Stuck in Atlanta

By David Cogswell

The airline business is a tough business. No one can accuse the airlines of making it look easy. It looks hard. And it looks like it’s getting harder all the time. The airline CEOs get tens of millions a year to run them. I think they should give more of that money to the ticketing agents. Those are the people who are on the front lines and have to face all the weary, beleaguered, disappointed, depressed, angry and aggressive customers whose trips have gone awry because of late or canceled flights, missed connections and other such problems of running a massive airline system in the 21st century.

I was supposed to be in Rio. Instead I’m in Atlanta. My Delta flight from JFK to Atlanta was supposed to take off at 3:04 p.m. I was already ticketed and going through security by 1 p.m. I was fortunate to be “selected” by the airline for that extra frisk (was it my good looks?). Then I went to Gate 17 with plenty of time to spare. As boarding time approached I had heard no announcements so I walked up to the gate and saw a notice saying the incoming flight was late and it would now be coming in at gate 29.

I walked up to gate 29 and saw crowds of people sitting on virtually all the available floor space, against all the walls, reading books, lounging glumly on their carry-on bags, looking very settled in. Not a good sign. There were two other late flights scheduled to go out of that gate and the word was that the Atlanta departure was going to be sandwiched between them.

I never heard any announcements about my flight, and I stopped and listened every time an announcement rang out from the public address system. Many of the announcements were those automatic voice recordings saying that abandoned bags would be confiscated; don’t accept any packages from anyone unknown to you, etc. etc. Those messages played like clockwork and often butted in and drowned out other announcements.

Since there were no announcements about the status the Atlanta flight, people had to go up to the desk and wait in line to ask the attendant, who kept telling different people the same information. It was as if they were embarrassed and didn’t want the information to get around too much.

There were no seats around Gate 29, needless to say, with passengers for three flights there. I tried walking down farther where I could find a seat, but with no assurance that I would hear any boarding announcements, I felt I needed to stay in sight of the gate where I could visually monitor the activity. Eventually an announcement that may have been about my flight came, rather quietly, but after a few words another message came on much louder and blocked it out. But I saw people stirring at Gate 29 and sure enough, it was my flight. We were about two hours late by then, but we were on our way.

My flight to Rio was supposed to take off from Atlanta at 7:30. The flight from JFK to Atlanta was only supposed to take about two hours, so there was a chance I could still catch my connection. Since Atlanta is Delta’s hub and the flight from New York was a feeder to many connections, I thought there might be some corresponding delay in the take off of the Rio flight. A flight attendant told me they may even hold it a little to allow for the late arrivals.

We landed in Atlanta around 7 p.m., but there was no available gate so we sat on the runway. The pilot announced that we were going to pull off some maneuver in which one of the engines would remain running as we pulled toward the gate. In a little while we reached the gate and the long process of unloading began. I was in a hurry, but there was no way to push through the crowd. I thought I had heard an announcement that there would be people at the gate to help passengers make connections, but there was no one there. There was a board, though, and it showed that the flight to Rio was departing on time at gate E01. It was 7:25 at that point. I was on Concourse A. Concourse E is at the extreme opposite end of the airport. In fact, Gate E01 is the very farthest gate at the end of the terminal. The board didn’t say the flight had already taken off, so I took off for E01. I followed signs, quickly came upon a train, rode it through all the concourses. “This is Concourse B,” said the recording. “B for brothel…” What? The next time I heard it more clearly. “B for bravo.” My mistake.

I rode all the way to E, stopping at each concourse as the auto-voice announced it, then rushed out of the car and flew across the gleaming tile floor, running, skidding, sliding, walking, then running again till I finally reached Gate E01. It was very quiet. There was an attendant there and I asked about the Rio flight. Yeah, it was gone. He directed me to a desk just past E12, a corner I had skated by only a few moments before, to find out when my next chance to go to Rio would come.

So I turned back, and walked placidly to the broad information desk. It was set diagonally across the corner to the wing that housed gates 1 through 12, facing a broad expanse of glossy floor toward the blazing lights of the food court. I took my place at the end of a long, snaking line full of very deflated-looking people and settled in for a long wait. A couple came up and started talking to the couple in front of me. As they talked they inched closer until they had edged me out and I was standing beside the line feeling very foolish. So I just backed off and let them stand with their friends.

The line crept at literally a snail’s pace, as the ticketing agents labored to re-accommodate all the disappointed passengers. And there were many. I stood in the line for an hour, looking around, reading my book, talking on my phone. Finally I reached the front of the line. When some passengers left one of the terminals I looked forward, eagerly awaiting my chance. I stepped forward one step, but was not about to relinquish my place in line without an acknowledgment. The lady behind the desk waved me back with a look of genuine distress on her face. This is a job that requires a large emotional reservoir, I reflected.

Then two places over, a young African American woman approached the desk. She was apparently returning from a break, looking fresh – reinforcements! The small brim of her trim black hat was turned down and slanted fastidiously to one side. Her bright red lipstick was impeccably applied. The uniform with a black suit coat over a black turtleneck was neatly arranged. She looked ready for battle. She sat on her stool, carefully positioned herself, arranged her hat and coat and a couple of things on her desk, then looked up and gave me a signal that she was ready.

Her name tag said, “K. G. Rock,” and indeed she rocked. She went into action and it was a dazzling performance. She said the next nonstop to Rio would not be for two days, so she was going to try to connect me some other way. For the next half hour she made phone calls, tapped on the computer keyboard moving deftly from screen to screen, sweet talked agents from TAM airlines to secure confirmation on a seat (then got their name), lent aid to a colleague at other terminals. The man next to me was booked on the flight for Rio, so his agent and my agent occasionally shared information. Occasionally they would speak to each other with their voices lowered to a level only audible to those whose ears were attuned by daily practice to the airport ambience, absolutely inaudible to the customers on the other side of the desk. It was almost like telepathy.

Ms. Rock got me onto a flight to Buenos Aires that would leave the next evening. From there I could catch a TAM flight to Rio. It would be a 10-hour flight, followed by a two-hour flight, more than the nine-hour nonstop, but leaving a full day sooner. She gave me a tiny overnight bag containing a razor, toothbrush and oth er goodies, set me up with a voucher for a room at the Hyatt Place North near the airport, and gave me three $7 meal vouchers. I felt very well taken care of.

I headed back toward the other end of the airport where the ground transportation converged, no longer in a hurry. The train stopped, I got on, the doors closed behind me and the lady’s voice came on. “The next stop is Concourse D, Concourse D for David.” I felt so at home!

-- David Cogswell

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