None of us are still in the airport

My uncle Rick has a brother-in-law and father-in-law who worked as pilots for major airlines, so he has a lot of experience with flying on employee family passes. The price is right, but you pay in time and anxiety. Non-rev standbys are at the bottom of the airplane boarding pecking order, so you only get on the plane once absolutely everybody else is on and there are still seats are available. Given airline policies of overbooking flights, this often means that you stand by as several flights take off without you. It's a waiting game, and you never know when or whether your name is going to be called. But eventually, you get where you're going. Rick puts it this way: "None of us are still in the airport."

That was the line I repeated to myself through most of a day spent at RDU on December 21, after I overslept and MISSED MY FLIGHT (by only a few minutes!) home to Klamath Falls, Oregon at 6:37 a.m. This bumped me to standby for the next flight to Dallas, and the next one, and the next one, and... Not that I was at all confident that I would get to my destination at all, let alone by Saturday. It's the Christmas travel season, so the flights were going to be booked solid, and the crowd of standbys grew as we moved from gate to gate to gate to gate, from three or four stragglers for the seven-fifty-something flight, to a small army for the 2:55 p.m.

The gate attendant for the 2:55 flight (the sixth one of the day) had no patience for standbys. She was trying to board an overbooked flight, which was hassle enough without trying to give false hope to us irresponsible yahoos who had somehow got ourselves in the position of trying to get on a plane without a confirmed reservation on the Wednesday before Christmas. She was too busy recruiting passengers to voluntarily give up their seats in return for denied-boarding compensation and a confirmed seat on the next (also overbooked) flight. So I sat by in the boarding area, with the sinking feeling of certainty that I wasn't going to get on this flight, because there was nothing else to do but wait for it to leave so that we could be rolled over to the standby list for whatever was the next flight to Dallas.

Finally the announcement came that NO standbys where going to be accommodated on this flight (quell surprise!), with instructions to return to the ticket counter for reaccommodation. None of us moved. Something was fishy about the directive -- this was not the last flight of the day to Dallas, so why didn't she just put us on the standby list for the next flight? Why make us go out to the ticket counter, where we would have to clear security again? I wondered if there would be any advantage to being first in line at the ticket counter, and even started to gather up my carry-on for the trek back, when one of the other standbys came rushing back to the gate, frantically gathering up her family to try to hussle them onto the plane, because she had news that there were three available seats on the plane! (I don't know where she got the news from -- there hadn't been time for her to go to the ticket counter and get back -- and I don't know how she was expecting to pack her family of four into three seats. But even the hint of available seats was enough to make me sit down and take notice.)

The frantic woman and her family were turned away at the gate. The gate agent remained calm and noncommittal. Then, moments later, she called my name. (Actually, she called me "Mr." But close enough.) I leapt up and claimed my boarding pass (later, upon reflection, I was a bit concerned that she didn't seem to even look at me, much less check my ID -- how did she know I was me?) and found myself walking down the entry way to the overbooked, snowball's-chance-you're-getting-on-this-flight airplane. I stared at my boarding pass in disbelief, blinking as I verified that, yes, that really is my name. I sat in the very last seat on the plane.

In a moment, my perceived chances of getting home for Christmas went from slim-to-none to better-than-even. If I could get as far as Dallas that day, my chances of getting to Portland the next morning, if not the same night, were decent, and once I got to Portland I was home free, because how many people, really, are trying to get to Klamath Falls? Not enough to fill up one of those little turbo-props they use to make the hop down from one end of the state to the other. As it turned out, I stood by for one flight out of Dallas, but made it on to the last flight of the day, thanks to the vigilance of a gate agent who knew better than to let the plane go with any empty seats whatsoever. Stayed overnight with family friends in Portland, and was home by 9 o'clock the next morning, a scant 18 hours later than originally scheduled. My luggage, for once, arrived before I did.

So that was my little adventure in holiday travel. You can be sure that my mother (who experienced more anxiety than I did over my precarious status in the airline system) will make sure I'm up in plenty of time to catch my 6:00 a.m. flight out tomorrow morning.

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