Getting thoroughly sick of winter, and sitting on a $300 credit from Continental, I decided to pop down to Tampa for Bad Golf ™ with my brother and general family fun. Mother Nature, however, had other plans…
CO1618 – EWR-TPA – 3/17/07
(originally booked as CO 1480 – EWR-SRQ)
Seat 2E, First Class
Load Factor: 100%, and they’d been strapping folks to the wing if they could
Departure: scheduled 1425, actual 1455
Arrival: scheduled 1725, actual 1800
I started checking my flight’s status, and EWR’s situation in general, around lunchtime on Friday – the media had been howling about the approaching storm since Wednesday night. According to Hysteria…I mean, Weather Channel’s website, it was supposed to be snowing already, but while the skies were cloudy, so far it looked like it was going to be another over-hyped dud. However, a random check of CO’s schedule showed several cancellations across the afternoon, and JetBlue was already scrubbing flights for Friday evening and well into Saturday morning, so I went into CO’s website and set up the “Trip Alerts” function – I’dd always meant to do that, but had never gotten around to it – to send updates to both my home and work e-mails, handy since I can read my work messages on my BlackBerry.
When I left the office at around 5:30, the cancellations were already starting to pile up, but my flight still showed as fine, so I went home, finished packing, and went to bed at around 10 PM – my usual route to EWR (PATH to Newark Penn, NJ Transit to EWR) would cut it too fine, so I was planning on taking a bus from 42nd St to EWR, and was going to have to get up around 4 AM. One last check of CO’s website – my flight still showed as just fine.
I woke up at 12:30 and looked over at my BlackBerry – and saw something I really didn’t want to see: a red light. Message waiting, and since it was just after midnight on a Saturday morning, it wouldn’t be anything from our London office or friends in the UK. Sure enough, a cancellation message from Continental. Not knowing the extent of the cancellations yet, I rang the CO reservation line, and was greeted with a message telling me the wait time was “over 30 minutes.” I started poking around on the Internet to see how things looked – not good. Nothing on CO moving until after noon Saturday, except for a single flight to Japan that leaves a little before 12.
About 40 minutes into the hold, I started poking around on Orbitz to see what alternatives I had, if any. It was obvious I wasn’t getting to Florida in time for my Saturday golf game, but I might be able to salvage Sunday. I got a few alternatives on US and DL, all with 1 or 2 connections…but what’s this? A CO flight to Tampa, first class seat available. The Orbitz results showed only one seat “available at this price”, which, given what little else I was seeing as available, probably only meant one seat period. Now being an hour into the hold, and with no sign of CO life – and Orbitz showing nothing available on CO into SRQ or TPA other than this one seat – I swallowed hard, muttered “the Lord helps those who help themselves”, hopped over to CO’s website, and bought the ticket. I held until the 1 hour 25 minutes mark, hoping that a CO rep could do something with the original reservation and I could cancel the pricey first-class ticket, but eventually gave up.
As I was concerned about what would happen to my Monday morning return flight if I didn’t fly down on the original confirmation number, I tried to call CO again Saturday morning, but the phone system would pick up, start to play the intro message, but with a busy signal on top of it. Then the phone system hung up on you. Same for the Silver Elite line, so I just figured “hey, I have a seat, and I can sort out the rest later.”
I got to EWR at 12:15 and was greeted with the longest airport lines I’ve since since the Christmas of 1989, when the entire US east of the Rockies was slammed with bad weather all at once. The dot-com bag drop line was easily four hundred people long, if not more, and CSRs were going around pulling people whose flight time was coming up out. The elite line was ridiculously long too, and there was even a line of 30-plus people out at curbside in the bitter cold. Being hungry and impatient, I said “screw this”…all I had was a small backpack and a roll-aboard bag, and since I’d originally packed with the intent of carrying the bag on, shoved everything except my laptop and boarding pass into the roll-aboard, threw the can of sunscreen that was the only liquid/spray/gel/whatever that wouldn’t pass TSA muster away, and went to Security. The Security line was very short, and even though I drew a manual bag inspection I was out of there in 5 minutes.
I grabbed lunch at McDonalds and ate it waiting in the Customer Service line, as I still had the nagging “what about my return?” question in the back of my head, but gave up after the line moved about a quarter of the way to the counter in 45 minutes.
Here’s some pics:
A LH A340, with de-icing going on by the window
De-icing at the gate
A slushy, icy mess.
Lots of planes parked all over the place at this point – both here and further out by the de-icing station:
UPS taking off – when I first got to the airport there was very little movement on the tarmac, but by 1 PM things were picking up:
My 757 waiting to take me to Tampa
The gate desk for a flight to SRQ opened up while I was waiting, so I wandered over and asked the CSR about my flight back on Monday and to tell her that if the computer had put me on a wait-list for that flight that she could take me off. I wasn’t on the wait-list, but she assured me that the system wouldn’t cancel my SRQ-EWR flight for Monday.
The terminal was a bit of a mess, blankets and pillows stacked up in the window sills, and people were sleeping all over the place, some having taken the “Elite Access” carpets and used them for padding. Can’t blame them, really, but I have to question why there were soda cans and such everywhere – I know that kind of waiting is frustrating, but you can still put your garbage in a garbage can, eh?
As the crowd around the Tampa gate grew, it was obvious that we weren’t getting out on time. Boarding started a few minutes after 2, and I went aboard, took my seat, and ordered a vodka-seven when the FA came around a few minutes later.
At 2:45 the pilot came on to tell us that our estimated flying time was 2:23, and the ground crew was still loading bags and we were waiting for a flight attendant. Four minutes later the door was closed, and we pulled back at 2:55. At 3:10 we came to a stop, and the captain came on again to advise that we would have to deice, and that we were second in line for de-icing. I’m not entirely clear on why we weren’t de-iced at the gate before boarding, as several of the planes around us were. (I know you can’t de-ice at the gate after boarding has started, unless you want a first-class cabin full of propylene glycol.) We didn’t get to the de-icing station until 3:27, and the “five minute process” (per the captain) didn’t end until 3:42. We lucked out on the post-de-ice taxi, though, as somewhere between when I was taking pictures pre-boarding and de-icing, the airport had switched from northbound to southbound runway ops. We pulled up at the runway at 3:44, with nothing in front of us but a lone ERJ, and rotated at 3:44.
As we took off, it struck me just how little activity there was on the tarmac at EWR at this point – although CO had resumed operations at noon, everything was still seriously backed up.
The flight attendant came around to take drink orders – I took one of the premixed margaritas CO carries – and hand out peanuts. My only real complaint about CO’s domestic first class product is the very lackluster snack service for non-mealtime flights. Two packets of peanuts is just not a very impressive service. I don’t mean to suggest anything overly fancy, but they could improve here at little extra expense – perhaps an upscale cookie choice, like the small tins of Key Lime cookies Midway-2 offered in first class? Or a selection of gourmet chocolate bars? Or even if they wanted to stay with nuts, a small tin of mixed nuts?
Anyway, snack disappointment aside, I settled into my very comfy seat – these are the internationally-configured 757s, with a seat pitch of 55 inches – and played with the AVOD for a while. No interesting videos, but a nice range of albums, so I started the new 30 Seconds To Mars album and read a magazine.
I have to say the captain had some odd turns of phrase…at 4:45, he came on to tell us we’d made up 5 minutes so far, and should get another 5 by the time we reached Tampa, “for a total of 10 minutes.” Thank you, Captain Obvious. He estimated our touchdown “on the runway” at exactly 6 PM…as opposed to what? Touchdown on the Veterans Expressway or the parking lot at Westshore Mall? Help stamp out and crush redundancy! We had managed to get a routing at only 30,000 feet to minimize headwinds, though.
Our route took us over central Florida, and we made a (gradual) 180-degree turn, ending the turn just south of MacDill Air Force Base and lined up for the approach up the middle of Old Tampa Bay. The gear came down at 5:59 and we planted in the middle of 36L at 6:03. Unfortunately, this meant the scenic tour of all of Tampa Airport, as Airside “A” is on the other side of the airport, but no matter…I wasn’t in the snow and slush and would be playing golf the next day!
CO1481 – SRQ-EWR – 3/19/07
Seat Something-or-other, Coach
Load Factor: around 95%
Departure: scheduled 0700, actual 0702
Arrival: scheduled 0951, actual 0950
I met my brother at his place to leave for golf at 7:30, and logged onto CO’s website to check in for the flight the next morning and try to snag the coveted upgrade. The computer had changed my original EWR-SRQ flight to the 7AM Monday flight, so despite my efforts otherwise, it checked me in for a 7 AM flight going both to and from EWR, to and from SRQ. A neat trick, but being that as I don’t have a TARDIS, that wasn’t happening. (And if I had a TARDIS, would I be flying on mundane aircraft that can only control their movement in three dimensions? ]
So on my way back to the Sleep Inn, I swung into the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport (it’s right across the street…literally, the same light lets you turn into the hotel or the airport) and had a very nice CO customer service rep un-check me in for the EWR-SRQ flight (which they appreciated, as it was overbooked) and print me a boarding pass for my flight.
The next morning, I got to the airport at 5:45, checked my bag, and grabbed breakfast. The security line was surprisingly slow for SRQ, and I got to the gate after boarding had already started. I didn’t get an upgrade, but the gentleman in my row’s window seat did – it’s not first class, but an empty middle seat is a nice consolation prize.
We pushed back at 7:02, with an estimated flight time of 2 hours and 22 minutes. Very slow taxi for some reason, but with no hold at the runway we took off at 7:12. Take off was to the east, with a very long, VERY slow turn to the right, putting us out over the Gulf. The FAs came around with drinks and a muffin – a little dry, and tasting of vanilla cake, but not bad.
The flight passed quickly and smoothly. We went nose-down at 9:07, landed on 22L at 9:41, and were on the gate at 9:50, right on time. Bags took a half-hour to come off, and I grabbed mine and ran off to the monorail to catch the train to work.
Here’s a shot of EWR Monday morning from the monorail – looks a lot better, eh?
And here’s a curiosity question for anyone in the know at EWR – several times, I’ve noticed something next to the monorail track, but this trip had my camera handy. It’s on the left if you’re going from the train station to the terminals. It’s about the size and rough shape of a baseball infield, and has pathways with what look like several marble signs at the ends of each pathway. Here’s a (snowy) pic:
It looks like it’s supposed to be a memorial of some sort, but there’s no indication from a distance of what it’s for, and the only entrance I can see is a chain link gate at the far end, which is always closed. Anyone know what this is?
TRIP SUMMARY: In short, from what I saw Continental did a pretty good job coping with the ice storm. They do need to work on the phone system a bit – I don’t fault them at all for not being able to get someone on the phone at 1AM on a Saturday morning during an ice storm, but if the system is approaching overload, it should at least play an “all lines busy, please call back later” message instead of arbitrarily hanging up on you, as it was later that morning, even on the Silver Elite line. And I’m not sure why the dot-com bag drop was backed up so badly. I can understand the other desks being backed up with re-accommodations, etc., but why the bag drop? But these are minor quibbles in what was otherwise a pretty solid response to one of Mother Nature’s tantrums.
[Edited 2007-03-26 01:10:23]
[Edited 2007-03-26 01:36:06]