I’d always been warned not to fly via the USA. Stories of delayed flights, rude staff, lost luggage and chaotic customs had all terrified me into avoiding America’s skies like the plague.
But this trip saw me flying on a United Airlines ticket. Only one of the legs – to Los Angeles – would be on United, with the rest covered by British Airways, Air Canada, Lufthansa and South African Airways.
I already wrote about my flights into Canada earlier in the month. Both were surprisingly good and I wasn’t dreading my flights back to South Africa too much.
The first inkling of trouble came, though, when I couldn’t check in or choose my seats online 24 hours before the flights, as I’m used to doing. “Report to a United representative at the airport,” all the airline check-in sites I tried instructed.
My routing was to be Prince George to Vancouver (an hour to the south by air) and then on to Los Angeles, Frankfurt and finally Johannesburg – 40 hours travel time in total.
Would you like me to check your baggage all the way through to your final destination,” the friendly Air Canada check-in chap asked helpfully in Prince.
“Why, yes please,” I replied. “And could I choose my seats and get boarding passes for all my other flights now too,” I asked hopefully.
But that was a bridge too far for the fellow. I was told to sort it out in Vancouver, which is what I tried to do the moment I pranced off the ‘plane in the rainy city.
But there I was sent from pillar to post. First, United told me they could supply my boarding pass as far as Los Angeles but no further, and that Lufthansa would have to sort out the rest. So off I went to the counter staffed by curt Germans. “Nein,” they told me. “That can only be done in LA. But you could try the call centre. Maybe they can help.”
And so I did. And they couldn’t. LA it was to be!
Getting through customs was challenging. Apparently people who need visas to get into the US are treated as untouchables in the customs caste system. Me being me, I broke the line after 15 minutes of seeing everyone and their auntie pass us by, and approached an official to ask if we could ever expect to have our passports stamped so we might get to our flights.
“You will,” she answered in a deep drawl and left us waiting another 15 minutes. Finally a bored-looking customs guy took pity on us. I made it to my flight on time. Some passengers were not as fortunate.
I had paid for a slightly better seat from Vancouver to LA but it turns out that was a waste of time and money. When things go pear shaped, they go well and truly pear-shaped.
“Hi,” I said breezily when the flight attendant came by with her drinks’ cart… “I paid for a different seat with more legroom and free refreshments.” But apparently she didn’t understand South African English because all I got was a bag of pretzels, a glass of apple juice and a disparaging glare.
“Uh, I can’t eat gluten, do you perhaps have peanuts, or a banana maybe,” I inquired of the rapidly retreating back of her head.
LAX is an interesting airport. I’ve flown into several international hubs around the world, all of which have had some sort of train or transport system to take you from one end of the terminal to the next. LAX? It doesn’t. And so I did my best interpretation of a high-speed train from the edge where the United plane vomited us out, to the opposite end where the Lufthansa flight was waiting to welcome us into her warm embrace: up stairs and down escalators, along lonely, labyrinthine corridors with only my hollow, footsteps and dead-weight camera bag as company.
“Hello, ello, ello,” I called out at one point, “is there anybody out there?”
I wondered if I was fated to die a lonely death wandering the subterranean halls of LAX in search of the Germans. But, of course, I did find them: I’m a worldly-wise, well-travelled voyager after all. Thankfully, the Lufthansa rep was able to check me into the flight – in the middle of a central cattle class section up against the bulkhead.
“Ah, I love the bulkhead,” I thought to myself (based on my experience on two flights earlier this month.) Things were looking up! I thanked him profusely.
Once again, he couldn’t check me in to my final flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg because of a glitch in the system, he said. I knew he was just making that up: he didn’t have a clue why no-one all day had been able to do what they were trained to do with my booking.
“Oh, and your baggage has also only been routed as far as Frankfurt,” he informed me nonchalantly. By this time I was sobbing all over the complimentary German magazines on the check-in desk.
“Don’t worry,” he said, scared of a scene and soggy magazines on his watch. “I’ll call the baggage boys and get them to fix it.” Just before boarding I went around to make sure it had been fixed. By the hidden crew of handlers. There was a new guy with a latino accent at the terminal. I trotted out my sordid well-rehearsed story again.
It’s amazing how someone can smile while giving you bad news. “I am sorry,” he said. “There is no sign of your baggage having arrived in LA. But the good news is that the flight is on time, and we will begin boarding immediately.” Obviously I begged him to check again but was served the same excuse I had received all day – they didn’t have access to the system and the next airline would have to sort it out.
It also got me thinking about how two massively potent nations like Germany and the USA could manage to bungle something as simple as baggage delivery. Hopefully that’s at the top of Trump’s agenda to make the country great again: stop losing your visitors’ luggage! It doesn’t make a good impression.
And so here I am, as I write this, sandwiched between a man who smells of stale alcohol and a mademoiselle who speaks no English but keeps trying to vacuum her partner’s lips off with a “rowwwr” and a va va voom on the aisle. I’d tell them to get a room but, strictly speaking, this is one – just with 300-odd fellow occupants.
Fortunately there is a toddler and her copy-cat sibling somewhere at the right wing who have been screeching since take off to drown out the amorous liaisons.
At least I’m not drinking alone…