Sunday, June 08, 2008

Special Services

Fairly frequently I'm asked to leave an airplane parked somewhere and to take an airline flight to somewhere else. I'm reimbursed for the airfare, and I can't be too picky about fares when I buy them for same day travel, but I do try to get the best fare for my employer or customer. I'll accept an awkward connection to get a significantly better price, and just check one bag to avoid incurring extra baggage fees. (Yes, in the US and on Air Canada you pay excess baggage fees for the second bag now).

This time "somewhere" was Birmingham, Alabama, a location my company chose using a method about as scientific as blindfolded dart hurling. I know this, because I accidentally picked it. See, we didn't want to park the airplane for a few weeks on the Florida coast, because of salt air corrosion and hurricanes. This had been decided for a while, but nothing further. So with the Florida work complete, I called Person A to find out what my next assignment was. He told me to hang on, he was going to call Person B. I arranged for a late checkout, and while I was packing up my stuff, Person B called me to ask where we were going to park the plane instead of Florida. I told him Person A was working on that. Person B wanted to know where was a good place. Knowing virtually nothing about the surrounding area, but having in my possession a copy of USA Today (or The USA Today, depending on whether or not you're a pedant or a Stephen Colbert fan), I said "Uh, I have no idea. How about Birmingham?" Birmingham had the advantages of being (a) on the map I was looking at, (b) about an hour away, (c) easy to pronounce, and (d) a place I'd heard of before. Nothing more. It turns up in John Grisham novels, and I believe it features prominently in the history of US civil rights, but whether it is a location where great advances were made in human dignity or horrible wrongs were committed, driving others to action, I could not say. I picked it because being big enough for me to have heard of, it was going to have a decent airport, with security and services, but, being in a low-income state, was not likely to be too expensive. Fifteen minutes later Person A called back and told me to go to Birmingham.

The flight was quick and easy. Alabama is flat and green, with extremely squiggly lakes. More familiar names turn up on the sectional chart: I think Montgomery is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the name Selma stands out, too. (I tried to look up more about the history of Alabama and civil rights, before posting this, but I had to do a four hour internet course on icing avoidance). I'm VFR into Birmingham, approaching over hills that bristle with very tall antennae. Definitely a place to pay attention on a night or IMC approach. ATC vectors me around for a bit, so I have to add power and level off, rather than making the smooth continuous descent I had planned. Final approach takes me right over a building several stories high with at least two wings. I guess at first that it is a hospital, and send mental apologies for the engine noise, but then I see that it has a huge Christian cross up the front. It could still be a mission hospital, but it also has a big parking lot, so I change my mind and decide it is an enormous church. Land on a hill aligned with the runway was probably cheap, and there isn't much air traffic on a Sunday morning, so I guess it works out well for them.

I'd like to stay and see something of the city, but because of my late checkout it's well into afternoon now, so if I don't get the next flight out of here, I may not be able to make the connections I need to get home. I juggle all my paperwork and my laptop in the FBO to send all the required information to the people who need it, and open up a browser window to Expedia and ask it about flights. I quickly find one that strikes the right balance between ridiculous price and ridiculous connections, and try to book it. Expedia immediately comes back and tells me that because availability is always changing, I'll have to reselect the flight in order to book it. I didn't take very long to choose one, but whatever. I go back to the search page and reselect. Same message. I check my watch. I don't have time for this. I go directly to the airline site and try to book there. I find the same flights, but when I try to book them, I get a message that the site is too busy, try again later.

I leave the computer on a table in the FBO and go and make sure everything is in order in the airplane for the next pilot. I come back to the computer. United.com is still too busy to take my booking. Screw it: I don't have time for this. I pack up my computer and get a shuttle to the terminal. I know that they normally charge a $20 "special service" fee for the special service of selling me a ticket to get on their airplane. I ask them to waive it because the site won't talk to me. They are contractors so "don't have that authority." Instead I accept contact information for the customer service department that does have that authority.

United customer service won't refund my $20, but decide to send me a $50 credit towards my next flight. That works for me. I get on the plane and a few connections later, fly back to Canada.

On the cross-border leg the flight attendants hand out customs declaration cards on the plane. Canadian ones are a trifold form, one part English, one part French and the third part bilingual instructions for filling it out. I've filled these out so many times that I don't need the instructions or care what language, so it's my habit to just fill it out which ever way up it lands on the table. Today it's in French. At the airport in Canada the customs officer looks at it, says "Bonjour," and starts to ask me a question in correct but painfully memorized French. I quickly tell him English is fine; he looks relived and welcomes me home. "Welcome home," I always love that part. Do US Customs say that to Americans when they come home? To me American customs agents are always either scarily suspicious, or suspiciously informal. They don't strike the middle ground of formal friendliness that is more standard to the Canadian ones. But again, maybe it depends on what is embossed on your passport.

If this tale isn't funny enough, or you need more diversion today, try this air travel thread from the cartoon User Friendly.

8 comments:

Lord Hutton said...

I have similar in the UK with train tickets. You can try the company whose train you want, you can try a company that has nothing to do with it, but sometimes has those tickets at a good rate, or I can just go down the station and they have the ticket at the same price, that wasnt available online. Pot luck.

phik said...

I'm not able to find the primary source at the moment, but at some point the Customs + Border Patrol immigration handbook was online, and I flipped through it.

According to that, agents are required to welcome home US citizens -- but in all honesty, I can't remember the last time I was welcomed.

dpierce said...

Having lived in Birmingham as a kid, if I were asked for one thing to see while in the city, it would probably be Sloss Furnace. It's a massive extinct steel furnace that is now a historic site. Sloss is visually interesting (lots of huge structures), historic (it defines Birmingham's early identity), educational (you learn a lot about steel), and it has its own ghost. But having just checked their website, it seems they no longer do daily tours. Bummer. They have a virtual online tour, though.

My experience with US Customs matches yours. When I return to the US, I get one of two agents: there's the guy who says "welcome home" and makes joking comments about all the stamps in my passport, and the guy who doesn't say anything at all at any point in the process. With the latter, sometimes I'll stand there staring until he explicitly tells me to move along, just to get the satisfaction of making him talk.

Hamish said...

"Birmingham" easy to pronounce?! I've yet to hear an American pronounce it correctly :-).

Anyway, US customs people nearly always give me a cheery "Welcome home!" when I arrive back here, even though I'm most definitely not a citizen (just a funny-accented resident). The customs officers of my citizenship, on the other hand, are about as surly and uncommunicative as it's possible to be, at least to me...

49C said...

US customs/immigration are nearly always pleasant and say "Welcome back" when I enter on my US passport. British customs don't say anything at all when I enter on my UK passport. Canadian immigration always gives me the third degree "(surly) why are you here?". My all time favorite (in Calgary) - "Is there no one in Canada who could do this job?"

Greybeard said...

"Alabama is flat and green"...
Yes, it is. Alabama is also VERY hilly and green, as you found out when landing at B-ham, one of the best kept secrets in the U.S.. Driving from North to South into the city at night will make you wish you were not the driver. Friends living there would like others not to know about it.

I'm sure you had to connect through Atlanta, and wonder why you didn't park there. Was Hartsfield busier than you wanted?

Birmingham, Montgomery, Atlanta...
All historic names in the history of race relations in the U.S., and as is the case in much of the South today, are all much less bigoted than most Northern cities.
Go back to Birmingham and enjoy it.

Aviatrix said...

My first connection was in Texas, actually, and the latest connection out was about the same time for both Atlanta and Birmingham. A phone call to an FBO in the Atlanta area revealed an overnight fee ten times that of Birmingham's. Ouch.

Anonymous said...

Most connections in the southern US go through either Dallas or Atlanta. If you have a choice, Dallas is definitely the way to go! I've been lost in the Atlanta airport so many times that I refuse to go there anymore. I'll take a connection through ORD over ATL any time... and that's saying something. I HATE Ohare.