I love flying. I love Newark’s Terminal C! There’s a place where you can get the best sausage pizza. I recommend United. Flying is magic! You sit down in one place and then a couple hours later, you get out and you’re somewhere entirely different! I’d heard all the warnings, read all the tips: travel light, show up early, download your airline’s app in advance, move fast when you need to rebook on the fly. I have PreCheck, Global Entry, no children, a phone charger and a single carry-on that fits under my seat. If anyone could fly fiasco-free during these troubled and troubling times, it was me.
This week, I put all that to the test, with a marathon travel itinerary, from Paris to Toronto to Newark to Fort Lauderdale. Here’s how it went. (Not great.)
Flight #1: Paris to Toronto
I’d tried to check in to my Air Canada flight before leaving home, but the app was glitching only slightly less than the desktop page, which wouldn’t let me upload my vaccination record. I wasn’t checking a bag — how bad could it be?
It was…pretty, pretty, pretty bad. The check-in line was so long that people kept walking past it, then doubling back to find its terminal point. Because I wasn’t checking a bag, I’d only (idiotically) arrived (only) two hours before the flight — if I was lucky, I might be able to check in before it closed, 45 minutes before departure, but if the security and immigration lines were anything like this, I wouldn’t be spending the Fourth of July in Paris, rather than in my mom’s backyard, like a good American. I pulled out my phone and started fiddling with online check in, opening and closing the app a dozen times before it let me try to convert my vaccine history (via the Docket app, only available to residents of certain US states) into the Smart Health certificate I needed to satisfy Canada’s entry requirement. That this worked at all is a miracle, but I will take a moment to recognize that at one point, I was asked to take a picture of a QR code generated on my phone with my phone, which I solved by screenshotting it, emailing it to myself, and then opening it up on my laptop. This would have been difficult in other situations, such as a swiftly advancing check-in line at an airport, but we weren’t going anywhere, so tbh it was pretty easy. After standing in line/downloading several apps/creating a number of QR vaccination receipts, I checked in online, hopped out of the line (to the audible consternation of the woman behind me, with whom I had shared several “This is intense” conversations) and hurried to immigration.
For reasons I still do not understand, staff there herded me, and only me, toward the PARAFE automatic gates, which I thought were exclusively for EU travelers. “I’m American,” I said. “I don’t think I can use these.”
“Go on,” they said.
I facial-recognized my way through the gates — only to come to an immigration officer who took off at a sprint as soon as I showed up. “Wait here,” she said.
I could hear yelling on the other side of the gates. She returned, flipped through my passport with tremendous speed, stamped it, and sent me on my way.
Through sheer luck, I was no longer in much danger of missing my flight (and I would soon find out, considerably less than I imagined). Going through security took 30 minutes, enlivened by one man who had to do that thing where you need to beg each person individually in line, explain that you’re very late for your flight, and may you please go ahead of them. Everyone let him pass without much argument, except for the woman ahead of me, who realized her flight was departing 20 minutes before his.
Thirty minutes was actually incredibly fast given the crowds, a situation no doubt improved by the security agents who were literally pushing the plastic bins through the screening machines while the passengers were still dropping things — a watch, a passport, a phone —into them. Also of interest: a representative for Singapore Airlines, who tried to pluck passengers for their flight to Singapore out of the morass — to the consternation of the agent at the head of the line, who browbeat him for his effort and shooed him away, saying that if they did it, every airline would do it. Once I finally cleared security, I saw another Singapore rep, scooping up their passengers and ushering them to their gate. Moral of the story: Fly Singapore?
I don’t even know if what happened next was related to international air travel woes or just weird shit Air Canada is into, but the 450-seat plane was parked approximately five miles from the gate (slight exaggeration), meaning that everyone would have to be bussed to its boarding stairs. (This, I presume, is responsible for the average takeoff delay for this flight of one-hour-plus.) Some passengers reached the buses one way, others went a different way, which required them to take turns passing through a revolving door-like intersection with people coming off another flight — like salmon from two rivers taking turns at a traffic light.
Air Canada staff were not having their best day. “I asked one woman for a mask [masks are still required on flights to, from, and within Canada], and she said, ‘If I gave you one, I’d have to give everyone one,’” said Kate, the Torontonian sitting next to me once we were finally on board. “There was a woman sitting next to me who overhead us, and she just quietly handed me a spare.”
Kate’s dad had been an Air Canada pilot. I asked her if the day’s chaos had made her rethink her allegiance to the airline. “You know, I really like WestJet,” she said.
For reasons only Apple understands, neither of the two movies I’d downloaded wanted to play on my laptop’s display (a situation not improved when I grudgingly spent $10 to access an hour’s worth of wifi on a failed effort to diagnose and fix the problem), so I pulled out a ball of yarn and a book on beginner-level crochet. Highly recommended!
Flight #2: Toronto to Newark
I have nothing to say about this flight except to express my gratitude that of all the flights leaving for the U.S., mine was the only one not delayed or canceled. Also, Toronto is one of 16 airports worldwide offering US travelers preclearance, meaning that they go through US immigration at the departure airport. This makes arrival a snap — since I didn’t have to wait for a bag (and re-check it to its destination in the US) and I have Global Entry, this gave me enough time to wait for a toasted coconut doughnut in the longest and slowest line I’ve ever seen at a Tim Horton’s. An absolute success, by any standard.
Flight #3: Newark to Fort Lauderdale
My flight to Fort Lauderdale the next morning spontaneously canceled itself, something I only discovered when I went to check in online.
“Perhaps you have done this by accident, ma’am,” the United rep said. “In any case, you have canceled the flight. At this moment you have only a return ticket from Miami to Newark.”
“I understand that you believe that that has happened,” I said. “I cannot stress how much I believe that that has not happened.”
“Let me see what we can do,” she said.
Fifty-four minutes later — during which I drove from my mother’s home to the airport, with United’s hold music issuing from my phone’s speaker; at the end of which I was sitting in long-term parking at Newark Airport, waiting for the verdict — my flight was spontaneously un-canceled. I could fly!
I grabbed my bag out of the trunk — the wrong bag, hysterically: the one I’d just brought back from France and half-emptied, rather than the one I’d packed for Florida, which meant instead of two days’ worth of dresses and tank tops, I had a single striped sweater and a single pair of gym shorts. Check in was a breeze. The line for PreCheck: non-existent. “Why are you late?” the TSA officer said, taking a look at my boarding pass. “My manager just called and said, ‘Why is Diane late?’”
I know there are people who bristle at this sort of paternal jocularity from strangers, but I am from New Jersey, it is our native dialect, and I love it. “How is it possible that you’re still in a good mood?” I said.
“Why would you want to be in a bad mood?” he said. He said it again, so that it became less of a question and more of a philosophical stance: “Why would you want to be in a bad mood?”
At noon, precisely one minute after our scheduled departure, my plane pulled away from the gate.
A moment of pause. I pulled out my yarn.
“Folks,” the pilot said. “We’ve got a flat tire.”
We returned to the gate and left the plane, taking all our stuff with us. It would be an hour, maybe two, until the tire was replaced. (“It’s not like changing a car tire,” the gate agent said, presumably hoping to resolve several dozen questions before they were asked out loud.) I went to find something to eat, settling unhappily on a $22 tuna tartare served with “crispy potato chips” that was definitely one of the worst things I have ever ordered at a restaurant and was actually better once I started mashing the chips and the tuna together, into a sort of hash.
It occurred to me that traveling this week was, indeed, worse than I expected, but largely not in ways that I expected. It was unpredictable. I didn’t expect a flat tire, or for my flight to cancel itself, or for Air Canada to make use of the oddest boarding system I have ever seen for a monster plane. I was lucky more often that I was not: that flat tires can be fixed pretty easily, that I got my vaccines in a CVS in a state that uses an app that syncs with another app, developed by another country, and which would allow me to enter that country. Even when it sucks, travel is a miracle. It’s better than July 4th, 2020, which I spent on one side of a swimming pool, with my best friend’s family on the other, the diving board marking the boundary between two immune-compromised households.
Back on the plane, the woman behind me was complaining: “At least my car tells me when I have a flat tire.”
When we finally landed safely, three hours later, 90 minutes late, she clapped. It was the right thing to do.
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