Friday, June 23, 2006

Disconnected

The illusion of world connectivity, shattered.

Have you ever had the feeling that what you're experiencing just can't be real? That you will soon wake up and it will actually be a few minutes or hours earlier? I like acronyms, so let's call this sensation the feeling of This Must-be A Dream, or TMAD for short. While I sometimes get TMAD when something really good is happening (e.g., oh my god, hejustkissedme), I more often feel TMAD when something really horrible is happening.

As a random example, let's take Friday afternoon, shortly after noon (Dallas time), as I was standing at the American Airlines Admiral's Club in Dallas being told that I would have to spend the night in Dallas. As all good travelling-on-planes-sucks stories are long and convoluted, and I'm currently sitting in a Hyatt Regency hotel room without internet access, I might as well start at the beginning. So, there's the conference in Japan entitled "Mapping the Galaxy and Nearby Galaxies." I'm supposed to present a poster there on Tuesday, and my advisor, Paul, is supposed to give a talk there, also on Tuesday. Of course, we would both like to be there for, you know, the entire conference. The conference is in Ishigaki, a tiny Japanese island off the coast of Taiwan. It's really hard to get to. Our itinerary had us flying from Columbus to Dallas (at 8:43am on Friday), and then from Dallas to Osaka (leaving at 11:45am). We were then to spend the night in Osaka. The next morning, then, we had a flight leaving at 12:20 p.m. to Naha, and then on to Ishigaki. This was going to be excellent---I could explore a random Japanese city for a night, and we'd be able to get over the jetlag before arriving at the conference. Alas.

We're sitting at the gate, and they come over the PA system to tell us to start boarding. We stand up. They come over the PA again: "We're sorry, but we just found out there is a ground stop in Dallas due to thunderstorms. We'll have a decision on a flight time by 10." Uhm. It's a two and a half hour flight to Dallas, and our next flight was supposed to leave at 11:45. This would be pushing it close. Paul, who has Platinum status and is therefore special, calls up American Airlines and asks them if our next flight is also delayed. This part is kind of boring and not very exciting, unless you include the bit about my laptop deciding that 60% battery means 0% battery and shutting down randomly. Anyhow, when we finally got on the plane shortly before ten, it looked like we might be able to make the connecting flight. If we missed it, we might be able to get on a flight to Narita-Tokyo at 12:05; the people on the phone assured us there were plenty of open seats on this flight, and that we had nothing to worry about. We decide we'd rather be stuck in Columbus for a night than Dallas, but that it's worth the risk. Oh, and, apparently, they do not delay international flights, even if all of the incoming domestic flights (you know, the ones with the people on them) are delayed. Paul had a seat towards the front of the plane, but I was stuck in the next-to-last row, with no hope at all of getting off the plane quickly.

The flight landed right at 11:45. From my delightful seat in the back (next to the girl with lots of mascara, badly dyed hair, and a red and black tattoo that covered her entire back), I could see Paul jumping up quickly. He was probably one of the first ones off the plane. When I finally get off the plane, he wasn't at the gate anymore, so I check the screen. Flight to Osaka delayed to 11:55, but in another terminal. I start running, assuming that if Paul got there in time he'd try to have them hold the plane. Oh boy. So, the Dallas airport has five terminals, connected by a tram thing. I was in C terminal, and had to go to D. Of course, this requires going through E. At the second E stop, the doors don't reclose. We wait and wait, and eventually someone comes over the PA and tells us to get off the train and to take the one going the other way, as it will service all of the stations. Never listen to the big brother voices. Get on the other train; the doors start closing on the first one. Run over to the first one. Wait. Wait some more. I was mildly anxious at this point, by the way. It was probably at this point that I realized Paul and I should have exchanged cell phone numbers. Then another one coming the wrong way comes along, and, once again, we're told to get on that one. So I do, and it goes, and when we're almost to the stop I started at, we see the first tram leaving the E station. I freak out a little bit, switch trains at the next station, turn on my cell phone, go all the way back to D, finally, and run to the ticket counter.

There's no one there. At all.

So this would be when I start freaking out, a lot. There is a huge departures screen right by the gate, so I look at it, and ... the Osaka flight is no longer listed. See, this is bad. I look, and ... the Narita flight is also no longer listed. This is also less than ideal. Some poor guide lady asks me if she can help. I figure she's not with American Airlines, so, no. I am probably hyperventilating at this point. If I had been thinking clearly at all, I would have totally been having TMAD---this was just not possible. I go to the next gate and ask the lady there if Paul was on the Osaka flight. No, but he was on the Narita flight. Which has already departed.

So, this wasn't good. I'd like to think I'm a fairly self-sufficient person, but at this point, I was falling apart in every which-a-way. It's also at times like these that I all skill I might have at maintaining composure is quickly converted into skill at cursing.

"So, wait, he's on the flight? And the flight left?" "Yes, ma'am."

Right then, my phone rings. It's a 617 number, but it's gotta be a good sign. It's Paul. That's weird. He's three gates away and had called the department to get my phone number. Relieved does not begin to express what was going through my mind at that moment. He had apparently been booked on stand-by on the Narita flight, which, though half-full two hours earlier, had been filled up due to some other flight dumping passengers. Anyhow, with his special-person status, we go to the nearby Admiral's Club and they start trying to get us to Japan.

Apparently, all flights to Japan from the lower 48 leave between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. All of them. So, if you miss one, you miss all of them. They found an itinerary that would have us flying from Dallas to Frankfurt. Yes, Frankfurt, you know, the one in Germany. And, yes, the other direction. From there we could have a flight to Osaka and arrive in Osaka in time for our next skip and hop to Ishigaki. Sure, we wouldn't exactly be rested, but at least we'd arrive on time and not miss our next flights. The problem with the flights from Osaka is that they are part of a (rather sketchy seeming) package deal, which includes our hotel rooms at the conference. We've only corresponded with these people via email, it's unclear that they work on the weekends, and it's also unclear that they actually speak English.

As exciting as it might have been, it turns out that the airline with the flight from Frankfurt to Osaka is "not booking" on that flight right now. Not that they don't have seats available---no, no, they just aren't booking them right now. Even with all of the special powers of the Admiral's Club, we couldn't get seats on that flight. And we'd already missed all of the flights out of the US to Japan for the day. Why is it so hard to get half-way around the world in 48 hours?? Aren't we living in a highly-connected world these days? As we are apparently not, we are currently booked on the same flight we had today, but for tomorrow. Now, the problem with this is that it puts us into Osaka at 3 p.m. on Sunday. But .... our flight leaves at 12:20 p.m. And it's mid-summer and Ishigaki is a resort island. All of this was running through my mind as I was standing there listening to the kind man with the nice suit, and I just didn't feel like it was real. It's past being funny; I want to get to this conference. I don't want to miss any of it. But right here, right now, that's just not going to happen. I don't see a happy ending for this story yet, but at least I'm not the one on the phone trying to take care of it.

Meanwhile, they gave us vouchers for lunch, dinner, and breakfast, as well as rooms at the Hyatt Regency for the night. The beds look like they are to die for. There are four channels of ESPN, but I'd have to pay for internet. I have vouchers for three drinks from the Admiral's Club, including alcohol, in my pocket, but that's on the other side of security. I may or may not try going tonight. It's almost 4 p.m., ... now what?

(Posted at 10 p.m. ... we have reservations for Sunday night in Osaka, but it's currently unclear how or if we'll be able to get to Ishigaki from there. As it is simply inconceivable that I would have to spend my birthday travelling back to the States after failing to get to a conference ... at worst, we'll arrive a day late. Right??)

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