I'm typing this on an airplane on my way home to Los Angeles, marveling over where my travels have taken me during the last week:
More than 8000 miles on three airlines (Northwest, American, Frontier), six different airports (Los Angeles 4x, Chicago Midway 2x, Las Vegas McCarren, Denver 2x, Chicago OHare, and Detroit 2x), and a total of eight separate planes (On Friday, I identified each animal emblazoned on the tails of my four Frontier flights; I've since forgotten their cute names, but the animals were a wolf, a rabbit, an elk, and a moose). Needless to say, I'm a little travel weary.
My job as an automotive journalist and blogger has provided many opportunities to travel; auto shows, vehicle product reveals, and educational conferences take me away from home about once a month. This week, I had two short trips bookended around Mother's Day: The first was the "Marketing 2 Women" conference in Chicago, and the second was an overnighter to Detroit to co-star in a short Prestone video intended to help moms get ready for summer road trips .
While the opportunities are exciting enough on their own, Monday's flight brought a whole new adventure to traveling.
It started off like any ordinary day: Left my house at 6:15 am and pulled into the long-term parking lot for Los Angeles International Airport at 7 for an 8:30 flight to Detroit. Ordinarily, this is plenty of time, but on this day, the shuttle was running late, pushing my arrival to the ticket counter within the 50-minute check-in window. Rather than risk complications at the security checkpoint, I opted to check my overnight case; I don't usually check my bag, but the flight was very full, I was running late, and I didn't want to deal with the hassle of trying to stow it in the (likely to be stuffed) overhead bins.
At the gate, I discovered the flight was overbooked, and briefly considered giving up my seat. The prospect of a free ticket was tempting, but I needed to meet with the Prestone crew, and decided it would be a bad idea to make new colleagues wait for me. It wasn't long before I began to regret this decision.
About 10 to 15 minutes after takeoff, passengers heard a loud bang from outside the plane; we seemed to be flying without much turbulence, so I assumed that maybe a bird had hit the wing, and didn't give it much more thought... Until the pilot and the flight crew paraded down the aisle and started looking out the windows at the starboard-side wing. They conferred in the aisle, then calmly returned to their appointed stations. Nothing too dramatic.
Moments later, the pilot made an announcement: turns out we lost a 2x3-foot panel off the wing, one of four that covered an assortment of hydraulic lines operating the wing flaps. (Uhm, a piece of our plane fell off! A BIG piece!) The pilot assured us everything would be fine, but indicated he would need to have it checked; to do that, we would be making an emergency landing in Las Vegas. As part of required protocol, they cleared the airspace around the airport for our landing; upon our touchdown we were escorted up the runway by emergency crews, and were towed up to the terminal by 9:30. That was a little dramatic.
This is where the excitement ends, and the aggravation sets in. More than 200 passengers disembarked the plane into the gate area, where we were told they were rebooking us. A Northwest agent gave us $10 amenity coupons to buy a snack, and told us not to go too far away while they attempted to make new arrangements for the displaced travelers.
Smart passengers had immediately begun making calls from the plane, and some of them were actually able to get placed onto a flight that was scheduled to leave from a nearby gate, just a few minutes after our arrival. However, after waiting nearly three hours to find out my own status, I was told by the gate attendant that there weren't any more Northwest flights leaving for Detroit. I asked if they could find something that would allow a connection through another airport. Then I asked if they could find me a ticket with another carrier. All their answers indicated that I could either stay the night and take another flight the next day, or cancel my trip and go back home to Los Angeles. Now my aggravation was turning to angry frustration.
I attempted to cool my ire and pass the time by tweeting periodic updates to my twitter page, and typing text messages to my momfriends at home. It was the next best alternative to the mental movie playing in my head that starred me going postal at the airport.
It would have been useless for me to get to Detroit AFTER the video shoot, so I considered heading home. Then I discovered that, even though my own body did not get on the next Detroit-bound flight, my overnight bag DID. I figured since my bag was gonna make it there, I would try another tactic, and asked my colleagues at Prestone for a little help. Sativa Ross and her crew hit the phones with Northwest ticketing to try to find an alternate flight. This was complicated by the fact that Northwest's booking system didn't know our flight had been redirected, and kept trying to convert my ticket to something else out of my previous airport. Apparently there were many empty seats on flights departing from Los Angeles -- I discovered this after running to try to catch a flight at another gate, only to discover it was a flight leaving a gate from LAX.
Just when I was thinking that my only option was going to be a red-eye Northwest flight leaving McCarran at 10:30 and arriving in Detroit at 5:30 am, Sativa's team found an American Airlines flight leaving Las Vegas at 3:30 pm. With a very short stopover in Chicago, I would be in Detroit soon after Midnight.
Conveniently, the ticket counter for this flight was right next to the gate where stranded passengers were still trying to make new arrangements. Fortunately, the attendant there said she could offer six additional seats to displaced travelers. Ironically, none of the Northwest agents seemed aware of this option available just feet away from where they were standing.
American ticketed me, and 15 hours after leaving my home, I arrived in Detroit. A courteous J&B driver met me at the curb, took me to the Northwest terminal to collect my waiting bag, and finally, deposited me around 1 am at the comfy Holiday Inn Express in Bloomfield Hills.
Good things did happen as a result of this adventure: I made a new friendship with Marilyn, the woman seated next to me on the original plane out of Los Angeles. And the video shoot went great! I'll be sharing it here as soon as it's edited and ready to go, so keep an eye out for it.
By Brandy Schaffels
Managing Editor and exhausted traveler