night back to NZ, decided to check-in then. Another hour was spent standing in line (premium check-in) and it looked like there was going to be an hour-long wait to get through security, so planned to be back in plenty of time to board the SFO-LAX flight later in the day after heading into town for a while.
As it turned out, upon returning to SFO, I found a separate security checkpoint for first & business class passengers, which only took about 5 minutes. The UA2057 flight on an A320 left on time and got me into LAX at 7:00pm. Fortunately, I was able to check my baggage in right through to CHC at SFO so didn’t need to worry about that. I walked over to Terminal 2 (the easiest way is cutting through the car park area beside the space-like restaurant thing), checked in for NZ5 and made my way through security up to the business class lounge. Unfortunately that was full, so lurked around in the main terminal area for a while. I returned about half an hour later before boarding the B747-400 for AKL. We were due to depart at 9:15pm and there was also another B747-400 bound for AKL, flight NZ1 from LHR via LAX which was due to have left an hour or so before us. But, after waiting around for about half an hour, the Inflight Service Director informed us that there has been a security scare on NZ1 and that there is the possibility that some of the passengers might be transferred to NZ5, which would probably take a t least a couple of hours for baggage to be sorted and catering to be done. The security scare was due to the flight crew finding some white powder in one of the toilets (that looked like talcum powder & smelt like talcum powder) but the U.S. authorities decided could be Anthrax, so the flight was cancelled. They even threatened the NZ1 crew with being hosed down, which the flight crew on NZ5 thought was quite amusing. We sat around for another hour and a half while the Inflight Service Director Craig Johnson did his best to sort things out. During this time, there were no pilots on board our aircraft as they had been detained by the authorities (I have no idea why). But, at least the champagne kept flowing The ISD kept us regularly informed of progress over the public address system and also personal updates to us in business class. We were told that of the several different government agencies involved, no-one seemed to be in charge, hence many decisions were being made and then re-made after minds were changed. At one point, the crews were going to be swapped between the two aircraft. We got away after an hour and a half with the understanding at that time that NZ1 was not flying that night, but found out in the morning that the NZ1 flight crew had kicked up such a stink that the authorities finally let them fly the aircraft back, which arrived about five hours behind us. Many thanks to Craig Johnson, the NZ5 ISD for the superb way he handled the situation and kept us all in the loop. He handled things in such a way that I think all of the passengers were more bemused with the whole drama than upset or angry in any way.
Having arrived into AKL late due to the debacle at LAX, I had missed NZ509 to Christchurch, so was re-booked on the next one (I forget the flight number now) an hour later, also a B733. It was interesting that when checking in (although I already had my boarding pass for NZ509), there was no record of me being on NZ509 in the system. Apparently this had also happened to several other passengers who held boarding cards for the flight, but nothing showed up in the system.
Anyhow, finally made it back to Christchurch having completed a fairly interesting trip. At least the rock climbing in Yosemite and outside of Vegas was superb