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Saturday, January 3, 2009

Travel Woes Part I: Toronto to Buffalo

As but a single consumer, I don't have a whole lot of power. So when air travel goes very wrong and my girlfriend and I depart on a whirlwind tour of six airports in 36 hours in a desperate attempt to make our trip from Toronto, Canada, to Lima, Peru, there isn't a whole lot than can be done to get back at the companies that were so fantastically unhelpful in our tired and vulnerable state. Since it is at least a vaguely amusing narrative, however, I can at least relate the tale on my blog. Also, since I am still rather unimpressed with our carrier, I will not refrain from saying who it was that put us through this (of course, it was not entirely their fault, as weather factored into it. However, in dealing with the adverse travel conditions, they made a very poor showing of being helpful and accommodating).

Anyway, it all started upon arriving at Pearson International Airport in Toronto (airport number 1!) on our day of departure. There was a fairly long line for the check-in, but, like many a modern airport, there are also express check-in terminals which then allow one to go through the much faster luggage drop-off line. Unfortunately, though, we were flying American Airlines and, upon completion of all the necessary button pressing on the express check-in, a little screen pops up that says to wait there for an agent to come around and check your documents. Of course, there was no such agent around. I finally had to abandon my terminal and go track down an agent to follow me back. She refused to do so, saying she had something else to do, but that another agent was covering that area, finally pointing out some agent walking over from a back office where she must have been holed up for the last ten minutes or so. Why the airport or airline (I'm not actually sure who is responsible for this ridiculous setup) decided to make an automated check-in require a non-automated component I have no idea (kind of like requiring a teller to have to come over and check one's bank card at an ATM machine before one can actually utilize any ATM services). With my documents finally approved, all I got was a little printout saying "We're sorry, we were unable to process your request." Turns out our flight was canceled and we had to wait in the check-in line anyway to speak to an agent to reroute us.

Despite a line-up that wound its way through several switch-backs and then extended for over a dozen meters beyond the American Airlines check-in area, there were only two agents working the check-in counter (plus one who was occasionally present to check-in business class passengers who would sometimes elect to help out someone from the economy line). This meant we stood in line for over an hour and a half - so long, in fact, we would have missed our flight had it not been canceled anyway. After our epic bout of standing, we finally made it to the check-in desk where the agent gave a wryly exasperated smile and said, "I've been re-booking people going to Lima all day! You can wait two days and fly to Chicago, Miami, then Lima, or you can go to Buffalo and do that tomorrow." When we were a bit disconcerted at such a thought, he pointed behind him at a young blonde lady who had been standing in the line ahead of us and said, "She's trying to arrange a flight out of Buffalo tonight into JFK on Jet Blue. Talk to her and you might be able to do the same." With that he waved us aside and took the next people in line. I believe the idea was for us to decide what we wanted to do and be helped by this fellow without having to get back in line, but he buggered off to some meeting about the weather shortly after brushing us off. We now had no agent actually concerned with dealing with our predicament and a vague choice between spending $378 on Jet Blue tickets from Buffalo to JFK to hopefully make our non-canceled flight, waiting a day and still having to drive to Buffalo to be rerouted through Chicago and Miami, or waiting two days and being rerouted from Toronto.

I'm actually not quite sure how it happened, but the fatigue of standing in a line for nearly two hours combined with the pumping adrenaline over the urgency to make a decision before our options became further constricted so that my girlfriend and I somehow opted for the "insane plan" choice of buying Jet Blue tickets and trying to make our flight out of JFK. That meant we found ourselves rushing to rent a car with a random blonde lady named Jennifer who had happened to be standing ahead of us in line and was also trying to get to Lima. Her predicament was slightly more pressing than ours since she had a connecting flight out of Lima to Machu Picchu (well, more accurately, flight to Cuzco and then drive to Machu Picchu) where her fiance was waiting to meet her. Jennifer turned out to be a nice lady. She was almost thirty, had dual American-Canadian citizenship but was living in Toronto, and taught at a primary school. Though it was disconcerting both on her part and our part to get into a car with a strange party to drive to Buffalo, it was kind of nice to have the moral support (as well as the financial support of splitting the bill for the rental car). It did lead to a rather interesting situation at the border, though, when Jennifer made the mistake of letting slip the fact that we had only met each other for the first time at the airport. Looking back, though, the conversation with the border guard was probably the highlight of the entire 36 hours of travel that we endured (simply due to its ludicrous nature), and I will therefore endeavour to relate it word for word (it does lose a little bit of its charm without inclusion of a picture of the amazingly skeptical face the guard made, but I don't think he would have approved if I had pulled out my camera and taken a picture of him in the middle of his interrogation).

Characters in the following dialogue:
BG - Border Guard
J - Jennifer
M - Me (or Mozglubov)
GF - My Girlfriend

Car pulls up to the border crossing and we hand over our passports
BG: "Good evening. So you are all Canadian?"
J: "Yes."
BG: "Where are you headed?"
J: "Buffalo."
BG: "What for?"
J: "Um, to hopefully catch a plane."
BG: "Hopefully? A plane to where?"
At this point, Jennifer started floundering a bit, so I jumped in too
M: "JFK airport in New York."
BG: "And what are you doing in New York?"
M: "Hopefully catching a plane to Lima, Peru."
BG: "What? Peru? So you are not actually staying in the United States?"
J: "No, our flight from Toronto to JFK was cancelled, so we are trying to catch a flight from Buffalo to JFK."
BG: "And what are you going to Peru for?"
J: "I'm meeting my fiance there, and he's, uh-"
M: "Going to visit my family for Christmas. My sister lives there."
BG: "So your flight was cancelled and you decided to drive down to Buffalo to take another flight?"
J: "Yeah, we met in line and rented this car together."
At this point a look of utter disbelief falls on the border guard's face, and it didn't leave for quite some time.
BG: "Wait a minute, you met at the airport?" At this point he points at my girlfriend and I, "Do you two know each other?"
M: "She's my girlfriend."
GF: "We live together."
BG: "So you've never met these people before."
J: "No."
BG: "You're joking, right?"
J: "No."
BG: "How do you know they're not transporting drugs across the border? If they are, you'd get busted too!"
J: Looks at me and shrugs, "I don't know, you don't have drugs, do you?"
M: "No."
BG: "Ok, turn the car off and give me your keys."
J: "You're joking, right?"
BG: "No."

At this point the guard opened the trunk and searched through my girlfriend's bag and mine (he failed to spot Jennifer's bag in the backseat next to my girlfriend). After a bit of further dubious consternation over the contents of the boxes of smoked salmon I was taking to my sisters (for some reason smoked salmon boxes often have no distinguishing features other than some Native American artwork, making them suspicious looking boxes to an already alert border guard) the border guard finally decided that maybe we really were as crazy as we sounded and decided to let us go on our way. As we pulled back onto the highway, Jennifer asserted that if we ever somehow found ourselves doing something like this again, we had been friends for years.

After some more driving through fairly terrible weather, we finally arrived at Buffalo airport (airport number 2!). Apparently American Airlines only actually has employees at the Buffalo airport until 5:00, meaning there was no one there to help us in case our flight to JFK was canceled or delayed enough that we would miss our connecting flight to Lima (as it now appeared it would be). With our Jet Blue flight delayed an indeterminate amount of time and our prospects for actually making it to Lima diminishing, the three of us wandered into a bar.


wisefly said...

Buddy, you can't buy this kind of adventure with money. My journey to Taiwan was about 30 hours and 4 airports, but what I wouldn't give to have such an interesting story to show for it (with a loved one, no less) instead of being fed like cattle squeezed into a barn for most of the trip!

Anonymous said...

I do hope you plan to complete this. I am waiting in panting suspense for you to leave the bar and get on your way to JFK to see what awaits you there.


Mozglubov said...

I do plan to complete this, do not fear.

BrianS1137 said...

I once tried one of those ride-share programs from Boston to Montreal, but fortunately the Canadian border guards were far more understanding of the situation. Apparently, though, the last time our driver did it, she was travelling with a woman of Canadian citizenship (but born in Saudi Arabia), and an exit control officer on the U.S. side told her that she was lucky that this Saudi woman hadn't murdered her or planted a bomb in her bag. Those Americans are so lovely!