There’s nothing to focus a man’s mind like an execution in the morning – or the knowledge that it will cost $500 to “change” your air ticket.

I’m just back home after about two and a half months in Central America. When I was first organising my tickets, from Queenstown, New Zealand, to Mexico City and back, I spent ages on-line, comparing prices and times. One of the issues was to make my trip as long as possible, but to get back to New Zealand for Xmas. Not only flights had to connect, but my final flight had to get in before the last bus between Queenstown and Wanaka.

Decision finally made, I clicked my way through the on-line process, only to get an error message that my payment could not be processed. I rang the company, and they told me that the only way around whatever was going on – was to rock up at the local travel agent’s. That was frustrating, but hardly a big deal. The agent and I discussed a few of the issues. One was the connection between a flight from Mexico City to Houston, USA, and the long flight home from there to Auckland, New Zealand. The agent came up with one option, but we both quickly decided it left a dangerously short connection time. The one we settled on, was arriving in Houston at 5:30 pm – and leaving at 7:20 pm. Tight, but we thought, not unreasonable.

The other thing the agent emphasised – was that should I want to change my ticket in any way – I’d be up for around $500 in fees.

***

My trip took me overland, from Mexico City to Oaxaca, San Cristobal, into Guatemala, then down through El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, then Belize.

From Belize I crossed back into Mexico – and made the appropriate one-hour time-zone change in my iPad (I have no phone). The change came up in my settings, and in the little clock icon on the home page. I spent the night in the city of Tulun, and rocked up at the bus station for my onward trip to Merida a comfortable 50 minutes early. Only to find I had missed my bus by ten minutes.

The changes I had made in my iPad had, for some reason I never figured out, not synced with the header clock, or the big one that shows when you turn the iPad on. That be the one I use as my clock. It was annoying, and meant a wasted three hours before I could get on the next bus. But it was a good heads-up. Such an issue screwing up my flights home, would be catastrophic.

At this point, the only real stress that had popped up, was an announcement by Air New Zealand engineers that they were going to strike – on the very day I would arrive back in New Zealand. That was scheduled to be the busiest day of the year in New Zealand for flights. Fortunately something was quickly resolved.

I wasn’t sure how I would get back to Mexico City until fairly late in the trip. For ethical reasons, I preferred not to make any internal flights, but in the end, decided to fly to Mexico City from the Yucatan city of Merida. I thought long and hard about whether to make that flight on the morning of the same day of my onward flight to Houston, and thence to New Zealand. The flight out of Mex-City was at 3PM – surely enough time to fly the couple of hours there, and make the connection…. But in the event, I decided not to. Prudence told me to fly first to Mexico City, spend the night there, them head back out to the airport the next day. Even so, after I bought that ticket, a voice in my head was telling me that I was being daft.

OK, Merida (the featured-image is the Merida Cathedral) -I got an Uber out to the airport at 0900, nearly three hours before the flight. Just before it left, we got an announcement that it has been delayed – for about three hours, until 2 pm. At 2 pm it was delayed again, and around 3:30, a queue suddenly formed at a gate. I joined it as well, with no idea what was going on. People come away from the desk clutching some paperwork, and left the room, heading back into the airport. Outside I noticed bags being transferred from a trolley to a small pick-up. I was almost at the desk when a staff member came past:

“What’s happening?” I asked.

“The plane is OK!” he says. “We’ll board in 15 minutes”.

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. If all was well, and we were about to go, how come 95% of the passengers were going some-place else? Did they all have a premonition?

Sure enough, the call to board did come in a few minutes. About 22 passengers boarded our 737 – with each of us having entire blocks of seats to ourselves. Just before take off, after four hours delay, the pilot came on the intercom to apologise and explain. On the flight out of Mexico City to here, some hydraulics had failed. The unit had to be replaced, then tested before being OK’d by engineers. Good-call to not have tried all my flying in one day. I would have missed that flight out of Mexico City, missed the connection with my 13 hour flight home – and possibly be faced with that $500 fee to change my ticket.

Sculpture at the entrance to Merida Airport

Next morning I breakfasted at my hostel in the centre of Mexico City, then sat outside a cafe for one last latte before starting the long haul home. I made my way back out to the airport on the subway, with several hours to pass before my flight to Houston.

At boarding time, everyone queued up at the gate. And waited. About twenty minutes after departure time, someone pointed out that …. there was no plane actually at the gate. The first niggles of fear rippled through me. That two hour connection time in Houston was getting very, very tight.

It was an hour after our scheduled departure before we boarded and our plane had started to taxi. We pulled out of the gate, and into the end of a queue of seven other planes. A string of planes were landing on a parallel runway, and it seemed like we needed to fit in with them as well. My stress levels grew as we slowly, tediously, moved forward – and all the while more planes lined up behind us. I let the nearest cabin crew know I had a tight connection, but she was confident I would still make it.

Then, finally, we just had one plane ahead of us. As it turned to line-up down the run way, I heard the distinct sound of one of our engines spinning-down. What?!!! The pilot soon came on the intercom – and told us that due to a “malfunction” in the cockpit, they had had to close one engine down. For several minutes we sat there, with just one engine running. Then the second one spun back up, and now we remained stationary, with both of them whining. The pilot came back to say that the problem had been fixed, but we were waiting for the paperwork to come through. By this time, the queue had re-formed in front of us. Then, two hours behind time, we finally took-off. For me now, it was all-over, but for one distant hope – that maybe whatever chaos in Houston (it was bad weather) had caused the initial delay, was also affecting my flight home.

The crew member did what she could – try to make internet contact with Houston, but only got confusing news back. I was at the very back of the plane, and had hoped I might at least be able to slip out quickly as we landed, but she let me know I would be one of many passenger “connectors” on the flight, so I didn’t push it. She did say that a United “connector” would be waiting, “Usually” at the door, and they could make further arrangements.

When I finally made it to the plane door, there was one chap standing there, but without an expected group of other frantic passengers, and without anything that looked like he was waiting to help out. So I barrelled on, assuming I would find other United officials soon. There were none, until I got to the end of the long Immigration queue.

The USA, bless them, is almost the only country on the planet that insists everyone transiting an international airport to go through full immigration and customs. Your “reason for coming to the USA” is to … “get on the next plane out”. Nothing personal you understand. By the time I was telling the passport officer this, my New Zealand-bound plane was taking off. Though at this point, I didn’t know that.

I collected my bag from the carousel, then sprinted. When I finally came across some United Airlines staff, I let them know of my problem.

“Oh it will have gone” One of them helpfully said. “But it’s Air New Zealand, not United”, You need to go to Terminal E”.

It’s at this point that what were distant subtleties of your ticket, when you bought it, like, although it’s a United Airline “Flight”, it’s “operated” by Air New Zealand, start to surface.

Bounding into Terminal E, I followed signs towards where Air NZ did their checking in, although there were no lit signs to say what flight was boarding. However, there was a small group of people there, including one woman in a uniform.

“I’m looking for Air NZ!” I blurted out.
“I’m Air NZ” said the woman in uniform. “The flight has gone”.

Well, of course. Air New Zealand was on-time. Ah, that sinking feeling…

One of the other chaps standing there said:

”The good news is that you’re not the only one to have missed it. The bad news is that there’s no seats for at least another couple of days”.

The woman in the uniform: “Any questions before I go?”

Me: [sigh] “Yes. What should I do?”

Woman in the uniform: “What you do is go to United Airlines. Their delay caused you to miss your connection”.

Well, OK. That was that. I plodded back towards Terminal D, and eventually found a row of United Airlines check-in counters. They were clearly having issues of their own, as a conveyor had broken down, and suitcases were piling up. I joined the queue, not even sure if I was in the right place for my problem.

Now I never thought that I would ever sing the praises of United Airlines. Why not? It’s partially the perception that an airline that gives you a packet of chips on an international flight (anything else is “we’ll need your credit card details”) is focused on the bottom-line. It’s unlikely to be that helpful with your problems. And if you do miss a connection – who is to blame anyway? Was is the weather? The aircraft engineers? Or perhaps just you or your travel agent who booked a connection with a risky window of time?

I was attended to by a United Airlines Houston (IAH) employee called Jose. Jose punched my details into his screen, and said something about “pulling out his magic wand”. I stood by, biting my lip.

Jose said something like: “So you want to end up in this place called Queenstown”?

Me: “Yes!”

“I can get you on a United flight at 8:30 tomorrow evening – although via Sydney. And from there an Air New Zealand flight to Queenstown. How’s that?”

Me: “Brilliant!”

Jose said something like “I can protect you as far as … (did he say “Sydney”, I’m not sure) and that he could get me a discount at a hotel near the airport. He printed out a new itinerary, and let me use the check-in gate phone to finalise the hotel details. Done and dusted, other than about $65 for the hotel, no extra charges, and on my way to a hotel in under an hour. Thanks Jose!

I ended up in a nice enough hotel (Red Roof plus). Nice staff, good room, nice beds, good wifi, but a perfect example of that quintessential American malaise – it was in the middle of no-where, surrounded by free-ways. By about 10 pm, my stomach was reminding me that, with the exception of the packet of chips, I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. So the only solution, according to reception, was to order a delivery. A $US17 pizza, plus delivery, plus tax, plus tip, came to $25. Yes, it was a damn good pizza, and the tip was enough to leave a grin on the delivery guys face, but up there in ‘ouch’ territory.

The hotel let me hang around next day well-after check-out time (thanks Red Roof!) and this time at the airport, there were no delays. But instead of an awful 13 hour flight, I was now faced with a truly horrific one with a flight time of 16.5 hours – followed by a dog-leg back across the Tasman. When I did the self check-in, there was exactly one seat available – a middle row. Please , oh please – not a middle row for 17 hours!!! On my third go, I found a United official who was helpful enough to slip me into my preferred aisle seat.

In Sydney I went though transit security, and since my gate was not yet open, I pulled in at a cafe to relax, have a coffee and check email. That was when I found a message from United to let me know that my bag would be coming on a “later” flight – and that I would need to pick it up and take it through Customs. Being now ‘airside’ and about to head to New Zealand, this was a wee problem. When was this “later” flight? Tomorrow? The next day? Air New Zealand staff, when I did find them at the gate, agreed. It was an awkward problem, but best dealt with once I had arrived in New Zealand. It sounded a little like buck-passing, but was more likely just reality. Whatever, they assured me, my bag would eventually make it.

Now (I’m not making this stuff up), unlike Mexico, at the scheduled minute of departure, our plane was waiting at the gate – but with no sign of the crew. The story that I heard was that they were stuck in Sydney traffic. when we were all on board, an hour late, the captain came on to say that we were waiting just a little longer “for some bags to come from Transit”. In Queenstown, around two and a half hours later, I was waiting in another queue – of other people whose baggage had gone astray. While I was waiting in that – along came my bag on the carousel.

For once, an airline delay may have been my good fortune….

Posted by:mikepole

From New Zealand. Traveling the weyward path trying to figure out how the world works. I study fossil plants, past climates, travel, walk, hike, read, take photos, struggle with computer graphics and plant trees.

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