Leftovers: Flying when Mercury is in retrograde

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Bad weather coast-to-coast couldn’t be blamed for my days-long delay in getting home to Maine from California over the holiday. It was Christmas Eve and the underlying airline industry problems of pandemic-hangover, staffing shortages, overcommitment, underperformance and human error might all have been caused by Mercury being retrograde. If you believe in that sort of thing, that is.

Before dismissing this bummer trip as another Southwest Airlines tale of woe, I’ll clue you in. I didn’t fly Southwest so they’re not to blame for why I spent the night at the airport in Sacramento and most of the next one in Newark, New Jersey. And this isn’t another sappy airport story about how I got into good trouble making a basic humane gesture in the face of someone else’s hardship.

Natalie Haberman-LaddHaving just spent rare and precious time with Number One (my daughter) in Sacramento, I was still seething from being docked a day on the outbound trip a week prior. A couple of days before I was supposed to leave from Portland International Jetport, I received an auto-text suggesting I willingly rebook. It had something to do with the upcoming weather forecast and the potential fallout of certain airports’ ability to cope. Caving to what seemed like a veiled threat that I’d never get to California, I agreed to leave 15 hours later than originally scheduled. When you see your firstborn spawn as rarely as I do, losing 15 hours feels like a grievous offense.

Spoiler alert: I got there and back. No one died and although I was inconvenienced, things ironed out.

But what about my fellow passengers who were stranded with me on Christmas Eve at the airport in Sacramento, and the others on Christmas Day in Newark, New Jersey? What about them, and the thousands of others on this holiest of holidays for so many? How long had it been since they’d seen their own Number One, or parents or other dear ones? The feelings of helplessness and despair were real and lasting for many.

An airport departure schedule in Sacramento. The author's Christmas Day 7:55 a.m. flight from Sacramento was canceled within an hour of departure. The next 12:07 p.m. flight was long overbooked, and the original 11:55 p.m. Christmas Eve flight was so delayed that she’d miss her connection. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Haberman Ladd)
An airport departure schedule in Sacramento. The author’s Christmas Day 7:55 a.m. flight from Sacramento was canceled within an hour of departure. The next 12:07 p.m. flight was long overbooked, and the original 11:55 p.m. Christmas Eve flight was so delayed that she’d miss her connection. (Portland Phoenix/Natalie Haberman Ladd)

I had time to think about this while standing in line behind a young couple with an infant. They were waving passports in the air trying to communicate with the frazzled desk agent who paged for help from anyone who spoke Mandarin. Another woman was crying because she had been persuaded to check her carry-on bag which contained medicine. Her direct flight was deboarded after sitting for three hours on the tarmac because two members of the flight crew had “timed out” — a necessary labor law that prevents airline workers from working too many consecutive hours.

Upon my turn with the agent, I put on my best East Coast persona and cajoled the airline to fly me as far away as possible as soon as possible. I knew if I could get to New York, Boston, Atlanta, or even Chicago, I could figure it out by train or bus if necessary. So when Newark became the only departure choice within the following two days, I gladly took it.

By the time I got to New Jersey, I was exhausted and dangerously hangry. I scored a flight to Boston, and took the Concord Coach Line bus to the Portland Transportation Center at Thompson’s Point. From there, I took an Uber to PWM where my car was parked. This equally amusing and absurd adventure overreached my own “timed out” status. Once again, what about the others?

This very real problem became all consuming as I gathered my credit card receipts to send to the airline. “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg, our Secretary of Transportation, says I’m entitled to compensation for the money I spent as a result of the airlines’ overbooking, lack of preparation, greed and disregard for my business. I agree with Mayor Pete, but can’t help wondering how the couple with the infant made out. If I could barely navigate the process, how did they fare? Or the woman who needed her meds right then and there? Or the people who don’t have credit cards.

What do we call a problem for people who lost time on top of money trying to physically reconnect with family after the past few hard and strange years? And at Christmas time, no less? One last question: what dollar amount should I attach to my own fifteen priceless hours?

Maybe the answer to this and other questions stemming from disappointing holiday weekend travel is in the stars.

Natalie Haberman Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].

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