Your boarding pass has no seat number. You sit at the gate and wait until all of the regular customers have boarded, plus any last-minute full-price payers, anyone who got bumped off the last flight, anyone transferring over from a different flight, any extra flight crew members. And if there's still a seat open after all of that, you get on the plane. If not, your names are rolled over to the next flight and you try again. There are benefits: tickets are cheaper, and if there are empty seats in business class, you get to fill them. Still, it is a game only for those with nerves of steel.
I flew standby a few times last year with no major problems. But--again with the 1986 thing. And the fact that my dad is a prime benefactor of Murphy's Law.
He prefers parking in the McDonald's parking lot, turning off the car, walking inside, standing in line, and taking his food out to the car to eat over waiting in the drive-thru line. Mom and I will point to the two cars in line, talk about how it'd be so much faster than getting in and out of the car, and just when we've convinced him, those two cars will manage to take an extra twenty minutes placing their orders. That time I convinced Dad to adopt the perfect dog from an animal shelter? The dog shredded the window blinds and got hit by a truck.
My aunt, the gracious giver of the buddy passes, was tracking their flights online. Since I couldn't sleep anyway, I waited for travel news on facebook. They'd been bumped from the JFK-Madrid flight, she told me. They were being rerouted through Valencia in lieu of spending the night on the floor at JFK.
My parents don't know Spanish. My parents don't fly. Should I get to the coast somehow? Should I hop a speed train in the morning? I asked my aunt to throw out the train option if she happened to talk to my mom again. She said that mom had called but her cell phone was dying. Did they know about the train plan? Should I buy a ticket? What if I got all the way to Valencia (a 2-hour trip) and just missed them at the station?! It was 4:30am, so I did the most logical thing: I went back to bed.
I did not hear from them until 1:30 in the afternoon. I spend the entire morning pacing, a bundle of sweat and nerves, yelling, "WHY DON'T THEY CALL ME?" at the apartment walls. When the phone rang, it was a number I did not know: a phone they'd borrowed from a guy at the train station. "Where are you?"
"I'm in Madrid. Where are you?"
"We're at the train station in Valencia. We've been waiting for you." Dang it. I knew I should've bought a ticket! I tried to explain how to catch the Madrid train, and dad ended the call with, "We'll be in touch."
Oh my goodness. If ever there were conditions ripe for heart attack, it was my life right then. God managed to string some English-speakers into their paths, and my parents were headed toward Atocha at 155MPH. Meanwhile, I was trying not to die of anxiety. I caught a bus to Madrid and wandered Retiro Park for half an hour. I was sinking into the grass, sun filtering through tree branches, and all I could think was, "How am I going to find them? What if they don't get here? I am not going to live to see 30, because I am going to die of panic in Retiro Park." I hate how so much of life is dependent upon cell phones, but at that moment, my crusty, chipped little Orange phone was the most beautiful thing I knew. Except that it wasn't ringing. So I hiked back to the train station and walked in circles until I heard someone yelling my name.
They had arrived.
They had arrived without luggage.
We grabbed a commuter train to the airport, where the guy at the luggage desk informed us that Delta luggage people were only available between 7 and 11am.
We returned on Tuesday, and that's when we met Miguel. Miguel, with his panicked smile and jaunty red jacket. Miguel, who apologized for his slow computer ten thousand times after we handed him the baggage tags. Miguel, who, although he could clearly track their flights on his screen, informed us that he was unable to file a bag reclamation unless we had boarding passes in hand. And in the morning frenzy, I'd instructed my parents to gather their passports and forms together, not dreaming they'd need a different pile of paperwork.
So we tried again on Wednesday. Miguel was there again, looking harried. The entire Naval Academy was standing in line behind us, trying to figure out where their luggage was. Just as we stepped to the counter, Miguel apologized: "Sorry, sorry, sorry, I have so many people I have to take care of. You just stand there, I will help you right away. Sorrysorrysorry." He seemed terrified that the posse of attractive military men might use physical force, so we stepped aside for the next hour as they filled out reclamation after reclamation. Our reclamation took five minutes. I did not leave the airport that day with any love in my heart for Miguel or the Academy.
We did not go to the airport on Thursday.
Friday morning, we received an email from Miguel that the bags had arrived. Poor mom had been rinsing the same two shirts in the sink all week. She threw on Blue Shirt No. 2, and we headed toward the airport.
Miguel seemed less nervous this time. Perhaps the confirmation of arrival assured him that we would not beat him up. He directed us toward the lost luggage office, which of course was located in a different terminal. We took the bus over, found the office, found a suitcase. A suitcase. "I got a message that said two were coming, but that's the only one that showed up," the guy said.
As we pulled the suitcase outside, mom's face fell. "Just one?"
"He said that's all that came in."
She sighed. "And that's the one with all your stuff." The shoes, the clothes, the Reese's Pieces they'd brought over for me. Mom and her blue shirt were understandably disappointed.
I'd asked the luggage guy what to do next, but he said it was Delta's problem; I'd have to contact Delta. We shoved some coins into a pay phone and called the number on the claim tag, only to be told, "I'm sorry, I can't find your records. There's nothing we can do for you."
So it was back to Terminal 1, back to Miguel. "You found them? Yes?"
"We found one."
He stiffened. "They are both supposed to be here."
"The guy said only one came in."
"Okay. I will find out. You sit here." He pointed to the rolly chair behind the luggage desk. I sat. People approached to ask me ticket questions, and I shook my head, pointed to Miguel, who was juggling three different phone calls. "Sorrysorrysorry. They are not answering the phone over at luggage. There is nothing I can do until they answer the phone. You understand? I would take you there myself, but there is a flight, a flight is turning around and coming back and I don't know why, I can't do anything about it, I have to stay here, I can't do anything. Sorrysorrysorrysorry."
I waited, tried not to be anxious. Tried to be gracious and kind, because it wasn't Miguel's fault our bags weren't there. If Miguel had his way, he would've gotten us the heck out of there on Sunday afternoon. So I sat and I rolled, and ten years later, he got the phone call. "Your bags are in Terminal 4; they are just in a different luggage office. You go there, they will be there, okay? Sorrysorrysorry."
"No problem. Thank you. Thank you very much." I waved goodbye and he waved back, praying--I'm certain--to never see my face again.
We went to T4 again, walked into the baggage claim just next door to the one we'd previously visited, and there it sat alongside all the other lonely luggage: mom's blue suitcase, a beacon of glory. I've never seen a woman get teary-eyed over a suitcase before.
Skipping right along: it's now Wednesday, July 11th. D-Day. D for Departure. A return standby flight. And a disconcerting long line at the Delta check-in.
Pat and I dropped mom and dad off in the morning, and I dropped onto the couch for a nap. (The nerves were back! It's nearly impossible to sleep with The Nerves taking over my body, but it's more impossible to do anything else.) I awoke just before the 10:30 departure time, checked the flight stats online. Delayed until 4:15.
This time, they borrowed the extra school cell phone. The odds seemed so much better: almost 40 seats still open! But I got a call at 10:45. The flight was full; no one on standby got a seat. Back to the airport with Pat. Another night at Hotel Shar.
The Delta reps in Madrid had already said that Friday's flight was overbooked, and the weekend didn't seem any likelier. We opted to buy tickets to Amsterdam, then aim for a standby flight from there to Minneapolis. (Amsterdam has three flights a day to Minneapolis alone. What? What is this whole two-daily-flights-to-the-States thing in Madrid?!) We reserved online and received a confirmation email. My aunt said that there were sixty open seats out of Amsterdam. My parents would finally get to go home.
I had a bad feeling last night.
We walked to the school to print off their boarding passes. The Delta check-in worked just fine, but AirEuropa was another story. Contact your issuing office, it kept telling us. Unable to find flight details. I punched in the confirmation number again and again. Nothing.
At the airport (Terminal 2 this time--they've gotten the whole tour!), the check-in kiosk also refused to find flight details. The assistant seemed perplexed but told us just to stand in line; it'd be okay.
The guy at the desk frowned. "I'll be right back." And he was right back...to tell us that the flight details were non-existent. "You'll have to go back to the info desk to figure out what's going on."
Thankfully, the lady behind the desk was smiley, with worried eyes that suggested she truly wanted to help. "Here's what happened. Your credit card was denied. Sometimes American credit cards do that."
"But...we got a confirmation!"
"I know. Sometimes American credit cards do that. I'm trying to get you on, but this flight is getting full." Oh no. Of course the day they could get out of Amsterdam would be the day they couldn't get into Amsterdam! We stood there for several minutes as she made phone calls. Then she told us that the only seats left were in business class and cost 700€ apiece. I could almost hear dad's heart hitting every rib as it fell out of his chest. "I will try to get you the same price you paid. The charge did not go through the first time, so I will charge you again here. It will be the same price."
There were a few more nervous minutes, but she finally printed out a confirmation sheet. Mom and Dad were taking business class to Amsterdam.
That's when it really began: the dropping off of the luggage, the crying, the reminders to call once they reached the Netherlands.
They are en route now--the internet tells me so--and my aunt just emailed to say that the 60 seats out of Amsterdam are free and clear. They have seen the Madrid airport for the ninth and final time. After twenty-one days in Europe, my parents should finally arrive in the United States tonight. They'll be a little tired and tattered maybe, but with plenty of stories to tell--stories, unfortunately, mostly about the airport.
But hey--the airport stories will be good for at least the next twenty-six years until they fly again.